§ [Relevant documents: The Eighth Report from the Defence Committee of Session 1997–98, on the Strategic Defence Review (HC 138-I).]
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jamieson.]4.39 pm
§ The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Doug Henderson)
It is an honour to open the first debate on the Army since January 1996. I intend to cover some of the important operational and staffing issues affecting the Army, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence will address equipment issues in winding up.
Several hon. Members have asked about the future and form of such debates. I want to reassure the House that the Government have no plans to reduce the long-standing arrangement that three days each Session are given over to debates on service issues. I do not, however, rule out the possibility of changing the focus of each debate, to make the debates more relevant to the operational activities and structures of the armed forces themselves. I know that there is some support for that idea on both sides of the House, and the Government want to discuss the issue with those who have a view to express.
The debate comes at a time of change. Indeed, only last week the House debated the Government's long-term vision for Britain's defence. Change means building on the Army's historical strength. In last week's debate, the Army was justly commended in all parts of the House for the determination, commitment and dedication of its officers and soldiers. I am pleased to be able to pay tribute today to them, and to the sacrifices that have been made on behalf of the rest of us in this country. Our Army aims to be the best—and it is the best.
The deployment of our Army in different roles in Northern Ireland, in the Balkans, in Cyprus, and in defence diplomacy worldwide, has given it a depth of experience and a rightful reputation second to none.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
Before my hon. Friend leaves the subject of Northern Ireland, will he confirm that it is the Ministry of Defence, not the Northern Ireland Office, that is responsible for deciding whether Guardsmen Fisher and Wright can rejoin their regiment, the Scots Guards?
§ Mr. Henderson
I can confirm that the decision will be made by the Army Board.
When we consider the reputation of our Army all over the world, we should never forget that its effectiveness is founded upon its ethos. As I have met our troops in Northern Ireland and in Germany, and those in barracks preparing for deployment in the world's trouble spots, the strength of that ethos has been apparent to me.
There is a discipline that recognises that a battle can be won only if everyone plays his or her part in the team effort, and an integrity that acknowledges that every soldier has to impose that sense of discipline on his or her own activities in the interests of the team objectives.
There is courage—displayed in both a physical and a moral way—without which the difficult conditions of the urban jungle, the desert or the frozen mountains could not 361 be overcome. There is loyalty, which the platoon—through to brigade and division—cements into an effective force. There is selflessness, which, in the extreme, means the ultimate sacrifice of one's own life. Those are the qualities that I know inspire those who serve. Those are the qualities that count when building a reputation in peace, and when winning a battle. Those are the qualities that make our Army the best, and give it the basis to act as a force for good in this difficult world.
§ Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)
The Minister mentioned quality. Does he agree that the 22nd Special Air Service Regiment, based in my constituency, is one of the finest regiments in the world? He also mentioned loyalty. Does he agree that the number of books that we are now seeing by former members of the regiment are of great concern to serving and former members of the regiment? Would he once and for all destroy the myth published in a recent book that it might be Government policy to disband the regiment and start again? Will he assure me and the regiment that that is not the Government's intention?
§ Mr. Henderson
I can assure the hon. Gentleman—and any other hon. Member who wishes to refer to the quality of their local regiment—that I am proud to confirm that the quality is high throughout the British Army, and that that is built on the strength of its historic role. In relation to the publication of articles by ex-serving members, where their contracts prohibit the disclosure of certain forms of information, the Government will take every action to make sure that they are unable to engage in disclosure which could be harmful not only to their ex-colleagues but to the interests of the defence of this nation.
I want to refer now to two principal operational theatres. Our Army is currently at the highest level of operational involvement of any comparable army, with about one in four of our serving officers and soldiers involved in operations at any one time.
In Northern Ireland, the Belfast agreement represents a new start for the people of the Province. In August, I saw for myself our soldiers serving in difficult conditions in the Province. Without their efforts in places such as Drumcree—where they played a vital role in supporting the Royal Ulster Constabulary—the Belfast agreement would not have been possible. I know that this House will want to join me in paying tribute to the service men and women who have done so much to uphold the rule of law in Northern Ireland, and who, in all too many cases, have paid for it with their lives.
The House is aware of the important momentum for peace in the Province, which has enabled a reduction in the number of troops there. Routine military patrolling has ceased in many areas, and several security bases have been closed. Those are consistent with the current security situation, but the security forces have not lowered their guard. While a significant terrorist threat remains—as, regrettably, it does—troops will remain in Northern Ireland to support the RUC. Numbers will be returned to garrison strength only after a lasting peace has been achieved.
In other operations, the Army plays a crucial role. The UK provides the second largest force, after the United States, to the NATO-led stabilisation force in Bosnia. 362 We currently have about 5,000 troops committed to this force who are playing a vital part in enabling the Bosnian people to start rebuilding their environment. That is also true in Kosovo. I can inform the House that the British military verifiers—including 50 Army personnel, who form the UK contribution to the 2000 international verifiers required by the Holbrooke agreement—are now ready for deployment when required by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
As hon. Members will be aware, there are other important commitments that the Army has to undertake.
§ Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)
When does the Minister expect the commitment in Bosnia to end? He will recall that, when troops first went there, it was for an initial period of six months, in 1993 or 1994, I think.
§ Mr. Henderson
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which always arises when an intervention force has to re-establish peace and build stability. Often, it is an open-ended commitment. Without the benefit of a crystal ball, it is often impossible to determine how long our armed forces will have to make such a commitment.
The important aspect of the strategic defence review is that it provides for deployment in that context. It gives us the capability to take initiatives and contribute to international efforts in places such as Kosovo for a period. Related issues, such as overstretch, must be borne in mind, because they are central to the matter the hon. Gentleman raised. Before I move on to that subject, I must mention a couple more important core activities of our Army.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced plans a year ago to increase the assistance that the Ministry of Defence provides to humanitarian de-mining. Since then, the mine information and training centre at Minley has become an important focus for awareness about anti-personnel land mines. In the past year alone, its staff have conducted liaison visits to Bosnia, Croatia, Cyprus, Laos and Cambodia.
We must always remember that, within the United Kingdom, the Army continues to provide invaluable assistance to civil authorities, with cover ranging from the disposal of wartime bombs, which happens quite regularly, to help with flood relief.
§ Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)
Before leaving tasks, is the Minister aware that, as part of a shift towards home defence, the Americans are establishing 170 sub-units for nuclear, biological and chemical home defence, all in the volunteer reserves? Why is that role to be taken away from the only British nuclear, biological and chemical defence regiment, which is in the Territorial Army, when it has just returned from trials in America that it passed with flying colours?
§ Mr. Henderson
As I will explain later, decisions have not yet been reached, and Ministers have not yet received proposals for the future of the Territorial Army. However, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that a review of the nation's needs as regards biological and chemical warfare is being undertaken. When the Government are in a position to make recommendations, the House will, of course, be informed of our needs in that regard.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)
I am grateful to the Minister, who is being characteristically 363 generous in giving way. Did he have an opportunity to see the article written this week in The Times by Mr. Michael Evans, the much respected and invariably well informed defence correspondent of that publication, in which he asserted that the Territorial Army will next year have to sell drill halls to the value of £42 million to make up its budget? Is that assertion true, and, if it is, what will be the consequences for the TA if it is unable to realise enough money from the sale of property? Will there have to be further cuts in numbers?
§ Mr. Henderson
I know that the hon. and learned Member is always careful to trust in what he reads in the newspapers. I also know that he always tries to be helpful. No decisions have been reached on the future of the Territorial Army. I have not received any recommendations from the Army. When I do, I shall expect them to be on staffing levels and on capital assets. We need to consider how best we can utilise capital assets in the interests of organisations such as the Territorial Army, and I would be wrong not to take that into account.
§ Mr. Henderson
I am beginning to be over-generous. I shall take one more intervention; then I shall press on.
§ Mrs. Lait
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Before we leave the subject of the best use of Army assets, will he say what stage the tracker programme has reached? Is it appropriate for the Army to have a programme that is mounted on an armoured personnel carrier and cannot see over hills and round corners, given that battlefield reconnaissance systems such as airborne stand-off radar are available? Would he not save himself some money by not allowing those particular boys to have those particular toys?
§ Mr. Henderson
In the spirit of constructiveness, I should point out that the hon. Lady was—I think—referring to the tracer programme, for which there is a future. It is an important element of our capacity to redeploy—or deploy—to wherever it is necessary for our forces to move.
In the debate last week, questions were asked about the Army's structure. The depth and breadth of the Army's contribution is immense. The important changes to its structure set out in the strategic defence review are designed to ensure that it can meet its future commitments without overstretch. I tell hon. Members who raised the matter last week that I am still considering the structure of Land Command in the United Kingdom; I expect to announce the conclusions of the review shortly.
A number of other changes arise out of the SDR. In the long run, a higher level of recruitment is crucial if we are to tackle the problem of overstretch and meet our staffing targets. However, as the Defence Committee identified, other measures can help. The creation of a sixth deployable brigade and the delivery of a coherent formation readiness cycle are central to improving the Army's ability to deliver combat-ready formations in the future.
The three-year cycle will ensure that formations and units can train properly, can meet their liability to the new high-readiness joint rapid reaction forces and their 364 operational commitments, and can maintain an average operational tour interval of 24 months. That will reduce overstretch and improve the quality of life for our soldiers.
I inform the House that the new brigade will be known as 12 Mechanised Brigade. It will consist of an armoured regiment, as well as armoured and mechanised infantry, and will give the Army a potent and flexible new formation. The brigade headquarters will form at the end of next year, and the brigade will start training year in 2001. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where?"] That is still under consideration.
The creation of a single specialist air manoeuvre brigade will integrate the proven experience of our airborne forces with the formidable capability of the attack helicopter. The new formation will be known as 16 Air Assault Brigade. The number 16 was chosen as it has a long association with the Paras, who will be providing two battalions to the new brigade.
§ Mr. Henderson
I must press on a little.
The Territorial Army preoccupied the minds of hon. Members on both sides of the House during last week's debate, and it will no doubt be the focus of many speeches today. A statement will be made to the House as soon as decisions have been taken. However, Ministers have not yet received any proposals.
§ Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)
A moment ago, the Minister told my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) that decisions had not yet been taken, because Ministers had not yet been given any advice. Am I right in thinking that, according to paragraph 102 of the strategic defence review, the only decision that has been taken about the Territorial Army is that the nuclear, biological and chemical capability will be taken away from it and given to the regular Army? If that is so, the answer that the Minister gave my hon. Friend was not entirely correct.
§ Mr. Henderson
I will receive proposals from the Army at a later stage that will be consistent with the commitments in the strategic defence review. I outlined the principles in last week's debate, and I will be happy to do so again today, lest anyone be unclear. The principles are as we described: that the Territorial Army should be integrated with the regular Army; that it should be relevant, fully resourced and trained for real tasks in today's world; and that, above all, it should be usable.
§ Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow)
Has my hon. Friend received my written submission to the review, and will he consider meeting me soon to discuss the future of the territorial regiment in Jarrow? That regiment, a parachute regiment, ideally suits the new role for the armed forces. One must not forget the social aspect in constituencies such as mine, where the regiment makes a real contribution to the economy.
§ Mr. Henderson
I have received representations, and I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend or his colleagues to discuss that issue. My office has told every hon. Member who has written to me that I am prepared to see 365 local representatives, but I cannot see everyone individually, or I would be here all month; I have asked that, where there are common interests, hon. Members should come to see me in clusters. My office has made some time available in my diary for that in the coming weeks. I am happy to have such meetings, as I want to have a full knowledge of local views.
§ Mr. Henderson
I have been very generous, and now I will be a little bit more generous, after which I will stop being generous.
§ Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)
I thank my hon. Friend for his generosity. Perhaps his answer could save a delegation having to come to see him. I want to ask about Cumbria and North Lancashire, and the King's Own Border Regiment.
My understanding is that the proposal is to create one company in the area. It looks like we are being dealt with very badly. There is a strong case for a second company, and I would obviously like that to be in Carlisle. We should consider whether there should be detachments. In my area, there is no money to be made by selling the TA centre, because it is Carlisle castle, a grade I listed building. If we get only one company in Cumbria, could a detachment be provided in Carlisle? Of course, we would prefer two companies.
§ Mr. Henderson
I will consider proposals from the TA and the Army once they have been submitted. I want full consultation, so that the objectives can be discussed locally and best solutions can be proposed. Conservative Members obtained a copy of an original document last week, and waved it about the House. The officials involved in that consultative document will review all the discussions locally and then make proposals to Ministers. Until that is done, no decisions can be reached. I have an open mind on geographical matters, but not on the principles.
§ Mr. Henderson
I should press on now. I gave way very generously last week and have done so today, and I want to move on to the other issues. I have said that I am prepared to see any hon. Members who want to raise specific matters, possibly in clusters.
§ Mr. Henderson
I am not prepared to give way, and I am not moveable on that. I am going to move on.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will deal with a wide range of procurement issues in winding up, but I should like to refer to two pieces of equipment for the Army.
The Challenger 2 tank is beginning to be introduced into service. This is a British product that is used by the British Army. When asked what he thought of the tank, 366 a soldier in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards said to his commanding officer, "Aye, Sir, this is better than we had before". That is a clear judgment from those in the front line. That is our judgment, and it will, I believe, be the judgment of the international army community. The tank is good for the British Army, and it will be good, I believe, for our international exports; this is a top-quality product that can be sold to other armies throughout the world.
§ Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)
The hon. Gentleman is indeed being extremely generous in giving way.
There is just one problem with the Challenger 2 tank, of which the hon. Gentleman is proud and the Conservative Government were proud, too: where are the tank transporters? What has happened to the contracts that were meant to be up and running now for the tank transporters? The old ones will not carry the Challenger II, and there is still no date in prospect for the delivery of the new transporters.
§ Mr. Henderson
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but the Army is confident that it has the means to put those tanks in place in a battlefield situation. As he also knows, these matters are constantly under review. We are always looking for better ways in which to transport and, indeed, to maintain and service tanks and other equipment. That is an continuing process that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence and I take as a high priority.
§ Mr. Henderson
I am not giving way.
The second piece of equipment to which I wish to refer is the Apache attack helicopter, another British product to be used by the British Army. Again, our troops are excited by the prospect of it being brought into service. I believe that that also augurs well for exports.
Staffing is an important matter, which was covered in last week's debate, but it is also germane to this afternoon's discussions. As the House will know, the Army is 5 per cent. understaffed. That shortfall is unacceptably high, and has led to stresses and strains on service men and women and their families.
The Government are determined to correct the problem, but it cannot be done overnight. We have already taken key steps to improve recruitment and to increase capacity at Army training facilities. As a direct result, over 1,800 more troops are under training than in May 1997, an increase of more than 16 per cent. That improvement will, I know, be welcomed by the House.
More and more people are joining the Army because they believe that it is a first-choice career. As I said in last week's debate on the strategic defence review, we are determined that the Army should be a first-choice career for a much wider group of people in our society. It should be a first-choice career for many more women, black people, Asian people and people from other ethnic groups.
§ Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)
For a very short time, I had the great privilege of serving with the Gurkhas. Will the Minister acknowledge the huge debt of honour that we owe both serving and retired Gurkhas? 367 Will he confirm that the Government will in part repay that debt by paying retired Gurkhas pensions that are fair and reasonable?
§ Mr. Henderson
I am happy to confirm that my view and the Government's view are the same as the hon. Gentleman's: we owe a great debt to the Gurkhas, who continue to give us support. Their pensions are determined by an arrangement with the Indian and Nepalese Governments. Pensions are at a level that is commensurate with what is appropriate as part of that agreement. I think that he will understand that, and recognise that that has to be the case.
I talk about the Army being a first-choice career for more and more people. I am also saying that we have to get highly trained staff. That is the main challenge. We have introduced specific measures to address the problem of experienced officers and soldiers leaving early. In key trades, financial retention incentives have been introduced. In other areas, cash bounties are paid to soldiers who re-enlist at the end of their service.
The strategic defence review gave the highest emphasis to investors in people. We must provide better training and education for our personnel, and I am considering how to extend our national vocational qualifications programme to all our people. I am proud that our personnel already obtain many more awards than people in any comparable organisation in the United Kingdom.
I am examining how we can modify education schemes and education support for those in higher education who may be persuaded to join the Army, and for those who are already committed to the Army but who need further support. We are confident that higher recruiting, together with a range of initiatives to improve retention, will help us to achieve our aim of full staffing in the Army by around 2004.
The strategic defence review set out a new vision for the armed forces. The Army has a crucial role in that vision, which is about looking at the world we will face in future, and being ready to play our part in upholding law and democracy. The vision is about having the right equipment to be effective in any war theatre, and about having the right support to back it up.
Above all, however, it is about having the right people—people with a binding and determined ethos, with the right attitudes, the necessary skills and the essential motivation. Those are the things that matter. Those are the qualities that make our Army the best. We should never forget or underrate the commitment of those people on our behalf. They deserve the support of the House, and I hope that they receive it today.
§ Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)
It is a pleasure to debate military affairs again so soon after the two-day strategic defence review debate. I record my sincere admiration for the men and women of the British Army, their families and all the scientific and industrial civil servants and administrators who support them. I add my appreciation, too, for the growing number of dedicated contractors and suppliers, the Ministry of Defence police and the Ministry of Defence guard force.
Wherever the Army serves in the world, we are proud of it. It is in the nature of our debates that we focus on the problems of the day, and on exceptions. I do not want 368 Army personnel of any rank to think that we do not appreciate and admire their dedicated and professional role in the defence of the United Kingdom and our way of life. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) will refer to issues including recruitment when he winds up later. I know that many hon. Members wish to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way so often to hon. Members on both sides. If I may say so without sounding patronising, he has learnt his trade remarkably quickly. We are grateful to him. For the avoidance of doubt, and for the sake of readers of The Spectator, I should make it clear that this is my speech, and I believe in what I am saying. I am not just reading out someone else's words or ideas.
In order to put the Army into the broadest security context, let me examine the Prime Minister's European defence policy, a policy of some confusion and contradiction. In The Times last Wednesday, he advocated a European defence identity based on the European Union. Within minutes of the end of a two-day defence debate in the House, the Prime Minister appeared to have reversed British defence policy without telling the Defence Secretary. The Labour Government have followed the previous Government's policy of basing our defence on NATO and developing a European capability in the Western European Union. The WEU has formal agreements with NATO for the use of United States assets and intelligence and NATO's planning staff.
That was the policy both at the time of Amsterdam and of our debate last week. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), the shadow Defence Secretary, raised those points last week, and the Secretary of State made it clear that the position had not changed, by saying:We have a comprehensive view of the role of the European Union and the Western European Union, and the European security and defence identity of NATO…The challenge for the Western European Union is to take on the task that it has been given by the Amsterdam treaty and effectively to use its new powers. The challenge for the European Union is…to apply the common foreign and security policy…in Europe".—[Official Report, 19 October 1998; Vol. 317, c. 974.]There was no mention of a defence role for the European Union.
Last Tuesday, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence said:Britain is playing a key role in developing NATO's new strategic concept—the alliance's own SDR—to give it an equally clear vision into the next century. We are also playing an essential role in developing an effective European security and defence identity in NATO."—[Official Report, 20 October 1998; Vol. 317, c. 1176]Within minutes, however, the Prime Minister had changed all that, despite what he himself had said last year at Amsterdam when he claimed victory after the Amsterdam summit. He struck out any commitment to a merger between the WEU and the EU. He said that what matters is what works, and what works for Britain and for Europe is NATO. He also said that the Franco-German plan waslike an ill-judged transplant".
Following the Balkan experience and the EU's failure in response to the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, can we seriously believe that anything can replace NATO in Europe? The Prime Minister went last week to PÖrtschach in Austria. There was no official communiqué of the informal gathering, but I have obtained a transcript 369 of the press conference that the Prime Minister gave on 25 October. He congratulated the Austrian presidency, and said that there were three main issues. First, there was the economic situation. Next, he said:Secondly, in respect of common foreign and security, there was a strong willingness, which the UK obviously shares, for Europe to take a stronger foreign policy and security role. This will arise particularly because we will be appointing two people to common foreign and security positions in the European Union in the next few months so it is something that is very much on our minds but we all agreed that it was important that Europe should be able to play a better, more unified part in foreign and security policy decisions and certainly, obviously we discussed specifically Europe closer to the people, ideas for that and subsidiarity, where there was a very strong sense that we have to push on the process that was begun at Amsterdam on subsidiarity and get that implemented. As I say, I thank the Austrians very much indeed for hosting this summit and for organising it so well.So that is all right. That is completely clear. We know what the Prime Minister achieved at that conference.
When, as at present, geopolitics is dominated by events outside Europe, and when European security is dominated by the crisis in Kosovo, it is probably not surprising that the Prime Minister is not focused on the evolution of European defence. He should be, however. The way he stumbled across the issue last week speaks volumes about the chasm in Labour's defence thinking after a generation of nuclear escapism—I make an honourable exemption for the Under-Secretary of State for Defence.
Few people doubt that what we loosely call Europe can achieve little militarily without NATO and the United States. The Eurocorps, a child of President Mitterrand and Chancellor Kohl in 1994, is paralysed by the military, philosophical and cultural differences between unlikely partners. The Secretary of State went to Portugal with other European defence Ministers in September to take a lead on Kosovo, and he was all in favour of committing ground troops. Planners could have told him that that would have required 200,000 troops, cruise missile strikes and a phased air campaign involving 400 aircraft. It would have taken a month to deliver. What really mattered was that the United States had no intention of getting ground troops involved. Europe is pretty helpless without the United States' input of heavy lift, satellite communications and intelligence.
§ Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)
Has my hon. Friend considered the implications for NATO of the new defence role? We are, admittedly, short of detail on that role, but what would the impact be on American and European partners who are not members of the European Union? Many of them—one in particular—would like to join the EU.
§ Mr. Key
Indeed I have. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing an important European dimension to the debate. The first and most practical reason why European common defence must stay with NATO is that we need the United States of America. The Prime Minister needs to think about the second reason. The 1948 treaty of Brussels led to the creation of the Western European Union. It contained absolute guarantees of collective defence. It also proposed military, political and economic dimensions among its European members.
370 The original WEU mandate was hijacked and divided by the emergence of NATO and the European Coal and Steel Community, which later became the European Union. The WEU lost its empire and did not find a role until the Petersburg declaration of 1992, when it abandoned competition with NATO and the EU and focused on a new, high-profile military response to crisis management: evacuations, humanitarian missions, peacekeeping and peace enforcement.
The WEU also established a role in less traditional operations such as blockade and embargo enforcement, minesweeping and police work. That is where my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) is so right. The WEU has an inclusive agenda and membership. It can embrace Sweden and Turkey, as well as 10 central European countries, as associate partners, and put them all on its decision-making permanent council. It is outward looking and has no standing or dedicated forces, but it has legal authority to put such forces together, up to and including borrowing a combined joint task force from NATO.
The treaty of Amsterdam gives the EU no direct defence competence. That role falls to the WEU, whose new prominence has been demand-led. Our Government should convince our EU partners that there is no institutional imperative to create a new defence competence in Brussels. Europe faces multifaceted, multi-directional risks and uncertainties. The world is still adjusting to the end of the cold war. When both the EU and NATO are adjusting to expansion, the European chemistry needs time to settle down in its defence and security pool.
§ Mr. Brazier
Does my hon. Friend agree that some of the loudest voices among our European Union partners in favour of new defence roles for the EU are those in the process of slashing their defence budgets and reducing their armed forces to almost nothing?
§ Mr. Key
My hon. Friend is right. I shall come to the strength of individual members.
By the end of this year, NATO must agree a new strategic plan, with political consensus at each milestone. We can also expect new regional alliances to emerge. Russian instability, middle eastern uncertainty, Mediterranean tensions and the emerging threats posed by ballistic missile technology and weapons of mass destruction all point to the need for consolidation and stability in European defence and security. By all means let us think the unthinkable, but let us also always remember that NATO was never merely a convenient post-war military alliance for the defence of western Europe. NATO was created in defence of common ideas and interests and of fundamental beliefs in democracy, the rule of law, market economics and free trade. If it ain't bust, don't fix it.
There is another new and worrying development against which the Government must guard. NATO is a partnership, an equal partnership of members. Some are stronger than others, but ultimately we are all as strong as the strongest member. A European defence identity is one thing; a European voting caucus within NATO would be quite another. The United Kingdom should always give pride of place to the north Atlantic aspect of the treaty organisation.
371 For more than a week, it has been stormy in Wales. The weather has been unusually violent. Life-threatening flooding has caused havoc. It will surprise no one that within hours of the flooding, the civil authorities had called on the military for help. Sandbags were filled and distributed, many stranded people were rescued, and motor and other more ingenious forms transport through the floods were provided. We are grateful to the regular soldiers from Brecon and elsewhere who took part. We are also grateful to the territorials of the 2nd battalion, Royal Regiment of Wales, which did such valiant work in Merthyr vale. It will not surprise the House that the Government propose to close two of the battalion's three TA centres.
It would be comical if it were not so serious to hear Labour Ministers using some of the very words and phrases spoken by Conservative Ministers over the years. It is sad, almost embarrassing, that the Secretary of State seems to believe that he invented defence diplomacy. That term and mission have been with the Ministry of Defence since Sir John Nott introduced it in his 1982 defence White Paper. The former Armed Forces Minister spoke of the need for the Territorial Army to be relevant and usable—the exact words of the then Secretary of State, Malcolm Rifkind in his October 1993 "Framework for the Future" of the reserve forces.
For those with an interest in Britain's volunteer reserves, July 1998 gave birth to a paradox. The Secretary of State's announcement of the outcome of the SDR, including the savage cut in the TA from 59,000 to about 40,000 volunteers, means that the bulk of the TA infantry and yeomanry regiments are set to go, on the apparent grounds that they are dedicated to military defence, such as guarding key points throughout Britain or forming a reconnaissance screen against an invading force.
I was vocal in my objection to the way in which Ministers during the summer used that as a "Dad's Army" analogy. All that will have come as a surprise to the aforesaid infantry and yeomanry, who were told back in 1992 during the first TA restructuring that military home defence was no longer a significant element in their role.
It was also announced in 1992 that all TA infantry and yeomanry regiments would be redesignated as national defence, a new term recognising a changing and uncertain threat that was designed to encompass a wide spectrum of operational scenarios. The possibilities included NATO, United Nations and national operations world wide, as well as military aid to the civil authorities in the United Kingdom and, at the remote end of the scale, military home defence.
§ Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)
Given that 10 per cent. of our strength in Bosnia has been territorials, are the Government suggesting that the training undertaken by the Territorial Army over the past few years has been irrelevant and unuseful?
§ Mr. Robathan
In talking about things irrelevant and useless, will my hon. Friend comment on the many 372 interventions from perhaps naive Labour Members who say that they must fight for the 3rd Loamshires or whatever? Do they not realise that their Government are about to scrap all the infantry and yeomanry regiments and lump them into the 1st Midland Corps or whatever it might be called? Is not what Labour Members say therefore complete humbug?
§ Mr. Key
Perish the thought. It is right that all hon. Members should fight their corners, but Ministers must listen. I fear that down at Land Command in Wilton in my constituency, the military chiefs are having a terrible time knowing that the Minister is about to cave in to his Back Benchers with their individual interests. In the end, Land Command will have to fish around to make more savings to achieve what I might call the non-cuts that will become a political imperative by then. It may not be not humbug but realism; in the end, it will be the Army that pays.
§ Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)
Does my hon. Friend agree that there will be considerable surprise outside the House at the Minister's repeated attempts to put aside concerns about the future of the Territorial Army by saying that no decisions have been taken? Setting aside geographical issues such as Berkshire's loss of a link with a TA infantry battalion, what causes most concern outside the House is the one decision that the Government have taken—the cut in the TA. That is what recently led the royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead unanimously to express its regret at the loss of the TA's contribution to national defence, and at the loss of the important core skills that the public-spirited young volunteers who join the TA gain from their experience.
§ Mr. Key
My hon. Friend is right. She has spoken valiantly for her local TA. If there is any humbug, it is that of Ministers who have pretended for a year that the SDR had nothing to do with the Treasury. We all knew that in the end, the Treasury held the purse strings in every sense.
In case no one had got the message, the principle of wider employment was reinforced in the 1994 restructuring. All units were reorganised to create a general purpose structure designed to give them flexibility of employment across the spectrum of military operations. Any remaining vestige of a link between cold-war scenarios and the role or organisation of the TA had disappeared by 1994, not 1 May 1997. The final step in the creation of a relevant and useable TA came with the passage through the House of the Reserve Forces Act 1996.
Just one week after the SDR was announced in July, 1,400 reservists from the three services and a vast array of unit and specialist equipment gathered on the Minley training area for the reserve forces experience. Ironically, the 74 units and 400 vehicles that comprised the experience were intended to show how the reserves have adapted to post-cold war circumstances.
The peace experience at Minley was designed to illustrate the wide utility of our volunteer reserves in a range of so-called peace operations. Visitors were reminded that the reserve components of the armed forces have contributed substantially to Britain's defence commitments during and since the Gulf war, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) 373 reminded us. The TA has met 10 per cent. of our total commitment in Bosnia from the outset. A total of 5 per cent. of the Royal Naval Reserve is always in service with Royal Navy units. Personnel from the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and the Royal Air Force Reserve have been present in the Persian Gulf continuously since the Gulf war.
It was evident that many of the capabilities on display were unique to the reserves and build on their many civilian skills. Automobile Association patrol men in Royal Military Police uniforms and British Telecom engineers with the Royal Signals provided two good examples. It was a huge success and I learned much during my visit with the shadow Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk.
That brings us back to the SDR and the future of those at Minley who created such a memorable experience. With the evidence of their adaptability and professionalism there for all to see, many territorials could not understand how anyone could argue that the cold war was over three times within six years to justify further reduction. Many of them could not understand why the total of "around 40,000" should include 3,500 members of the Officer Training Corps and 1,500 non-regular permanent staff. Neither category, however useful, is an integral element of the Army's operational force structure. When the details of the new "revitalised" Territorial Army structure are announced, those affected will seek more convincing explanations for the demise of their units than have been deployed so far.
Is it really just money? The Government have cut the defence budget quite substantially at a time when, in the United States, the defence budget is undergoing a hike of 10 per cent and when the Americans have announced a new use for the National Guard and the reserves. Press reports from Washington point out thatchanges to homeland defense, the stand-up of new reserve teams to combat weapons of mass destruction and the continuance of the reserve component integration within the active force are in the cards for reservists in the next year.My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) has spoken about that eloquently already.
Charles L. Cragin, acting Assistant Secretary of Defence for reserve affairs, said thatreservists continue to re-serve around the world…The reserve components have a completely new role in homeland defense…the definition of homeland defense continues to evolve.Cragin also said thatHomeland defense has been under discussion for some time, because we don't really know what it constitutes in this day of asymmetrical threats…We know for certain that it includes responding to weapons of mass destruction…We know that it includes information operations and counter-intelligence operations for information warfare. It includes the air defense of the United States. We don't know how much further it goes as it relates to National Guard and Reserve involvement.
Defence Secretary William Cohen's initiatives in the area of weapons of mass destruction have raised the whole homeland defence issue. The congressionally chartered National Defence Panel agreed with him when it recommended that the reserve component play a seminal role in homeland defence. I hope that we will see similar thinking here and we look forward to hearing more about that.
374 In 1928 the British general staff were told that the Cabinet had decided that there would be no war for 10 years and that there was no direct threat to the United Kingdom. So the Territorial Army had no useful role overseas and no role in assisting the civil powers—it was finished. That was on the advice of experienced soldiers who had been through the first world war. They were so wrong. How can their modern equivalents be so sure today, especially with the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) as Foreign Secretary?
I agree with the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) who told us last week that the TA is our insurance against the unexpected. In the Gulf war we were almost down to our last platoon of infantry regulars. If the war had gone on another few weeks, there would have been no regulars to perform guard duty or to secure lines of communication. I believe that we should take the long view and not seek to rewrite history.
§ Mr. Brazier
I am so grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. My hon. Friend talked about the Americans. Is it not extraordinary that, perhaps for the first time since the House first met many hundreds of years ago, we have a Government saying that home defence does not matter at all when a country as powerful as America is saying that it is of critical and increasing importance?
§ Mr. Key
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point and I must fall back on the Minister's argument, which is that he has not yet decided. I hope that the Minister will listen to my hon. Friend and to other hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber.
I shall deal now with Army training. It was Field Marshall Rommel who said:The best form of welfare for troops is training, as well-trained troops result in fewer widows.
In March 1997, Lieutenant General Sir Huw Pike, then deputy commander-in-chief, produced the report, "Striking a Balance 97". It deals with the management of the major Army training areas. He stressed the importance of each Army field training centre achieving its effective manageable capacity. He said that planning and management systems must take into account a huge range of factors such as the size and shape of the training area, which must be appropriate for exercises, the nature of the ground, the geology and the geomorphology. For example, one can put tanks on Salisbury plain but they sink at Otterburn. He talked about the importance of seasonal factors such as wet and dry weather, farming practices, interface with local communities, archaeology, which is very difficult on Salisbury plain, and conservation, which was a huge success for the Army on Porton Down. He mentioned the quality of public access, the risks of public access on military land and the recreational use of military training areas dealing with everything from 4x4s to falconry. An issue of particular importance to local residents is the management of noise from artillery fire. I do not know whether that is an art or a science, but the military have made huge strides in that in my constituency.
There is also virtual reality training. In June this year the world's largest battlefield simulator project was unveiled at the combined arms tactical training facility at Warminster in Wiltshire. The project cost about 375 £180 million and will be completed by 2000. More than 400 troops at a time will fight virtual battles across a computer-generated landscape, using simulators built to look like the interiors of Challengers, Warriors and Scimitars. The simulators have been designed by Lockheed Martin and can be linked by satellite to other facilities in Germany and Texas so that British and US troops can collaborate in exercises against, for example, a computer-generated motorised rifle regiment.
The United Kingdom version is the largest, covering an area the size of two football pitches. According to managers of the combined arms tactical training centre, the aim of the project is not to replace live exercises but to complement them. Virtual reality exercises help units gain advanced knowledge of their equipment, tactics and different types of terrain and scenarios. It is a great facility.
What about live training? I shall quote liberally from the document "Striking a Balance 97", which I mentioned earlier. The deficit in training land is about 39,000 hectares. Salisbury plain training area is only 33,000 hectares. That is a deficit of about 21 per cent. of the Army's total requirements. The document states:These findings confirm the conclusions of successive HQ Land Command mid and end-year reports that there is a shortfall of training land which is adversely affecting operational readiness and military capability. They demonstrate that the widespread perception that the Army is over-provided with training land is not correct.It points out that training land has come under growing pressure and that many units are finding it increasingly difficult to gain access to major training areas. That will become more of a problem once the full effects of the draw-down from Germany are felt on the training estate and the training needs of the joint rapid deployment force and the Allied Command Europe rapid reaction corps have been quantified.
Brigade headquarters have problems with all this. The development of existing facilities at Otterburn for the AS90 and multiple launch rocket system training is essential to help remedy the shortfalls in field firing training land. The enhanced use of Kirkcudbright, which has 1,800 hectares for infantry training, is essential. The report states that existing training areas need to be expanded.
All that demonstrates that there is a theoretical shortfall of about 83,000 hectares of training land in the United Kingdom. The effective shortfall is 39,000 hectares—a significant deficiency. We desperately need more training land.
On 26 June, I asked the House of Commons Library to find out what progress had been made on the Otterburn inquiry into the extension of facilities on the range in Northumberland national park. I was told that the inquiry opened in April 1997. It heard 80 witnesses before ending in October. The inspector then withdrew to write his report. I was informed that the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions has powers to override the inspector's judgment if he so chooses.
On 6 July, in a parliamentary question, I asked the Secretary of State for Defence:what assessment he has made of the contribution to the UK national interest of training the army…at Otterburn.The then Minister for the Armed Forces replied:I am satisfied that there remains a strong defence need".—[Official Report, 6 July 1998; Vol. 315, c. 356.]376 Later in the summer, the thing unfolded. We had on 8 July the strategic defence review statement. The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, we were told, would announce his decision as quickly as possible. Then the trouble started.
On 30 July, the Government office of the north-east informed my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) that the inspector had made his report to the Secretary of State. On 14 August, the Association of Rural Communities, which is based in Otterburn, said that it had the support of the majority of local people in saying that it was more than happy for the Ministry of Defence to be there and to continue to train with weaponry capable of maintaining British and global security. It said that Otterburn had been in existence since 1912.
By 5 October, post-inquiry correspondence had been received from the Council for National Parks, the Natural History Society of Northumbria, Northumberland county council, the Ministry of Defence, the Ramblers Association, the Open Spaces Society, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, Northumberland national park authority, the Association of Rural Communities and Ponteland parish council. All those interested parties, lobbies and associations should be listened to carefully, but the final decision is not theirs. It is for Ministers to decide what is in the national interest.
On 21 September the Defence Estate Organisation wrote to the Government office of the north-east. It said:it remains the position that it is in the national interest for the developments proposed at Otterburn Training Area to proceed with urgency to ensure the operational readiness of the AS90 and MLRS units…The proposals requiring approval from the public inquiry remain of urgent national importance.But now, on 5 October, the whole thing appears to be open again.
The Government office of the north-east has written to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham saying:The new issues raised relate to the potential impact arising from the recent Strategic Defence Review.It then listed the reasons. I must tell Ministers that, although the use of electronic training simulators and laser-guided weapons technology is welcome, there is no substitute for live firing exercises. Withdrawal of the Army from Germany has put severe pressure on our training land. The indecision over Otterburn is now compromising the Army's ability to train in two of its main weapons—the AS90 gun and the multi-launch rocket system.
To reopen the Otterburn inquiry on the grounds that the SDR has introduced new policies would set a dangerous precedent. Training is training, and if the Army cannot train it is stuffed, as one frustrated colonel put it to me last weekend. The Secretary of State must stand up for the Army. The Deputy Prime Minister, who must decide, must recognise the national interest when it stares him in the face.
§ Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for underlining the problems that we face with the development of the Otterburn training range. May I underline what he says by saying that unless we have approval by December, the ability to train troops on the 377 AS90 will be seriously prejudiced for many months ahead? The livelihood of many of my constituents who work for the Army will also be prejudiced.
§ Mr. Key
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He knows the situation better than most, and he has been assiduous in representing the interests of his constituents. I agree with every word that he says.
Although so many more points could be raised, I should like to finish by remembering for a moment at this time, when so many of us are wearing red poppies, the work of the Royal British Legion. There are 6 million ex-service men in this country. There are 9 million widows, wives and dependants. Last year, some 300,000 former service men and women called upon the Royal British Legion for services—everything from hospital visits to the Royal British Legion training centre at Tidworth, which I visited a little while ago. In the next few weeks, some 300,000 voluntary collectors and organisers will be out collecting money for the poppy appeal. That is extremely important not only for the past but for the present and for the future.
I am indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury for reminding me of a story that I have no reason to believe is untrue. Many of us will be attending our remembrance day parades and services in a few days' time. One Member of Parliament attended his usual service and parade with the Royal British Legion and listened to the sermon. There was no mention of world war one or world war two. So the Member of Parliament said to the vicar afterwards that he was surprised at this. The vicar said, "Well, you know, it was a very long time ago. It was long before even I was born so I try to make it all a bit more relevant." The Member of Parliament replied, "So you'll be having some trouble with Christmas then!"
We have no trouble at all in honouring the memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. We salute the courage of the finest professional army in the world, the finest volunteer reservists and the thousands of young men and women who commit themselves to serve our country and follow the flag.
§ Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). He and I have shared innumerable sessions on the Defence Committee and engaged in verbal sword play on those occasions. Strangely enough, we always came to a consensus because every member of the Committee, of whatever political complexion, put first and foremost the issues of defence of this country and, indeed, Europe, so I will not follow the hon. Gentleman through all his gymnastics today, but I will make one or two references to what he has said.
I want to pick up some of the points that I made last Tuesday when I was fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but was able to speak for only 10 minutes like so many others on that occasion. One is able to mention points, but not really to explore them in those circumstances. I gave a list of qualifications in order to justify my existence, but I omitted one. I did so deliberately, not knowing that I might have to make reference to it tonight.
378 I register the fact that I serve on the defence and security committees of both the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly and the North Atlantic Assembly. Indeed, I am the vice-chairman of the NAA defence and security committee. What I did not tell the House last Tuesday was that I have also been appointed to a joint working group set up to monitor and scrutinise the work of the NATO-Russia permanent joint council. [Interruption.] I can only hope that that is not an opinion on my usefulness.
The permanent joint council is a conduit for the rapid resolution of problems between NATO and the Russian Federation. The joint working group is made up of 14 people—seven from the North Atlantic Assembly and seven from the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation. Of the seven from the NAA, only two are from the United Kingdom. One is the right hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) and the other is myself. The first meeting of the group takes place in Brussels tomorrow, and I am required to meet the Russian half of the working group at Brussels airport first thing in the morning and escort them to Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, where they are due to meet General Wesley Clarke. I must, therefore, apologise sincerely for not being able to stay for the end of the debate. I shall have to transport myself PDQ to Brussels to prepare myself for that early appointment.
Having explained that point, I do not wish to emphasise it to enhance the regard in which the House may or may not hold me. However, as I make the comments today that I started to make last Tuesday, I want it to be borne in mind that my position with the NAA and the OSCE enables me to mix with, converse with and get into the heads of many senior politicians and defence experts in central and eastern Europe and in the Russian Federation. It also requires me to try to get into the heads of all our NATO allies of a similar grain. It is a great learning process—great in two ways: it is great, but sometimes it grates; nevertheless, one has to cope.
That point brings me to the main cause of my concern. Last week, I had no time to comment on the strategic defence review. The international response to the SDR has been quite remarkable. There is no question that, despite its shortcomings, which are inevitable, it has set a benchmark for other nations, both allied and non-allied. The speed with which it was conducted is quite remarkable, despite what Opposition Members might claim. That speed is one of the reasons why there are shortfalls in some areas. However, I emphasise that that review cannot be the be-all and end-all: the process must be on-going and continuous; it must never end. Internationally, it is acknowledged that we have made a first-class start, but we have to maintain the momentum.
On the issue of reserves, the hon. Member for Salisbury made great play of the situation in the United States and, to be honest, I have to say that he was right to do so. Last week, I made the point that if we set the level of our reserve forces at 40,000, it would mean that we had a reserve level of approximately 35 per cent. of our regular complement—a regular complement which, as the Minister acknowledged, is 5 per cent. below strength and which is being supplemented in Bosnia by a 10 per cent. terrier contribution. Therefore, overstretch might well be becoming—yet again—a problem within the regular forces; and, if we reduce our reserve forces to such an 379 extent and if we call on them to such an extent, it could well be that overstretch will become a problem in our reserve forces.
On the military side—meaning the Army—the USA, which is one of our major allies, has, in the broadest possible terms, one for one. That means that it has a reserve complement of 100 per cent. of its regular force. The Americans say that they have greater responsibilities than we have, but I wonder whether that is true. They might have more things to worry about, but they have a bigger force with which to act and a strike capability that is stronger and heavier by far. The fact that they hold 100 per cent. in reserve simply means that they want to ensure that they can call on those resources as and when they need them.
The Americans recognise that the resources they need to be able to call on in the new crisis situations facing us at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st are specialists in the sorts of activities that are currently being undertaken by the 10 per cent. that we have in Bosnia. Those activities have to be undertaken by specialists in water quality, transport, drainage, electricity generation and other services. We are not talking about pushing a jenny to the back of a building in order to do some welding, but about supplying communities with major resources, such as power. Those are the requirements and we should be building up the resources necessary to meet them, not reducing them.
That is one side of the coin—the NATO side. Let us look for a moment at the other side of the coin—the non-NATO allies who engage with us in the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and who are associate members of NATO's Parliament. The Russians talk to us and tell us their problems. Their units used to rotate around the Soviet Union so that they did not get involved in corruption, but that no longer happens. The result is that units are becoming almost the property of local governors and regional warlords, because it is only those people who can guarantee the soldiers any sort of income. That income is usually provided on the basis of bartering: the regional authorities feed the troops, provided the troops repair transport vehicles, mend roads, or perform other services. A strange symbiosis is building between local chieftains and military units.
When we refer to reserves—to the need for reserves and the need to train them—the Russians do not understand. Most of their regular forces—or their conscripted forces, as I should say—are experienced in mending vehicles, or even in planting and picking potatoes, because those are the regular, day-to-day tasks that they are required to perform in order to feed themselves. When they hear us talking about reserves and ask for more information, they hear that the United States has one for one—100 per cent. reserves for the size of their regular force. When they realise that our reserve forces are not 100 per cent., they pose questions. It is difficult for me explain why our reserve forces are not as well equipped or as large as we would ideally like them to be.
I know that there is a problem of striking a balance between the Treasury requirements and the defence ideal. That is part of the problem. We saw yet again in the veiled menace apparent in the suggestions contained in the document that was leaked last week the possibility that regular officers of senior rank are exerting their influence over ministerial decisions, while the reserve forces are 380 outgunned because they do not have representatives at senior level who are able to hold their corner. I am pleased to hear that the Minister has no definitive proposals and relieved that no decisions have been taken. However, I urge him to ensure the appointment of a senior staff officer to represent the interests of the terriers and the reservists.
When discussing the launchers and the royal trumpshire borderers and the like, the hon. Member for Salisbury said that it will be the Army that pays—but I have to point out that it is all one Army. The regulars and the terriers are no different other than in the nature of their commitment to society. The 10 per cent. who are in Bosnia today can die just as easily, just as quickly and just as horribly as a regular soldier who has been a member of the forces for 12 years.
We are talking about one Army, and we have to ensure that its reserve component is given a strong voice against the Regular Army's top brass. I am not denigrating or criticising the top brass—who have their job to do, like everyone else—but we have to match like with like. If Tyson can get into the ring only with other heavyweights, the terriers should, like the regulars, have senior staff officers to represent their interests in budgetary debates.
In last Tuesday's debate, I asked the Minister to consider doing for British nuclear test veterans the same as has been done for our Gulf war veterans—to review their medical condition. I realise that only one week has passed since that debate, but I should have hoped to receive some sort of formal acknowledgement that consideration might be given to that request. I shall repeat the request, in case it has slipped the Minister's mind, or perhaps never reached the notebooks of the commissars occupying the Under-Gallery.
I plead for further consideration to be given to the case of nuclear test veterans, who gave sterling service to the Crown and the country. On instruction, they put themselves at risk. They were told to bare themselves—they were virtually naked—and to roll on the ground at ground zero after various explosions. Furthermore, their service records have been bowdlerised. Many of the veterans have discovered that their records contain not a hint that they ever participated in test activities. I believe that those omissions constitute a case of deliberate neglect, and to ignore their pleas for further consideration would be quite unjustified.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)
Have not the Australian Federal Government paid to their nuclear test veterans—to the men who were at Maralinga, in South Australia—the type of compensation mentioned by my hon. Friend?
§ Mr. Cook
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, although I submit that they did not get sufficient compensation—but that is not the point. The Australian Federal Government established that principle some years ago and provided compensation.
Meanwhile, since the Federal Government of Australia came to that agreement with their veterans, our men and women—not only service veterans, but civilians, from NAAFI, for example—have been dying. Very soon, many of them will have disappeared entirely, at which point whichever Government are in power can comfortably rub their hands together and say, "That's that problem solved." However, the problem will not have been solved.
381 I also repeat my invitation to the Minister to visit HMS Kellington and its Marines, who are a type of Army—although they might object to that statement. The Kellington has Marine cadets, who are very keen to meet the Minister. I should say also that the chairman of the sea cadets has received a letter from the Ministry of Defence, offering to sell the Kellington for £12,000. The sea cadets have offered £5,000 for it.
My advice to the chairman is that he should not entertain accepting the offer from the Ministry, which is certainly not in need of a £12,000 handout that could be raised only by the cadets' regular charitable works. The cadets should not offer a penny for the Kellington, but should withdraw their £5,000 offer. The fact is that it would cost the Ministry about a quarter of a million pounds to scrap the Kellington. I have also already mentioned to the local authority that I should expect it to refuse any planning permission for the Kellington's quayside demolition. I repeat my invitation to the Minister to visit HMS Kellington, where he will receive a very warm reception. I make that invitation most hospitably—we shall not require anyone to walk the plank.
The strategic defence review is a good start. However, we have a long way to go on the review, and it has to be repeated year after year, as each new commitment is made.
§ 6.4 pm
§ Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)
Like many other hon. Members, I welcome the opportunity to have this debate—the first in almost two years—on the future of the Army. I welcome also the commitment made by the Minister that a debate on the Army, and on the other two branches of the armed forces, will be a regular feature in the House. I accept in principle his point on how such debates could be diversified, to address many of the issues that we face.
I am also delighted that the Minister has remained in the Chamber for the debate. In last Tuesday's debate, he had to leave when I started my speech. I am glad that the start of my speech today has not persuaded him that it is time to find something else to do. I put that down to "gapping"—to use the Ministry's phrase—among the ministerial team at the Ministry of Defence.
I was, nevertheless, disappointed that the Minister did not allow me to intervene in his speech on the three occasions that I attempted to do so. However, I shall offer him the opportunity to intervene in my speech to deal with the three points that I shall make, and would have made earlier in my three attempted interventions.
I should be interested to know, first, whether the Minister could tell the House what future Ministers envision for the Territorial Army. He stood back and said, "No proposals have been made to us", but I should be very interested to know what he would like to happen.
The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) made the point that the TA does not have great clout within the Ministry. I think that he and other hon. Members are expecting the TA to gain some clout from the efforts in the House of hon. Members who have made representations on behalf of either individual units or the huge swathe of the United Kingdom—from the highlands 382 of Scotland right down to the border—that could be bereft of TA units. It would be very interesting if the Minister came clean and told us what the ministerial team is hoping to achieve. If he does take on board all the special pleading, the policy that we saw exposed in all the documents that were leaked last week will be in tatters, and there will have to be a complete rethink of the matter. I am quite prepared to give him an opportunity to deal with that point.
The second point that really does require clarification by the Minister is on his statement on Challenger 2 tanks. If it is true that an order for transportation for those tanks—to wherever they will be needed in the United Kingdom or elsewhere in Europe—has not yet been placed, that the Army currently has no transport for those heavier tanks and that the Minister, as he told the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who raised the point, has been assured that there are plans to deal with such transport, the House is entitled to know what those plans entail. We should be told how we shall transport a tank that is too heavy to be carried on any existing transport and that is, today, ready for delivery to the British Army.
My third intervention would have been on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) on the Gurkhas, specifically on the Gurkhas' pensions. I did not take great heart from the Minister's comment that the pensions were based on an agreement with the Nepalese Government. Many Gurkhas, both serving and retired, find it very hard to exist on their pension when they return to Nepal. I should have thought that we owe the Gurkhas just a little more, not only for their continuing service, but for the tremendous service that they have given in the past. We should do a bit more justice to their claim for an upgraded pension.
I request also that Defence Ministers put a little pressure on Home Office Ministers to consider more sympathetically the cases of retired Gurkhas who, on retirement, want to continue working in the United Kingdom. Although there are very few such people, I am currently dealing with the cases of six of them who are now employed as laundrymen by the Royal Navy. They are seeking to be re-employed, but are being told that, because they have no residential status here, they will first have to return to Nepal before re-applying to return to the United Kingdom. Once again, that is an absurd way in which to treat people who have given decades of loyal service to this country and who continue to do so. I hope that the Minister will deal with those three specific points.
§ Mr. Swayne
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the pertinent interventions that he would have made, but I should like to take him back to the first and ask him to comment on the difficulties facing serving officers, of whom I am one. We know the plans that Land Command has for us to implement the Government's proposals. Distasteful as they are, we are keen to get on with them in the interests of maintaining morale and efficiency. However, we now stand to have progress delayed and unpicked by a series of Back-Bench special pleadings.
§ Mr. Hancock
The hon. Gentleman's intervention is pertinent, but it is optimistic to believe that the unpicking is going to take place to the extent that hon. Members hope. It is obvious that the special pleading that we heard last week and today is of such magnitude that there will 383 be no reduction in the TA. As others have said, if, at the end of the day, the reduction does not come from the TA, the whole strategic defence review will have to be rethought because the Government will have to find the hundreds of millions of pounds that they were hoping to save over the next five years. I suggest that the mess does not end with the TA, but surrounds the whole process on which we have been embarked for the past year.
Like other hon. Members, I pay tribute to serving Army personnel—men and women—and to the civilian workers who support them. Having been privileged since my return to Parliament, and in my previous existence as a Member of Parliament, to have seen our armed forces in operation all over the world—in Bosnia, Germany, Northern Ireland, Cyprus and the Falklands—I am proud to say that I enjoyed the time spent with those service units and have been mightily impressed by their attitude and dedication. The Minister was right to say that they have the right ethos and spirit for the job that they are doing.
The biggest issue facing the Army is undoubtedly that of undermanning and overstretch. The Minister was right to begin to tackle those problems in his presentation today. The Secretary of State has given a clear commitment to eradicate undermanning and to tackle overstretch. I am sure that every hon. Member and everyone in the Army and the armed forces in general welcomes that.
A glimpse of the scale of the crisis was revealed in the previous Parliament when the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) told the House of his experience, which I read in Hansard with great interest, when he visited serving soldiers in Northern Ireland. They were working 98 hours a week; they were away from their unit for 51 per cent. of the time; and they had very short gaps between tours of duty.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) was told in parliamentary answers of the deficits in some of the units of the Army. The Royal Armoured Corps is 5 per cent. under strength, the Royal Artillery Corps is 7 per cent. down, the infantry is 9 per cent. down on average and the Royal Corps of Signals is 10 per cent. down. There is even a shortage of chaplains—the Royal Army Chaplains Department is something like 6 per cent. Short—although the staff officers are 3 per cent. over strength.
The Select Committee on Defence has rightly examined the problem and, in its comprehensive report, confirmed that it is significant. It admitted that it had had great difficulty in getting hold of accurate information. How can it be right that the Committee set up by the House to examine defence-related issues has difficulty in getting at the truth of undermanning and overstretch in the Army? I shall quote the report so that the Minister can take the problem on board again. It states:Precise and up-to-date information about the extent of overstretch is hard to come by; detailed parliamentary questions on the subject often meet with the response that information is not held centrally and could only be obtained at disproportionate cost.How can the Minister tell us that there is a problem of overstretch if the figures are not available? As the Select Committee on Defence cannot get accurate information, I should be grateful if the Minister who winds up the debate could expand on the problem of overstretch.
§ Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)
Perhaps I can give the hon. Gentleman an example of overstretch. My regiment, 384 the Light Dragoons, has been in Bosnia and will be supporting its 11th squadron tour in Bosnia by June next year. Of an establishment of 398, most of whom are not married, 82 will have had their marriages dissolved over the past four years. That is an example of overstretch, and in a regiment that has been fully recruited.
§ Mr. Hancock
I have every sympathy with that intervention. I am sure that any hon. Member who has had any contact with any element of our armed forces will know that what the hon. Gentleman says is true not only of that unit, but of many others throughout the armed forces. It was a shame that no Minister mentioned that problem last week or today.
There is an understandable worry about whether the SDR's formation readiness cycle will prove effective in reducing overstretch. The Select Committee on Defence believes thatthe proposed new cycle is at present only a paper exercise—sustaining it in practice will be a formidable challenge".Can we be sure that the additional obligations will not disrupt that cycle? What about the tours in Northern Ireland? What will happen to the way in which men and women are trained for exercises and work in Northern Ireland? Will not there be added pressures coming from the foreign service-led initiatives about which we have been told? Quite often, emergency deployments are for battalions, not brigades. Will not the battalion that is deployed end up suffering as it does now?
We need to be able to measure the extent of the problem, which is the reason that we need to know the truth of the problem. I ask Ministers to tell us how they are going to assess overstretch, to measure the number of hours our armed forces are working and to record the length of tours of duty and the pitiful gap between tours. Without a proper assessment of the present situation, the House, our armed forces and the nation will not be able to judge the success or otherwise of the steps that the Secretary of State is now telling us he will take following the SDR. If we cannot measure, we cannot possibly be expected to judge. Surely the Minister will have to tell us a little more today about the current situation.
Of course, our Conservative colleagues have played no little part in creating the problems of overstretch. They presided over a one third reduction in our armed forces and over a cut of literally tens of billions of pounds in the defence budget.
§ Mr. Hancock
I was not in government; you were. You made the decisions, and you can hardly criticise the results of some of those decisions—
§ Mr. Hancock
I am sure that they were not, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise if I implied that you were personally responsible for any of those atrocious decisions. I place the blame for them firmly where it belongs—on the former Conservative Government.
The Conservative Government gave away hundreds of millions of pounds in redundancy payments while at the same time spending tens of millions of pounds trying to 385 re-recruit people for the armed forces. We must apportion some of the blame and responsibility for overstretch and similar problems squarely on the shoulders of that Government.
I am pleased that the Government have made a commitment to full manning by 2004, but one of the major issues that we must discuss is the way in which we recruit and retain people. Part of the way to deal with the recruitment pressure that the Army is facing is to ensure that the organisation is seen to treat people better.
The equal opportunities situation in our armed forces—in the Army, as in the Navy and the Royal Air Force—is scandalous. As a result of our previous failures to tackle that issue, we have slammed the door in the face of thousands of people who would have wanted to serve, and whose skills the Army desperately needs.
Surely, now that the SDR is considering the whole of the armed forces, it is time that the Government lifted the ban that prevents gay people from serving in our armed forces. This country remains alone in the European Union with such a ban, and reform is long overdue. I hoped that the Government would have had the courage to tackle the issue.
§ Mr. Cook
The hon. Gentleman may know that I have a son in the forces. I meet him and his colleagues, and although I agree with the point of view that the hon. Gentleman is advancing, I must say that the general view in the forces is very much opposed to such reform. If we take account of self-determination, it might create a very real problem in the ranks if we went down that road. I want to ensure that that is part of the consideration.
§ Mr. Hancock
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman has made; I well remember conversations on the subject with members of the Royal Marines when I was in Jordan recently. However, many of the men also expressed sadness when their colleagues—officers and men who had given loyal service to the Royal Marines and other units—were hounded out because their sexuality had been questioned and our rules do not allow them to remain. There are two sides of the issue, but I am sure that, ultimately, it is better for us to institute the reform in the House than be forced into it by European Courts making law that would make it a right for gay people to remain in the forces.
We must also ensure that there are no iron curtains within the British armed forces for anyone—men or women. We must make people feel that they are welcome. This morning, I listened with great interest when, on the radio, I heard a Sikh lieutenant-colonel addressing the problem of being asked to try to recruit more ethnic minorities into the Army. He said that, of 14,000 officers in the British Army, only 140—1 per cent.—were of ethnic origin. That cannot be right in a country that prides itself on being a rich cocktail of a cosmopolitan, understanding community.
We owe it to everyone to do more to ensure that more people from those groups join our armed forces. We must also ensure that we give people proper opportunities when they are in the Army. Two weeks ago, I had an unpleasant conversation—in the sense that it was disappointing—with a young Army captain. He had recently been 386 promoted captain. He had been through Sandhurst and done his time as a junior platoon leader, and now he was being promoted to captain, but his personal priority was to decide on the right time to leave the Army. He had come face to face with the promotional block—the fact that many young men like him, who had joined the Army at 19, hoping for a career well into their 40s, were starting to consider whether they could risk staying on past 30. That cannot be right. We must do more to support our service personnel in all ranks.
I have talked to Royal Marines, so I know how frustrated they are that, at junior non-commissioned officer level, they cannot be promoted. Some have spent between five and 10 years in a junior NCO rank, unable to be promoted because of the logjam. That cannot be right. It saps the morale of those men and, through them, of other members of the unit. It is a great shame to see those highly trained, efficient working individuals turned out of the service because their promotional prospects are up against a logjam. That problem is long-standing. Hon. Members need to ensure that firm action is taken.
We must also treat personnel right when they leave the service. People who have given dedicated service need to know that they will be treated fairly when that service ends. I think of two of my brothers-in-law. One recently left the Royal Navy after 20-odd years; the other left about two years ago, after 30 years' service. Both have found it extremely difficult to adapt to life on the outside. Both felt that what was on offer to them might have sounded good in financial terms, but did not deliver the opportunities in civilian life that they could have hoped for, because they had done specialised work in the services.
We must give families more support. For two years, the family of Private Jeans—a young soldier from Portsmouth who lost his life in Croatia—have tried to obtain justice for their son's tragic death. He was killed by Croatian youths while on a recreational visit to Split, and yet, in my opinion, the Ministry of Defence has not given that family all the help that they should have had to ensure that justice is done. With the help of the local newspaper in Portsmouth, the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) and others who have come to the support of that family, things are starting to move in the right direction, but the Ministry of Defence should have been there from day one, supporting and helping that family in that difficult time.
The hon. Member for Stockton, North spoke about the nuclear test veterans. How right he was. If we are trying to conduct a strategic defence review with the avowed intention of putting people first, we must ensure that we start to honour some of our obligations to the people who went before, and the nuclear test veterans are a classic example.
I am proud to say that, at the cathedral in Portsmouth, we have the permanent memorial to the nuclear test veterans. What a shame it was that the Ministry of Defence would not allow any senior personnel to attend the celebrations when the stone was laid and the chair placed in the cathedral. No senior member of the British armed forces could attend, and no one from the Ministry of Defence visited on that splendid occasion. It was left to local politicians and the Church locally to organise the event, with the National Nuclear Test Veterans. However, the Minister was right to explain the enormous debt that we owe those young men, some of whom were put 387 through the trauma of being obliged to witness not one, but six or seven nuclear explosions. Moreover, when they have challenged that, they have met a conspiracy of silence.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Spellar)
§ Mr. Hancock
That is true, although the Minister shakes his head. I have asked questions and written letters, and sometimes the Ministry of Defence has denied that the ships were even there, and that those people were part of the crew; and yet in my constituency, there are dozens of those people, who know one another and knew one another at the time, and they cannot all be pretending to be nuclear test veterans. There is a conspiracy against us, and there is a conspiracy not to give them justice.
If there was any semblance of decency in the Ministry of Defence or in government—not only the present Government, but Governments since the 1960s—those men and their families would have received just compensation. How it must have stuck in their throats, and the throats of other service men, last week to read in the newspaper that a woman police officer received compensation of £175,000 because she developed a permanent ear problem while on a surveillance exercise mission. Right though that was, it is pitiful that we treat our service men and women so disgracefully in comparison.
The nuclear test veterans are not the only veterans. The Gulf war veterans still struggle, as do our civilians who went to the Gulf. I have lost count of the times that I have raised with the Ministry of Defence the issue of civilians who went to the Gulf, trying to get them the same rights. We must ensure that people are given the support that they need.
Ex-service personnel deserve more recognition than the Government's proposed veterans section will offer. It will not do much more than the Royal British Legion does now. It needs to have more clout and to be assured that the Ministry will listen to what it says. I do not want a repeat of what has happened in the past.
For all the advances in technology—even the development of remote-controlled aeroplanes and tanks and virtual reality training, which we have heard about today—the Army still relies on people, as the Minister rightly recognised last week. The Army is nothing without the people who serve it. I hope that the Government will take the current opportunities to change the way in which we value Army personnel. We should not have to wait for an armed forces Bill in 2000. The Minister should act on equal opportunities now to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to serve.
We need answers to questions about the Territorial Army units. We do not want a garage sale of TA assets. There is already speculation that the TA's prime city centre site in Portsmouth will be sold for redevelopment. The unit is still meeting there and there are still advertisements on the tube asking people to join the TA. We should put a caveat underneath, saying that it comes with a health risk, because anyone who joins may not be in the TA for long.
We need clear targets and clear knowledge of what the Government expect of the British Army. We need measures on overstretch now. We should never again have 388 to hear of British soldiers working a 98-hour week in peace time. We should treat our ex-service personnel with more respect. If we do not do that, debates such as today's will be repeated year after year. The SDR gave us the opportunity to do a lot more for the men and women who serve the armed forces of this country and the civilians who back them. I had hoped that the Government would have taken the opportunity gladly and delivered more commitment to them than we have seen so far.
§ Mr. Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough)
I am delighted to be able to participate in this evening's debate on the Army. I was not called to speak in last week's debate on the strategic defence review, so I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Government on the SDR. It has been well received by our armed forces and our allies, as well as by the defence industry in general.
However, I should like to confine most of my comments to one proposal being considered as part of the SDR, which relates specifically to the Army and was raised in last week's debate by my hon. Friends the Members for City of York (Mr. Bayley) and for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook)—the proposal to combine the Land Command second division, which currently has its headquarters in York, with its Scottish division, which has its headquarters in Edinburgh, to create a new Land Command division with troops in both Scotland and the north of England.
Last week, the Minister for the Armed Forces told the House that he will shortly be deciding whether the merger should go ahead and whether the intended headquarters should be in York or Edinburgh. As a Member for a South Yorkshire constituency, I believe that there are many compelling reasons for the decision—if the choice has to be made—to come down in favour of York.
§ Dr. Godman
May I point out briefly to my hon. Friend that many of us in Scotland believe that there are compelling reasons why the headquarters should be located in Edinburgh? I am not referring to the Scottish National party's avowed intention of creating a Scottish Army. I am saying that the British Army headquarters in this case should be in Edinburgh.
§ Mr. Ennis
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I hope that he will explain later in the debate why he thinks that the headquarters should be in Edinburgh.
From a military perspective, 80 per cent. of the regular soldiers in the combined division would be based in the north of England, with only 20 per cent. in Scotland. All hon. Members must be aware that the north of England is the British Army's core recruiting area, supplying 39 per cent. of all recruits, compared with only 12 per cent. coming from Scotland. My two home towns of Barnsley and Doncaster have strong traditions as fertile recruiting grounds for all the armed forces, particularly the Army. 389 The Duke of Wellington's regiment is the only organisation that currently enjoys the honour of the freedom of the borough of Barnsley.
§ Mr. Ennis
I stand corrected on that point.
The Army must retain a major military headquarters in the north of England, which provides far more of its manpower than any other UK region. That presence will be even more important when the Territorial Army is restructured. There are 11,600 regular soldiers stationed in the north of England, but the region has only one major-general. Scotland has only 2,950 regular soldiers, but has two major-generals. The north of England's only general would be lost if the new division's headquarters were based in Edinburgh.
From an economic perspective, Yorkshire has lost 45 per cent. of its Ministry of Defence civilian staff over the past six years, while Scotland has lost just 23 per cent. Yorkshire has only 3,300 Ministry of Defence civilian staff, while Scotland has 9,500.
Finally, from a political perspective, the previous Minister for the Armed Forces, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, North and Bellshill (Dr. Reid) received a petition to retain the headquarters in York. signed by 24 lord mayors and mayors from throughout the north of England. That has been supported by written representations from many north of England regimental associations. When my hon. Friend makes his choice, I know that his decision will be based solely on what is best for the defence of the UK, north and south of the border—and rightly so. The ideal solution to the problem would be to establish the new command headquarters in York, but retain a major-general in Edinburgh to command the troops, as well as for other ceremonial purposes. I understand that the Ministry has already agreed a similar arrangement for London, which will retain its major-general even though it does not have enough soldiers to form a division.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take cognisance of my points, as well as the many other related points that my hon. Friends the Members for City of York and for Stockton, North raised on the issue in last week's debate on the SDR.
§ Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)
I am grateful to have been called to participate in the debate. It is particularly appropriate for me to follow the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Mr. Ennis), because I should like to cover some of the same ground.
I pay tribute to the armed forces in my constituency. Those at Dishforth and Topcliffe barracks are particularly relevant to the debate, but I also pay tribute to the volunteers in the Territorial Army and my constituents who work at York barracks in the constituency of the City of York. I should also like to mention the contribution made by RAF Leeming and RAF Linton.
390 With regard to the proposed closure of York barracks, I should like to make the case for retaining a two-star command headquarters at Imphal in the City of York—the neighbouring constituency to mine. The implications for employment nationally and locally are compelling. At national level, the military staff leaving the barracks will be redeployed elsewhere in the country. The implications for local employment and the local economy are severe. Following relocation of the second division headquarters, civilian employees—the locally based labour force who commute from the Vale of York—will become unemployed, causing serious repercussions. They will probably have difficulty finding non-defence industry employment. Their loss of spending power will damage the local economy, and loss of revenue to shops and businesses in the Vale of York will be very serious.
Although it is true that the Vale of York is primarily a rural constituency, 30 per cent. of the population reside in areas in the city of York such as Haxby, Wigginton, Poppleton, New Earswick, Clifton Moor, Clifton Without and Rawcliffe. Many of my constituents work in York barracks or benefit, through shops and businesses, from the spending power of those who do. The total annual fall in local income in direct, indirect and induced losses in the wider York area following relocation of the second division headquarters is estimated to be £7.2 million at today's prices. It is clearly difficult to calculate exactly what percentage of that income would have been spent in the Vale of York. Of the total of 294 job losses, a substantial number will undoubtedly be lost among constituents in the Vale of York. Although the city of York may be compensated in part by income from alternative uses of the site, such benefit will not accrue in the Vale of York in the long term.
From a defence, operations and capability perspective, I am concerned that the Land Command will be too removed from the area it serves, as the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough pointed out. I remind the House that, until quite recently—eight to 10 years ago—the command headquarters was based at Colchester barracks in East Anglia. Moving it again must put into question its effectiveness and hands-on control. If it is to be moved to an even more remote location—we do not yet know where—such effectiveness would be put at even greater risk.
Of further concern to operations and back-up in the Regular Army must be cuts in the Territorial Army, to which other hon. Members have referred. Let us be clear, the cuts have nothing to do with modernisation of the armed forces or improvement of their operability. The changes proposed amount to direct cuts in services that are needed to meet the commitments of front-line Army operations. Hon. Members would appreciate the Minister coming clean on that point.
I should like to pay tribute to the role that the TA plays in the armed forces. The tradition of the Territorial Army is highly and widely regarded in the Vale of York. Many of my constituents have served and continue to serve the local area and the country in the TA, of which we are extremely proud. I seek an assurance from the Minister that the future role of the TA in the Vale of York, North Yorkshire and the country generally will be secured.
I hope that the Minister accepts that cuts to the TA are shortsighted and regrettable. They will reduce adaptability in the face of future threats, especially in dealing with the unexpected. I hope that the Minister, his Department and 391 the Government will reconsider the level of proposed cuts. Can he really tell the House, hand on his heart, that the proposal for 40,000 volunteer established reserves in the TA is sufficient to meet all future commitments?
§ Mr. Swayne
There has been considerable talk about overstretch. There is already overstretch in the Territorial Army. The TA is tasked largely with carrying the entire "Keeping the Army in the Public Eye" programme, running the executive stretches and business challenges. Soldiers in the squadron in my constituency are out every weekend. They are already overstretched. How we are to carry that load, with all its implications for recruitment, I cannot understand.
§ Miss McIntosh
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. The problem of undermanning and overstretch is one that we can all understand. Why then target the one sector—the TA and other armed forces reserves—that is capable of meeting any future unpredictable overstretch or undermanning?
Those who live in Vale of York are concerned about the decision to bring the Territorial Auxiliary and Volunteer Reserve Associations boundaries into line with the new regional command structure. Although it might at first sight seem sensible, I wonder how the proposal will operate in practice. According to the Defence Committee's report, merging the north-eastern and Yorkshire TAVRAs will simply not work. The area covered will stretch from Berwick-upon-Tweed to north Lincolnshire. That is simply too large an area in which reasonably to expect the maintenance of a local presence. How, in practice, will an already undermanned and overstretched TA meet its commitments within the new boundaries?
I should like to end on a local note. The Duchess of Kent's military hospital in Catterick, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the Leader of the Opposition, has provided years of medical care—primarily to constituents of my right hon. Friend, although some of mine have been treated there, too. Since the hospital will no longer be available to treat civilian patients, they will have to be treated at national health service hospitals. The extra burden placed on those NHS hospitals is calculated by the local hospital trust—this is a conservative estimate—to be £500,000 a year. Do the Minister and his Government consider it appropriate that that shortfall should be met by the defence budget? Could he possibly raise that this week with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, so that the Chancellor may include details of the necessary arrangements in his statement next week?
§ Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)
I am grateful that, as we approach Remembrance Sunday, we should have this opportunity to reflect on the past achievements of the Army and to think about their future role, so that we can ensure that our security considerations and obligations at home and abroad are adequately catered for in the months and years ahead. This debate gives us an opportunity to remember the very difficult roles that we expect our troops to perform around the globe. They have faced tremendous risks during the troubles in Northern Ireland and made extraordinary efforts in Bosnia in quite appalling conditions. They are stationed in 392 Cyprus and, at this very moment in Belize, 700 troops are preparing to face the wrath of hurricane Mitch. In addition, many others are on attachments and missions around the world.
Our Army has a tremendous and proud history which has earned it respect and admiration around the globe—but times are changing. It is surely clear that, today, we need an Army that is capable of responding to new challenges. That is why we must welcome the concept of jointery, and the better co-ordination of all three services that will result from the strategic defence review. It is why we should support the principle of two combat divisions, and the proposals that the Minister has already described to put our brigades on a cycle of training and high readiness for deployment that will enable them to meet the demands that we make on them.
We need to recognise both how overstretched the Army has become, and the dangers that still exist, while acknowledging the Government's efforts to address them. Conservatives are sometimes tempted to claim a monopoly in patriotism and in support for our forces—but I wonder how a party that left our Army so under-resourced, and under strength to the tune of 5,000 personnel, can hold its head up. With its track record, how on earth does the Conservative party dare accuse any of us of humbug?
I see that the chief accuser, the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), is off causing mischief elsewhere; his was a short contribution to the debate.
§ Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)
As the hon. Gentleman has made that challenge, and to give him time to get back to his text, may I tell him that it is easy for the Conservative party to hold up its head over its record on defence because, throughout the cold war, when the Labour party and three quarters of its parliamentary representatives wanted us to get rid of our strategic nuclear deterrent in a one-sided way, the Conservative party, alone of the three main parties in the House, stood up for the nuclear deterrent, backed NATO and saw off the threat from the Soviet Union?
§ Mr. McCabe
I am grateful for that intervention, but I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that what I am interested in is a broad-based British Army under the control of the Government, owing allegiance to the Queen; I am not interested in the military wing of the Conservative party. To be against nuclear destruction does not mean that one lacks patriotism or a concern for defence.
As I said, I welcome our new priorities for conflict—[Laughter.] I obviously lost the thread of that part of my text, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I had better start again. I welcome our new priorities for conflict prevention and defence diplomacy, and I am mindful of the comments by the Chief of the Defence Staff, who said that our reform of the militarygives us a stability that we haven't had before and will be very well received by the Servicemen and Servicewomen who are currently serving".
Change can be painful. I am aware that there is some concern about the proposed reduction in the Airborne Brigade, but surely what we want is a functional Army, not forces that live solely on past achievements. If the last major parachute combat drop was in Suez back in 1956, a good case can be made for restructuring, even where there are long and proud traditions.
393 I acknowledge that there must be changes in the Territorial Army as our priorities shift. I support the idea of improving the deployability and usability of our TA reserves. We also need to find out why 30 per cent. of TA recruits leave within a year of joining, and what can be done to improve that position.
I hope that it is made abundantly clear that our aim is to reform the Territorial Army, and that there is no question of easing it out of existence. [Interruption.] I think that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) did not hear me, so I am happy to repeat what I said. I hope that we can make it abundantly clear that our aim is to reform the TA, not to ease it out of existence.
§ Mr. McCabe
I know that the idea attracts criticism, both within the regular Army and from other quarters. One of the problems is that some of the Territorial Army's supporters can at times be more obsessed with tradition than with functional use. None the less, it has a valuable role to play. Its efforts in Bosnia have been outstanding, and I know of the rich range of skills that its members possess and the value that they add to so many areas of life, because of my own contacts with the 5th (Warwickshire) battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. Now it is my turn to get in a plug for my own Territorial Army outfit, although in fairness I must confess that it is based in the neighbouring constituency of the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor).
§ Mr. Gray
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for repeating his earlier comments, but it was not that I had failed to hear them; it was simply that I could hardly credit my ears. Apparently he believes that a reduction from 59,000 active members of the Territorial Army to what, if we remove the officer training corps, and with the removal of virtually all the infantry and yeomanry, is effectively 37,000, is something other than doing away with that part of the Territorial Army. I am grateful to him for his support of his local regiment—but it will disappear.
§ Mr. McCabe
I simply repeat the point that I was making, that we must look at the functional use. Tradition is important, but it does not deal with defence.
I should like to see more imaginative use made of the Territorial Army. It could have a clear role in supporting local authorities during emergencies and disasters—[Interruption.] With respect, the Army is not engaged solely in defence, vital though that may be.
We should also think about whether the Territorial Army could have a role to play in the new deal, especially with the environmental task force. I wonder whether there is a prospect of considering some kind of voluntary national service, in which young unemployed people could train to acquire new skills to enable them to help both locally and, perhaps, abroad. We must stop thinking about the Territorial Army as it existed in the past.
§ Mr. McCabe
No, thank you.
394 We must stop adhering solely to previous traditions. We have to think about functional use for the future.
As I said earlier, I welcome the Government's reforms, and there are areas in which there may be scope for further reform. I wonder whether, at the end of the cold war, we can really justify continuing to station one quarter of our army on the continent. I have doubts as to the value of that.
It is also important to think about personnel arrangements in the Army. Other hon. Members have said that it is important to equip the Army properly, but it is the quality of the personnel that gives our forces their strength, and we must ensure that the pay and conditions of service reflect their high value and the high esteem in which we hold them. I also hope that we will tackle the issues that other hon. Members have raised about the plight of veterans.
We need to deal with other aspects of life in the Army. I welcome the proposals to increase the number of posts available to women, and to set new targets to boost recruitment for our country's ethnic minorities. I want to see an Army that genuinely reflects British society. That has to mean more women and more members of ethnic minorities at all levels. In particular, as the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) said, it must mean an end to the situation in which the officer corps is largely confined to white men from a particular class and stratum of society. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South gave the figures earlier. Hon. Members may choose to say that what I say is not true, but the figures are there.
I would like to see an end to the horrendous bullying and brutality to which some recruits are subjected. All of us must have been appalled at the murder of the young Danish tour guide in Cyprus by British soldiers, and by the occasional loutish and brutish behaviour of British soldiers in Ayia Napa, which is more reminiscent of the behaviour of football hooligans than British Army personnel. Such behaviour disfigures our Army and undermines the wonderful efforts of our soldiers around the globe. Let us make sure that, in future, there is no place for racism, other forms of discrimination, bullying or thuggery in our forces.
As we approach Remembrance Sunday, I want to remember the good things that our forces do, and have done, and the tremendous sacrifices that they have made. I want to look forward to a modern, efficient Army that reflects our society and plays a major peacekeeping and crisis-management role wherever it is needed. Finally, I should like to see a Regular Army that can be supported and reinforced by TA reserves whose effort and commitment are properly recognised. However, it must be a TA that is based on modern requirements. There is no point in nostalgically looking at what used to be.
§ 7 pm
§ Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) got so confused reading out his speech that he almost did not appear to have written it. I have recently been with the Army on the armed forces parliamentary scheme with two Labour Members—the hon. Members for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) and for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow)—and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young). The purpose of 395 the scheme is to ensure that those who have had too little contact with the Army in the past spend some time with the Army at the sharp end and understand what the Army is all about. The hon. Member for Hall Green might like to get in touch with the former Member of Parliament Sir Neil Thorne and volunteer to join the scheme next year. He would then understand the staggering ignorance that he has displayed this evening.
§ Mr. McCabe
First, I would be more than happy to join the scheme, but I am currently busy with the West Midlands police parliamentary liaison scheme, which teaches the same sort of thing. There is a limit on my time, as there is on that of most hon. Members. Secondly, it is dangerous and arrogant of the hon. Gentleman to assume that I know nothing about the Army, or to dare to suggest that my words are not my own.
§ Mr. Hawkins
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman wrote his speech, even though he got confused in reading out a lot of it.
There is a memory loss among some Labour Members in relation to the cold war, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) made clear in an earlier intervention. Labour Members have suggested repeatedly that the previous Conservative Government were mistaken in making the changes in "Options for Change" and "Front Line First" without apparently understanding that it was absolutely necessary to recast our armed forces in light of the collapse of the Warsaw pact. We are criticising the Government's suggestion in the strategic defence review that huge further cuts are needed, especially in our reserve forces.
I am staggered that Labour Members such as the hon. Member for Hall Green should suggest that there could be scope for even further cuts, and that there is a need to damage further the traditions of the armed forces. It is clear to those of us who have spent time with the forces, who come from services families or who, like me, have sons who are cadets, that morale is crucial to recruitment and retention. I hope that the Minister will concede that when he winds up. The cap badge traditions are vital to morale, and the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the traditions of the British Army can be carelessly tossed away is staggeringly complacent. I hope that, on reflection, he will realize—as he will if he reads the excellent Defence Committee report in response to the strategic defence review—that his views were sadly misconceived.
I want to refer briefly to some constituency issues. I must apologise to my hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench and to the Minister for the fact that a long-standing commitment means that I will not be present to hear the winding up speeches. However, my constituency concerns go much wider than purely parochial matters.
As the Minister understands, anyone who cares about the British Army is concerned about what happens in Camberley. The Minister will be aware that I have referred to the issue a number of times at Defence questions in the past 18 months. It is not acceptable for Ministers to give both oral and written answers in which they tell my constituents that they will be able to announce what will happen to the staff college buildings in Camberley "shortly", but still—after 18 months—not to give an answer.
396 I hear that there is now a prospect that the joint doctrine centre may go into the staff college buildings. I hope that, at long last, the Minister will be able to confirm whether that is the case. If he is not able to say so tonight, perhaps he or one of his right hon. Friends would confirm that in writing. My constituents are concerned that that important listed building is being allowed to stay empty and unused. It is important that a proper, high-profile military use is found for it.
I want to hear from the Minister about the future of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency and the disposals that are anticipated in relation to DERA land. Once again, if he cannot deal with that matter tonight, I hope that he will write to me subsequently.
My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne)—in a brief intervention during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh)—referred to the crucial role of the Territorial Army in terms of keeping the Army in the public eye. Those of us who have spent time with the armed forces know that everybody in the TA is well aware of the vital role they fulfil in terms of making the public aware of the forces. I realise that the present Labour Cabinet may be the first Cabinet ever not to have a single member with service in the armed forces, but I have no doubt that all Ministers are aware of the TA's vital role in keeping the Army in the public eye. If the TA changes—and if the Government's proposals in the strategic defence review are carried out—it will be much more difficult for it to perform that role.
The Government's proposals suggest that the TA might exist only in our major cities and will not have a national geographical "footprint", as it is called. The suggestion is that it will not be visible in rural and suburban areas, and that is a damaging prospect. I heard on the grapevine that one of the TA units earmarked for possible closure and disposal of its site is in Camberley, and that is extremely worrying for my constituents. I hope that, on reflection—and once all the consultations are in—the Government will decide to reverse their damaging proposals for a severe cut in the TA, as announced in the strategic defence review.
The fitness of the private soldier is also important for recruitment, retention and morale. The couch potato culture that sadly exists among many of our teenagers became evident during our visit to the Army training regiment in Pirbright, next door to my constituency. Much longer training periods are required and the training regiment even has remedial platoons because so many young soldiers cannot attain the relatively modest initial fitness levels. The Minister knows that that has a serious effect on training. The health of recruits is vital. Sadly, there have been a number of tragedies recently during training, which concerns the Minister as it should concern every hon. Member. I hope that we can ensure more fitness training and a gradual improvement in the standard of recruit fitness, which will help to prevent such tragedies.
The Minister will want to work closely with colleagues in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, but they made a catastrophic error when they allowed their colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment to remove sport from the core national curriculum. Only with sport in the core curriculum, as it was under the previous Government, can we ensure that 397 tomorrow's recruits are of the required fitness standard, which is vital if we are to develop the sort of young soldiers that we need for the future.
Finally, I hope that what was undoubtedly a Treasury-led, rather than a foreign policy-led, strategic defence review, with many of the deals that were struck behind closed doors based on flogging off Territorial Army centres, will be reconsidered. I hope that we will have an opportunity to build the sort of Army that we need for the 21st century, not the sort that is based on cuts to do a deal with the Treasury.
§ Mr. Andrew Reed (Loughborough)
I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). Obviously, the parliamentary scheme has taught him to make a tactical withdrawal at the first sign of fire, as he moved from Blackpool, South to the relative safety of Surrey before May 1997.
I have much in common with the hon. Gentleman and would like to add to his comments about fitness levels. As he knows, we share many views on the importance of sport to our nation, in particular for young people. I am delighted that, as from 1 October, we have ended—hopefully—the sale of school playing fields. We lost so many under the Conservative Government and that contributed greatly to the present level of unfitness.
I am relieved that my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Mr. Ennis) and for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) have withdrawn. They gave us Edinburgh versus York and, as the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough, is rather large and was sitting next to me, he convinced me that York is a sensible place for the relocation when it happens.
I have no direct experience of the armed forces, although there is a Territorial Army base in my constituency and I was a member of the local authority there when large cuts were made in Leicestershire and the Charnwood borough under the previous Administration. We lost an airfield, a military base in Melton, the pay office in Wigston and a signals base in Charnwood. Cuts are not new and our armed forces have always been the subject of redistribution and change.
I have no family history in the armed forces, although my grandfather served in the first world war, but I am pleased to take part in this debate. Usually there is much cross-party consensus in such debates and it was a shame that some of that was destroyed today by the contribution of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. People often see us shouting across the Chamber at each other and it is important that on occasions like this we can have a sensible and rational debate about the future of our armed forces.
The Minister will be pleased to know that I am not here to lobby on behalf of the TA base in my constituency, although I am confident that the newly refurbished base, which cost £1.2 million between 18 months and two years ago, will be saved. I am confident that one would not want to waste such recently expended public money by closing it down and I understand that there are no proposals to do so. 398 As with other organisations, the Army is people based and I am glad to say that the language in the strategic defence review reflected that. We have heard much about the people's this and the people's that in the past 18 months and Conservative Members may be a little tired of hearing it, but I want to concentrate on the people-based armed forces that we need. I admit that I do not have great knowledge of the armed forces, but my experience as an outsider—seeing what is going wrong with the recruitment and retention of the next generation—may help a little. Those looking in from the outside recognise the great reputation and tradition of our armed forces. Everyone recognises the need for the cap badge mentality. People in the Army are proud of their traditions and their regimental flags. Their history is part of the tradition of the regiment and it is important that even Labour Members should recognise that.
People throughout the world recognise the tremendous reputation of our armed forces. We often say that our troops are some of the best in the world and perhaps it is true. Despite American bravado—too often evident on the international scene—about American troops being the best, our troops far outstrip them and I think that we can honestly say that they are the best. That is due to the fact that they are highly skilled, motivated and professional. However, we must recognise the importance not merely of front-line troops but of all those in the background, including those in support and logistics and civilians working in the Ministry of Defence.
I want to ensure that we not only demonstrate the sort of career that the armed forces can offer, but concentrate on the way in which the forces have treated people. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) mentioned one reason why people may be fearful to join the armed forces—the way in which we have treated our Gulf war veterans and those who suffered because of nuclear tests. Some of my constituents have Gulf War syndrome, or whatever we have decided to call it. I urge the Minister to do everything possible to establish what illnesses are a result of that syndrome. So many questions still need to be answered. I urge him to outline what resources are being committed to the studies. Are they totally and genuinely open to scrutiny? What is the timetable for responses? I hope that it will be some time in the new year.
Our Army is people-based. Competition in the open labour market is considerable. What do the armed forces offer people compared with the other opportunities placed before them at the job centre? What can the Army uniquely offer individuals? We need to listen to the reasons why people are not joining the armed forces. It is not merely a knee-jerk reaction. We must genuinely understand the blocks that prevent the ordinary people whom we need to recruit from joining. There is no quick-fix solution, and nothing that has been said this evening will change that. A long-term commitment must be made. We all understand the figures; we know about overstretch and the idea that members of the armed forces are overworked.
We must ensure that joining the armed forces is a viable option not only for individuals but for their families, particularly in terms of welfare and education. The strategic defence review included initiatives for the coming years, but we need to move quickly. I was pleased by the inclusion of education and the key role given to lifelong learning—we must recognise the importance of 399 vocational and academic qualifications. When I have spoken to people in the armed forces, I have been impressed by their skills and the level of vocational qualifications that they have attained, which should be marketable in the open labour market when they decide to leave the forces.
I make a plea—I recognise that we may not be able to solve this problem in the short term—for those of my constituents who have left the armed forces with good qualifications and who may be confident in themselves, but who lack the ability to make the transition back into civilian life. We do not want to encourage too many people to leave, but we must recognise that many find the transition difficult. People also fear that they will become trapped in the forces and may not be able to move on. I want the forces to be able to retain people with skills, but we must do something to make the transition out of the forces easier.
Another problem, which I have discovered from talking to constituents who, for one reason or another, have not joined the Army, is the perception of the attitudes that are held in the forces. We have heard this evening about racism and sexism and the question of homosexuals in the forces. I find it frightening that, out of 14,000 officers, only 140 are from our black and Asian communities. In Loughborough, the TA has been reasonably successful in recruiting people from those communities, but it has been a small trickle. About 6,000 or 7,000 people from the ethnic minorities live within a mile or so of the TA base in Loughborough, yet we see only a handful of black and Asian faces in the organisation. We have a long way to go in increasing confidence among members of the ethnic minorities, so that they feel safe in the armed forces.
I should also mention sexism and the way in which we deal with the issue of homosexuals in the armed forces. I was slightly disturbed to hear the argument that, because of homophobia, members of the armed forces do not want homosexuals to join. We should recognise that, throughout history, homosexuals have played an important role in the armed forces but have been forced to keep their sexuality quiet.
§ Mr. Gray
This touchy-feely stuff is all very well, but does not the hon. Gentleman remember that the soldier's primary job is to close with the Queen's enemies and kill them? The hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) may laugh, but that is the soldier's primary role. The best people to recruit to the Army are not necessarily those who reflect society in Britain today but those who will be qualified to close with the enemy and to kill him.
§ Mr. Reed
I am not sure which people the hon. Gentleman is suggesting are not able to do that job. Many black and Asian people played a vital role fighting for our nation in the second world war, and many homosexual individuals died in that war. I have no truck with his argument—people from those groups can serve happily in the armed forces, and it is plainly wrong to suggest otherwise.
Sexism is still a problem, as, for young individuals, is bullying. Conservative Members may talk about touchy-feely stuff, but it is not Labour Members who go on bonding weekends. Conservative Members spend much more time at weekends touching and feeling one another than we do, perhaps because the Opposition 400 Benches are not sufficiently full—Conservative Members cannot touch and feel one another during the week, so they feel that they have to go away at weekends to do so. The Labour Benches are always so full that the touchy-feely stuff comes day after day—[Interruption.] Well, on most occasions.
We must take major strides if the armed forces are to be ready for the 21st century. I agree that that entails our having a killing machine—call it what one will—but other skills are required as, for most of the time, the armed forces are involved in peacekeeping missions around the world. The armed forces must reflect society—if they exist to protect society, they must represent it. It would be dangerous if, in this multicultural Britain, only a thin strata of society fought at the front.
I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider all aspects of recruitment and retention, to improve what the job offers and the facilities available for families and the education of children. We must put at the forefront the needs of the armed forces, but we must also ensure that families feel part of the forces. As Members of Parliament, we are only too aware of families being torn apart—it happens to us weekly—but the way in which the armed forces treat the family, which can play an important supportive role, is sometimes wholly wrong.
We must ensure that there is zero tolerance of racism and sexism and that the armed forces are ready to face the challenges of the 21st century. We must be supportive, especially to the cadet movement, which is extremely strong in my constituency, as that will encourage people to be ready and motivated to join the armed forces.
This debate is not only about the TA; the problems are much deeper than some of us want to recognise. The Army is not an attractive option for many young people leaving schools, and the challenges exist for us all, not only for the ministerial team. As has been said, we are advocates for the armed forces in our constituencies, and we must make them an attractive option for future generations.
§ Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed), as I want to deal with a number of the issues that he raised, including the ethos of the Army, and the difficulties that arise for it in dealing with women and homosexuals.
First, I should declare an interest. I was a regular soldier for 12 years, and my father was a regular soldier for his whole career, as were both my grandfathers—by background, I am soaked in the Army. I hope that what I say will reflect some instinctive understanding of an institution of which I am immensely proud and which I am desperate to protect—I am anxious that it should not be damaged by any Administration.
§ Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)
Should not the hon. Gentleman declare a further interest? He was a special adviser to the Conservative Govemment who imposed some of the biggest cuts on our armed forces in their entire history.
§ Mr. Blunt
I hope that the hon. Gentleman has noticed that the cold war came to an end during the Conservatives' time in office. It would be totally indefensible to expect defence expenditure now to be 401 about £33 billion, which is what it would be if it consumed the same proportion of gross domestic product that it did during the cold war.
§ Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)
My recollection of that period is that Labour Members barracked us for a peace dividend to be yielded at the earliest opportunity.
§ Mr. Blunt
My right hon. Friend makes the point with the utmost eloquence.
Let me correct the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) further: I began my time as a special adviser to the Ministry of Defence in February 1993, and very shortly after that, we started adding back battalions and regiments of armoured reconnaissance to make up for some of the cuts following "Options for Change", which, at the edges, made judgments that were wrong, especially on infantry numbers and the amount of armoured reconnaissance. I am happy to concede that the strategic defence review has taken the process further, and made further welcome adjustments.
§ Mr. Hawkins
On the peace dividend from the end of the cold war, does my hon. Friend agree that the main reason for the collapse of the Warsaw pact was the resolve shown by a Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and United States President Ronald Reagan, and that, had the policies then and for many years advocated by Labour been followed, the Warsaw pact would probably be alive and well today?
§ Mr. Blunt
I wholly agree.
European defence should have been debated a week ago, when we discussed the strategic defence review. At 4.30 pm last Tuesday, when many hon. Members were debating the review, the Prime Minister was briefing journalists, including Mr. Philip Webster of The Times, on a major European Union defence initiative that he intended to float past fellow Heads of Government at Pörtschach.
Yesterday, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin) told us of Chancellor Schröder's reaction to the proposals, but the House has not heard the proposals themselves. I made that point to the enforcer, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, and asked whether it was a proper co-ordination of policy across Government that the Prime Minister should be briefing journalists on a major defence policy in Europe, with the Defence Ministers then in the House seemingly in ignorance of the proposals. I had a most interesting reply. He told me that the Prime Minister was not briefing Philip Webster.
When I wrote to the Minister for the Cabinet Office to ask him to correct the facts in the House, he replied:the Prime Minister was interviewed on the record by UK and European journalists, including Philip Webster… The interview covered ideas that might be considered with EU partners with a view to more effective defence co-operation. But, as I reflected in my reply, there was no question, as you alleged, of the Prime Minister briefing either Philip Webster or other journalists on a 'major revision to defence policy'.402 There we have the answer. When is a briefing not a briefing? When it is an interview on the record. It remains a disgrace that no Minister has made a statement in the House about the proposals.
§ Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)
It was indeed discourteous of the Prime Minister to have talked about a European dimension for defence while we were debating the review in the House. It has long been Liberal Democrat policy that there should be a European dimension to our defence. The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) made a lot of comments about how the Government are dealing with the issue, but how do the Tories want to deal with it? Are they interested in a European dimension or not?
§ Mr. Blunt
Those points would be better put to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who speaks for the party, but I am grateful for the hon. Lady's support, and I hope that she will sign my early-day motion condemning the Prime Minister's actions, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has already done. I do not have time to answer her question.
§ Mr. Brooke
Does my hon. Friend recall that, in the early 1950s, the decision by Sir Anthony Eden to commit four divisions to the British Army on the Rhine was taken specifically in support of a European defence agreement that then failed to get through the French Assembly?
§ Mr. Blunt
Indeed. Conservative Administrations since the second world war have a proud record of supporting European defence, since 1949 through the institution of NATO. As the Minister will no doubt remind us, the late Ernest Bevin's greatest achievement was helping to found the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
I thoroughly welcome the fact that the Government put people at the centre of the strategic defence review. The supporting essay on people quotes a member of the armed forces, I imagine, who said:If we don't look at personnel issues then the SDR will fail.I wholly agree with Defence Ministers, and with the lady or gentleman who said that. I welcome this evening's news about recruiting figures, but that is the easiest part of putting overstretch right, because one can put a great deal of money into advertising campaigns and building up the recruiting structure. Retention, however, is equally, if not more, important.
The Army is the service most affected by undermanning, and the review must address the problem. I am afraid that the people measures set out in the review to try to improve retention are, frankly, pretty small beer. The review recognises the importance of the challenge. It says:They also understand that personnel policy alone cannot resolve the imbalances between wider Defence Policy, commitments and resources… If some of the proposals in our Policy for People seem modest it is only because we have promised what we can deliver. Addressing the personnel problems that affect the Armed Forces will take time, trust, and money.That is the glaring contradiction running through the review: there is not enough money to deliver the policies for people that will enable it to be a success.
403 The section on service personnel goes on to say:To provide a framework for addressing the problems we have identified, we need a comprehensive personnel strategy to take the Armed Forces into the next century. It must: incorporate all that is best in current practice…especially the ethos and values needed to support operational capability".
On the specifics of what is to be done to help retention in the Army, the review says:We also aim to improve retention with a range of new measures including: enhancements to operational welfare"—which I think means more telephone calls home—introduction of a common leave entitlement and a programme to improve standards of single living accommodation.On further inspection, it turns out that that programme involves no new money, and was under way before the review took place.
If there is no reduction in the commitment for the armed forces, overstretch and retention problems will get worse, not better. There is a glaring contradiction, because of the requirement to deliver efficiency savings of 3 per cent. each and every year for four years to make the review work.
One might hope for a miracle from the appointment of General Sir Sam Cowan as Chief of Defence Logistics, but the effort to find £2 billion a year by the fourth year by combining the logistic operations of the three armed services will mean that the search for efficiency savings will go down through every level of the budget holders, until eventually individual units in individual base locations will have to scratch around for 3 per cent. savings each and every year. I hope that hon. Members will understand the scale of the task. It is equivalent to having to save 100,000 jobs in supporting the armed services. The armed forces have been set an enormous task, which has the potential, I fear, to destroy the policy for people that every hon. Member supports.
I am most concerned about the impact on the quality of life of service men and people in the Army. The Royal Armoured Corps is taking part in a conference, with commanding officers addressing subjects such as "How can we put the fun back in?", but what happens when one searches for yet more efficiency savings on top of the £6 billion a year efficiency savings that have already been made in the past 10 years? What happens to money for adventure training, for single service men's accommodation, and for people to be able to mount expeditions, which we want as many young officers as possible to undertake? All those things get squeezed.
When young officers, for example, plan exercises, they will find that there is no money for transport, and that the spares allocation is insufficient to support the exercises that they want to take their soldiers on. All those things impact on the quality of life and motivation of service men and Army officers and soldiers.
That financial pressure on the day-to-day administration of service men's life is administered the coup de grace by political correctness. That is where the strategic defence review is absolutely right to address the issue of ethos. We have to protect it, but the ethos of the Army is changing.
One of the problems is the fear of the chain of command being politically incorrect and prepared to stand up for the young men and women who are under its command. There are all sorts of issues. The one that I 404 want to address is that of integrating women into the armed forces and how difficult a challenge that is in units where it is happening, particularly the Royal Artillery, which, in the fighting echelon, is the furthest forward in relation to women making their presence felt.
What Ministers must understand is what the Army is for in peacetime. It is about training for war. What we try to ensure is that, when soldiers go into battle, they are inoculated against battle shock and the squalid, appalling conditions that they will find in war. We can replicate those conditions in peace, so that, when they face those conditions, they have trained for them and are still able to operate.
That is why our elite units are trained so toughly and to such a high standard. We are able to do that with units such as the Special Air Services, the Parachute Regiment and the Royal Marines, because we select an elite to undertake that quality of training; but the rest of the Army has to strive for those standards.
If we then impose on the rest of the Army a politically correct vision of how they should carry out their training, we are hobbling young officers and junior non-commissioned officers who are trying to achieve the highest training standards. They become frightened to lead and to manage, because they see their senior officers taking cover under what one might describe as a politically correct umbrella. They take cover behind regulations.
We all know what it means to run into a jobsworth. The more regulations and political correctness are imposed on the Army and other armed services, the more difficult it becomes for young men and women to lead, to take the initiative and to achieve the standards for which our armed forces are peerless in the world.
I use one example, of which I hope the Minister will take note, of one young man who showed initiative. His name is Major Milos Stankovic. One of the few Serbo-Croat speakers in the British Army, he worked for General Sir Michael Rose, among other commanders, directly in Bosnia. Major Stankovic's job, with a Serb father, strangely enough, was to win the confidence of Mr. Karadzic and General Mladic, and to get close to them, to enable General Rose to talk with authority on them and to find out what their intentions were.
We all know that the Americans had it in for General Sir Michael Rose. It appears that the CIA picked up various communications of Major Stankovic when he was carrying out his duties, doing his job for the British Army with initiative, possibly taking that initiative to the limits that a young officer should. When he came home to the UK to go on an Army staff course, he was arrested during a lecture. He has spent more than a year being investigated by the Ministry of Defence police, which is plainly totally out of its depth in conducting an investigation that will, I assume, involve signals intelligence, the CIA, MI5 and MI6 and goodness knows what other agencies.
If after a year—frankly, if after a month—a case could not be brought against Major Stankovic, it should be dropped. This is a young man who was doing his duty for his country and whose career has been sacrificed because the MOD police have been unable to carry out a proper investigation.
I use that as an example of the sort of initiative that is shown by young men and young officers, but then the umbrella goes up and everyone hides from the 405 responsibility, saying, "It is all sub judice. We cannot do anything about it." That is what happens when young men show initiative and their service and Ministers do not protect them. What message does it send to other members of the armed forces?
Homosexsuality poses a serious threat to the future ethos of the armed forces. There is an existing modus vivendi. Of course there are homosexuals in the armed forces, but, "Don't ask, don't tell," is effectively what we have. If their homosexuality is invisible to other people, it is not an issue, but the moment we change the rules and impose a right for people to be overtly homosexual in the armed forces, in platoons of infantry and in ships, we have begun to undermine the essential fabric that goes to make up the necessary ethos that makes men fight for each other. Of course, we are most concerned with the fighting echelon, where that necessary team work has to exist. I urge hon. Members to listen to the armed forces, because they are the ones whose ethos is under threat from this change.
If Ministers proceed with this change, the one thing that they will have to deliver is single service men's accommodation of en-suite bathrooms, and single accommodation for every service man in the armed forces. That is going to be a fabulously big bill. That would be an absolute minimum requirement.
§ Mr. Blunt
I am not for a moment making that suggestion. There is no equivalence between racism and homosexuality. It is impertinent of the hon. Gentleman to suggest that there is.
Having dealt with my worries about the threats to the ethos and the policy of those who serve in the Regular Army, I turn to the Territorial Army. When I heard the Under-Secretary speak this morning, I wondered what planet he was on. He told us that the proposals for the TA were good news. That contrasts with the view of the vice-chairman of the council of the Territorial Auxiliary and Volunteer Reserve Association, Colonel Putnam, who told the House of Commons Select Committee on Defence:the announcement of the SDR was a black day for the Territorial Army and we are now very concerned as to what the final structure will look like.Ministers should understand that their proposals for the TA are strategically, politically and administratively wrong. In the words of the Defence Committee, unanimously supported by all its members—including seven Labour Members—they are "misconceived".
I received a letter from Colonel Putnam yesterday. Ministers should be aware of what is happening to members of TAVRA and the TA as they try to put Government proposals into action. Colonel Putnam wrote:Over the last two weeks the situation has deteriorated in that 'horse trading' is now being conducted over the identification and selection of TA centres for sale to meet the now reinforced requirements of proceeds from the sale of TA Centres hitting the target for the budget for the fiscal year 1999/2000.406The rush for selection is now 'carving up' the plans made and submitted to date. In other words, there is pressure to identify TA Centres that can be sold quickly, ignoring the footprint and defence solutions. Whilst this confirms clearly that fiscal pressures are driving the TA and other elements of the SDR, it has placed everyone involved in the process both within this Association and the chain of command in a position where we can no longer be honest with our Volunteers, our MPs, employers, civic authorities and all others interested in defence and the Reserves.That is where the appalling proposals for the TA have led. I hope that, if the Minister cannot rescue the situation, he will at least ameliorate it.
I conclude by becoming a little parochial. I am concerned about what is happening to the Territorial Army in the south-east. Current proposals suggest the TA will have 970 all ranks across four counties in the south-east. That is a reduction of 48 per cent. If the proposals were based properly on a footprint of our population, the south-east would have some 2,756 volunteers for the TA, instead of the dismal number proposed. Colonel Putnam's letter concludes:we are in danger of having been forced to design a TA, particularly for the Infantry and Royal Engineers, that is not viable as it will lack opportunity which will increase turnover and will not, over a period of time, be worth joining.In last week's debates on the strategic defence review, the hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Alexander) hoped that the engineering unit in his constituency would survive. The proposals will take five regiments of engineers out of the TA order of battle—and that is not to mention the proposals to destroy the yeomanry and the infantry. If stories about the appalling names to be given to successor units—such as the Home Counties battalion—are true, I fear that they will lack any cohesion or esprit de corps.
§ Mr. Swayne
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that some motive may lie behind these suggestions? In a few years, when the turnover and the number of vacancies on the establishment have increased, Ministers will be able to get rid of the remainder, because it is under strength.
§ Mr. Blunt
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We should have learnt that lesson already from what has happened to the Regular Army in trying to manage the reductions from "Options for Change". There was a widespread impression that the Army no longer needed recruits because it was downsizing. In fact, the redundancies that took place were intended to ensure that the Army retained a proper structure of age, rank and experience. We are in danger of sending the same message about the TA. if the units cannot offer people the loyalty of serving alongside their mates, that will be highly deleterious.
The TA centre in Reigate is going to close, along with the field troop of 127 Field Squadron, which is part of one of the five regiments of engineers that will go. That will have an effect on the associated Army cadet force hut in Reigate. Lieutenant Graham Cromer, who leads that ACF detachment, has told me the benefits that the ACF receives from collocation with the TA. They include support from instructors, visits to see adult members of the TA at work, seeing equipment, and the opportunity to train with the TA. The ACF and TA can also jointly mount recruiting exercises. Reigate has a. 22 range administered by the ACF, and used by other ACF detachments and Reigate grammar school combined cadet force. All that will go if the site is sold.
407 The Defence Committee was told that it would cost £130,000 on average to replace each cadet hut. If 150 units are threatened, that adds up to an enormous sum, for which no provision has been made. While they wait for their huts to be rebuilt, the units will begin to disintegrate. The ACF lives on the enthusiasm of its volunteer leaders, both military and civilian. When they are dispossessed, the Government's good intentions and the words of the Under-Secretary about the value of the ACF as a youth movement will fall apart.
I am sorry to have detained the House so long, but I hope that hon. Members will understand. The Army is an institution of which I am fiercely proud. I want it to be protected. Its fate lies in the hands of Ministers, and particularly in those of the Minister of State. We look to him to ensure that, when his term of office ends, the condition of the Army is at least as good it is today—if not better.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)
I shall ask the Minister some brief questions on personnel management matters, but first I should reply to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), who implied that no one on the Labour Benches or their families had any military experience. I am proud that my father, who served with an infantry regiment, was awarded the Military medal for an act of bravery in the field. For my part, I have the honour—which some would call dubious—of being the only Member of Parliament who served in the Royal Military police. I know that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) had some association with that fine body of men and women.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) has left the Chamber, because her intervention on the European dimension was interesting. I believe that circumstances will force the European Union to develop a defence dimension because America is turning in on itself. One day, growing pressure in the USA will result in military disengagement from European defence structures. I am sorry that no member of the Scottish National party is here because we could have been entertained to a disquisition on the founding of a Scottish army after independence next May. Perhaps we will hear more of those plans closer to then.
I have some concerns about the Government's personnel policies. I have often seen our soldiers in Northern Ireland performing their arduous duties commendably. I think that I told you not long ago, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that while in south Armagh late last year, I saw some young Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders guarding the border there in difficult circumstances. I was in the company of the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), whose constituent I am while living in London. I was proud to see those lads. I am talking about teenagers who were engaged in the war against the vicious fascist terrorists who claimed that they were conducting a military campaign. How absurd and obscene it is to argue that they were conducting a military campaign in a mature parliamentary democracy. Some of those youngsters were constituents of ours. I have seen our young soldiers in places such as Bosnia. I was proud of the way in which they too have performed their difficult task.
Speaking as an MP, and an ex-MP, I believe that our infantrymen make excellent United Nations peacekeepers. They are among the finest, alongside the Irish and others, 408 including some from impoverished countries that put up soldiers to serve in peacekeeping forces. It reflects badly on America that it fails to pay its dues to the United Nations for peacekeeping operations.
On personnel issues, I have had numerous representations from constituents and others in the west of Scotland on the Territorial Army. The decisions will have to be implemented sensibly and tactfully. Cadet forces in the west of Scotland and elsewhere in Scotland—I leave English Members to argue their case—are in the main poorly equipped. I do not blame that on a Government who have been in office for only 15 months. I made the same complaint in opposition. Young lads and lasses are dead keen to serve in the cadet force but they are given equipment that is nothing short of a disgrace. Something must be done or their enthusiasm and motivation will be blunted.
I am not too unhappy that my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Mr. Ennis) is not here. I want to engage in conflict with him on whether the major generals should be in Edinburgh or York. It makes good tactical sense for them to be in Edinburgh. I am not being biased or parochial. I am not speaking disinterestedly, but Ministers must consider closely the case for Edinburgh. I say that with all sympathy to my hon. Friends from Yorkshire.
As a young military policeman, I saw the bullying of young recruits. It still happens, unfortunately. When 17 or 18-year-olds, scores of miles from home—perhaps away from home for the first time in their lives—are bullied by non-commissioned officers or older soldiers, it is no wonder that so many quit in their first year. Not so long ago, I came across the case of a young girl soldier, a constituent of mine, who was subjected to dreadful harassment partly because of her accent. Her English corporal and squad instructor said that he could not understand her accent and made her life miserable, to the extent that she understandably quit and came back home. Every effort must be made to eliminate bullying and the bullies must receive condign punishment when convicted of such behaviour. Similarly, racial harassment must be eliminated. There is a perception in ethnic groups that youngsters in the forces are likely to suffer from such intimidatory behaviour.
Promotion must be based only on merit, talent and potential. With respect to all the ex-officers among the Conservatives, as a young national service man I had much greater respect for my regimental and company sergeant majors than for some of the chinless wonders with two pips on their shoulders. Many other ex-national service men would say the same.
The senior NCO is the backbone of any unit. No former officer can deny that fact. I thought that some of my senior NCOs were first-class people whom I would follow anywhere, even though I was a reluctant national service man; some of the officers—God forbid. I would not have crossed the street with them. Our Army must become classless. The youngster from Greenock with the west of Scotland accent should not be discriminated against and the Afro-Caribbean youngster should not be discriminated against in taking a commission and promotion into the officer ranks.
What is the Ministry of Defence's policy on offering re-engagement to soldiers convicted of the most serious crimes? Hon. Members in the previous Parliament may 409 recall that I complained about the re-engagement of Private Clegg. Have Guardsmen Fisher and Wright been offered re-engagement? Will the three young soldiers convicted of the dreadful rape and murder of a young Danish girl in Cyprus be offered it when they complete their prison sentences? I hope that the Minister can answer because I for one do not believe that soldiers convicted of heinous crimes should be re-engaged after they have served their terms of imprisonment. The forces are better off without them.
I want to speak on behalf of those young soldiers and others who took part in the nuclear tests. I am one of the very few hon. Members to have visited Maralinga in the state of South Australia. I saw the test sites and spoke to Australian veterans. While they said that their compensation was not adequate, it is reasonable to suggest to the Minister, as I did to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), that Australian ex-service men have been treated more sympathetically than our nuclear test veterans. Those veterans, whose numbers decrease all the time, should be given more sympathetic consideration by the MOD and other Departments.
More needs to be done, particularly for our young recruits. The role of the NCO is to look after his or her young recruits, and to ensure that a youngster coming into a regiment is not bullied or subjected to racial harassment. All ranks—officers and NCOs—need to be educated if we are to eliminate racial harassment and the pernicious problem of the bullying of young recruits. Much more, as I say, needs to be done by all concerned.
§ Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman). He referred to our mutual experiences in Northern Ireland. One of the incidental pleasures of serving with him on such trips is to hear of his experiences in the royal military police. The House was the better for his being able to share some of that experience with us today. He promised to be brief, and through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I can tell my colleagues on the Opposition Benches who are still waiting to speak that I shall be even briefer.
I must immediately declare an interest in that on Monday I lunched in the mess of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in the Tower of London, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King). It was the annual luncheon for the Lord Mayor of London, which goes back to the link with the City of London Fusiliers. I was not lobbied, but I cannot say whether the same was true of the member of the Government who was present—the other parliamentary guest—the Under-Secretary of State for Health.
I should not sail under false colours. I am wearing a Sapper tie, and I am proud to do so. As a schoolboy, I rose to the rank of cadet captain, and one of the proudest moments of my life was to command 600 cadets for inspection by Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks 46 years ago. I am old enough to have been trained on a drill book that instructed me on what to do with my sword in the event that I met His Majesty the King in a narrow trench.
410 I actively thought of becoming a regular soldier, but I damaged my knee in basic training for national service, and was eventually invalided out with a disability pension. Like Dr. Watson's old war wound from the Afghan wars, I still feel an occasional twinge.
When my brother, who is now a Lord Justice of Appeal, had a Sapper interview, he was asked whether he had had any relatives in the corps, and he replied, "My brother, Sir, was an acting lance corporal and my great-grand-uncle was a lieutenant general, both in the corps, and I hoped I might end up somewhere in between." I shall return to the Sappers before I conclude.
My first purpose in rising to speak is to support the Territorial Army units in my constituency. I did not speak in last week's debate on the strategic defence review, but on the second day I intervened in the opening speech of the Minister for the Armed Forces, who opened today's debate, and he gave me a helpful response, to which I shall return later.
The tradition of part-time military service in my constituency is long standing. Artillery lane in Spitalfields, on the edge of the City, goes back to a lease to an artillery company under the Tudors. In the 17th century, the Tower Ordnance and the Honourable Artillery Company both claimed that the land was theirs, and the HAC, with whom my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) has so distinguished an association, moved to its present ground in Finsbury in 1641.
At the Westminster end of my constituency, Artillery row, where Politico's now stands, is derived from butts erected there in the reign of Elizabeth. The trained bands go back to the reign of her father. They were affiliated to what is now the HAC. They were the forerunners of the militia and today's TA. Four thousand of them were inspected by Queen Elizabeth at Greenwich in 1585. Under James I, they became four regiments under the command of the Lord Mayor. Their role in the civil war is well known. William III, in renewing their charter, insisted on a continuance of the HAC link. Only in 1794 were they reorganised as the City of London militia.
Similarly, the Military Company was founded in Westminster in 1615, and was modelled on the Spitalfields Artillery Company. It was commanded by a professional soldier, and trained in three and a half acres of land acquired in the north-west part of St. Martin's field. Their service lasted well nigh a century.
Gradually, the militia and yeomanry emerged. I draw attention to a personal constituency link that goes back to my most distinguished predecessor, Charles James Fox. Despite his falling out with his erstwhile ally Edmund Burke, who had reacted against the French revolution, Fox continued to argue passionately for the maintenance of the militia as a key component of the nation's defences against the French.
I shall now encourage the House by fast forwarding two centuries to my intervention last week in a passage in the speech of the Minister for the Armed Forces in which he was discussing ethnic recruitment. My constituency TA interest lies in the London Scottish Regiment, which is historically located in Westminster, based in Horseferry road, and is now part of the London Regiment; and in the Royal Green Jackets, which is headquartered in Mayfair. Other parliamentary colleagues represent the London Regiment's drill halls in Battersea, 411 Camberwell, Hornsey, Edgware, Balham and Chelsea. Overall, the London Regiment has a 12 per cent. ethnic strength, with 9 per cent. in the London Scottish, which has a very strong expatriate element.
As to the Royal Green Jackets, 20 per cent. in the regiment's volunteer arm in London are of ethnic origin. Perhaps still more remarkable is the fact that 43 per cent. of the cadet corps in Mayfair, to whom the TA link is so important, are of ethnic origin, and half their cadet corps contingent are from single parent families or broken homes. We should all thank God for the structure, decently administered, that the Army gives to those particular young lives.
When I intervened in the Minister's speech last week, I asked him what moral the MOD drew from these statistics. He acknowledged that lessons were to be learned from this experience. Because mine is an inner-city seat, I would be exceptionally sad to see those lessons and that achievement threatened by the Government's cull of the TA. I recognise that a Mayfair property offers the same temptation for development as the training grounds in Spitalfields and St. Martin's field offered in the 17th and 18th centuries, but it would be a tragedy, given the ethnic recruiting achievement and advancement of my constituents, if those notable assets were jeopardised when ethnic recruiting is properly so important. The Horseferry road site is not a similar prize, as it is only leased to the MOD in a forerunner arrangement to the private finance initiative.
I understand that one motivation for the reforms was to establish units nearer where people live rather than where they work. I have remarked before that 22 per cent. of the employed population of Greater London work in my constituency, and my 73 Greater London parliamentary colleagues are good enough to look after the other 78 per cent. If that is the pattern of people's lives in Greater London—and if it produces the great advances in ethnic recruiting in an inner-city seat to which I have referred—then working against the grain of London behaviour constitutes a massive risk.
I want to say a loyal word on behalf of the Sappers. I have not been directly briefed by them, so the Minister may correct what may have been a wrong impression on my part, although I have received reinforcement from my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). My understanding of the review is that the third combat group is faced with a cut of half its Sapper element.
I mentioned earlier my Sapper great-grand-uncle, who became a lieutenant general. He was a bachelor who served in one imperial territory after another across the 19th century empire. I have his watercolours of the Crimea. Later, in Mauritius, where he was an early photographer, he helped build the roads, the port, the prison and the hospital. I mention that echo of more than a century ago to make the point that the Sappers are a major resource for civil works, which in civil life we would miss if the Sappers were cut to ribbons.
I feel immense vicarious pride in our soldiers. When I served in Northern Ireland, 4/5 Commando was serving in south Armagh in the winter of 1990–91, and saw its immediate next service in Iraq looking after the Kurds in the aftermath of the Gulf war. President Bush sent a four-star general to see how the military support for disadvantaged civilians was going. On his return to Brussels, the American general called Field Marshal 412 Sir Richard Vincent to say how impressed he had been with 4/5 Commando, adding that he had never seen soldiers handle civilians so sensitively. He went on to ask where we found them and where we trained them. Sir Richard replied simply, "We train them in south Armagh." God knows, we must all hope that the need for training or any activity in south Armagh is a thing of the past, but the episode is an index of the pride that I feel.
I close humbly with that legendary address by the padre to the departing battalion in the first war. He said:God go with you everywhere. I can only come as far as the station.
§ Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)
It is a privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke). I apologise for having to slip out during his distinguished speech; I know that I must have missed a great deal. It is also a privilege to have an opportunity to speak twice in a week on such an important subject as the great British Army. It is good that the Government have found time for this debate at this point in the parliamentary timetable and just before Remembrance Sunday. I can think of no better topic than the British Army to discuss at this time.
As a Welsh Member of Parliament, I am conscious of a further privilege. Wales has a fine tradition that stretches back as far as the bowmen of Gwent at the battle of Agincourt, through to those courageous receivers of the Victoria Cross at Rorke's drift and right up to today, when I believe that the Welsh Guards were part of the guard of honour for the visiting president of Argentina. That is a symbol of just how great and how professional our forces are and what a fine job they do. Mr. Simon Weston—that veteran of the Falklands war, who was so badly scarred and damaged outwardly, but inwardly is a courageous man who has done so much since the war—had positive and constructive comments to make this week on the visit of the president.
We can be optimistic about the future of the British Army following the Government's strategic defence review. In general, the review has been good news for the Army after such a long period of changes, reviews and cuts, which created a great deal of the instability and uncertainty that has affected morale in the Army. The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) referred to the low morale in the Army. I believe that it was due mostly to the way in which uncertainty affected professional men and women doing such a good job.
The truth of the matter is that yes, there was a peace dividend; there was a downsizing of our forces. I will be even more generous and say that Ministers in the Tory Government carried out those reviews with the best of intentions. However, the outcomes often bore no relationship to the intentions following the cold war. The reviews did not arrive at strategic solutions to the situation in which we found ourselves. They were a way in which to reduce the defence budget by not touching the commitments of our armed forces one iota, but cutting their resources and the wherewithal to achieve their goals in the world.
§ Mr. Smith
Not at all—for two reasons. We are providing a stable budgetary environment for a minimum of three years—something that has never been done before. More importantly, we are providing a strategic environment for our forces which will last for the next two decades. That is exactly what service personnel in the Army have been wanting to see for so long.
Previous reviews turned out to be death by a thousand cuts. You cut here, you cut there, whether it was "Options for Change" or "Front Line First". Manpower and resources were cut and our defence commitments in the world were increased. No wonder some of the boys and girls in the services suffered such a decline in morale. They were doing continuous tours of duty. They were coming back from serving in one part of the world to go and serve in Northern Ireland. No sooner were they back than they were called back again. Let me not for one minute question the professionalism and service that they provide for this country.
Let me repeat something that I said last week; it happens to be true. We have the best army in the world, and we want to keep it like that. It may not be the biggest, but it is the best. For the past 18 months, I have represented this Parliament on the North Atlantic Assembly. That gives me the privilege of visiting other NATO countries and talking regularly to parliamentarians from those countries, including the United States and Canada. I hear nothing but praise for what our services do throughout the world—for example in Bosnia, where British soldiers are leading the way. One minute they have their sleeves rolled up and are working with the local community and the next, they are manning tanks at the other end of the town or village to defend people living in that area. They provide an example to the other forces who have gone there. I hear nothing but praise for the Army and I think that it should receive nothing but praise from hon. Members on both sides of the House.
I understand the concerns about the bad publicity that some of our service personnel get. There have been damaging episodes, but let us not get it out of context. Let us not lose sight of the fact that our service personnel's conduct and behaviour is far better than the average conduct of young people in the community. Service men and women set an example to young people in the community. That is why I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Government—[Interruption.] Heckle me if you like. This is the problem, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We are talking about the British Army, and the Whips sit there heckling and trying to make fun of the services. It is disgraceful, but it is typical. Opposition Members claim to represent the interests of the British forces, but every member of the forces currently or previously serving knows damn well that he or she is always better off under a Labour Government. They are going to be better off under a Labour Government for the next 10 years.
414 We won the general election last year with a terrific mandate. Much of that mandate came from our armed forces, who had had enough of the Conservative Government. Little did we realise what damage the previous Government had done.
§ Mr. Smith
All of them. There is a better way: let us consider the legacy that we were left with. The Conservative Government cut the defence budget by almost half in real terms as a proportion of GDP during their period of office. The Conservatives cut the number of service personnel from almost 750,000 to 400,000. They made the biggest cuts ever seen in the defence capacity of this country. I would agree that all that would have been part of the peace dividend if they had reduced expenditure rationally and strategically, but they did not, and the result was overstretch, as several Opposition Members have admitted. The Labour Government inherited that overstretch, which was putting unfair pressure on personnel in the Army and the other services.
The previous Government's cuts meant that there was an absence of heavy lift capability—the ability to get our troops to the front line and support them once there. Medical services in the British forces were an absolute disgrace—almost non-existent. That was another unacceptable situation that we inherited. I could continue the list, but I do not wish to do so, because I believe that the strategic defence review has completely reversed the position.
I was delighted by the announcement last week that British service personnel will shortly wear uniforms in the community. I believe that that will make a far greater contribution to our recruitment efforts than we realise. Believe it or not, the last time I saw British service personnel in full dress uniform when off duty was when I was carrying out my responsibilities in connection with the North Atlantic Assembly in Moscow. As we walked through Red square, we saw three members of the Black Watch in full military dress—off-duty soldiers who were there as tourists. As they walked across the square, Russians flocked to look at the spectacle of some of the finest soldiers in the world—British soldiers. They were instantly recognised for what they were—Scots and soldiers. They won great praise, much to the consternation of the Red guards guarding Lenin's tomb, who were not at all happy.
Joking aside, when we see our fine young men and women, walking once again in uniform through the streets, it will give the finest example of what our forces do. That will encourage far more youngsters to recognise what the armed forces offer in terms of a career and future. I am sure that they will take advantage of those opportunities.
We have heard much about the Territorial Army—in fact, most of the speeches, with one or two fine exceptions, have been completely dominated by that subject. That is understandable: there are constituency interests throughout the country and Members of Parliament are bound to be concerned about their local 415 TA unit. However, if that is all the Opposition can question in the strategic defence review, we have little to be concerned about. How can Opposition Members question that the SDR was necessary? The nature of warfare has changed completely.
§ Mr. Paterson
As a Welsh Member of Parliament, is the hon. Gentleman not concerned about the rumours that the Royal Welsh Fusiliers will be almost eliminated as a TA unit in north Wales and that north Wales will be denuded of an Army presence?
§ Mr. Smith
The honest answer is, yes, I would be concerned, if such a decision undermined the new part the Territorial Army is to play in our strategic military role. Because of our fine military and regimental traditions, we in Wales have one of the highest recruitment rates to the Regular Army in the United Kingdom. An important military consideration within the terms of the SDR was the need to reorientate the role of the TA, and I know that such factors will be considered in the consultations that are taking place.
I believe that the thinking is that the two battalions—the two great cap badges—will be kept in Wales, north and south, although, as a result of the restructuring, they may be cut back in terms of company numbers within those battalions. When restructuring, quite rightly, takes place in line with the strategic defence review, I believe that the viability of the two regiments will remain to ensure that, in line with Government thinking, we maintain the same high levels of recruitment in Wales that are of such benefit to the Regular Army. I am confident that, within the terms of reference of the SDR, the Government will take into account those serious arguments and not the spurious arguments advanced today.
Under the review, the Army has to be restructured to provide it with a relevant role for the future, and not the partially irrelevant role it has played for the past 10 years, preparing for a war on the eastern plains of Germany—the wrong place, now that the boundaries of Europe have changed—that will not happen in the foreseeable future. The Army must be able to play a leading role in the world by being able to react quickly and to project power rapidly to trouble spots in support of international initiatives.
§ Mr. Hancock
Before the hon. Gentleman moves away from the subject of the TA in Wales, I am sure that he will get the support of every hon. Member if his premonition—which appears to be well informed—about the end result in Wales is fulfilled. In that case, I am sure that he will be the first to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) on his campaign to preserve the TA in Wales. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will give heartfelt support to my hon. Friend's efforts to restore some credibility to the British Army in Wales, which will help the Labour Government.
§ Mr. Smith
Wales has done well from the strategic defence review in general. I have no idea what the final 416 outcome will be for the territorials, but I am confident that, within the terms of the review, we shall retain our battalions in Wales as viable entities.
Finally, I turn to a further benefit to Wales that may emerge from the review. Several hon. Members referred to the withdrawal of forces from Germany and the shortage of training locations in the United Kingdom. I tell Ministers that training facilities are available in the Principality, where forces relocating to the United Kingdom would be more than welcome. We are able to house military personnel and provide facilities for some of their activities.
The British Army and our other forces have a fine tradition. I am a former aircraftman and served alongside regular soldiers, and I have seen just how great they are. I confidently predict that, in the next 10 years, they will be even greater and an asset of which the United Kingdom can be proud. I should like to think that, on both sides of the House, hon. Members will be able to unite in ensuring that the strategic defence review is implemented fully, so that our forces may prosper in the future.
§ Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)
The persistent theme in today's debate, and in last week's debate on the strategic defence review, has very much been the future of the Territorial Army. One of my concerns about the TA's future has been the somewhat secretive nature of the consultation exercise on it.
In last week's debate, the Secretary of State said that he was prepared to listen to hon. Members' concerns. However, officially, hon. Members should not be aware of the contents of the document on TA restructuring, which has not yet been placed in the public domain. In the excellent document prepared by the Library on the strategic defence review, Library staff seemed to show some concern about the document's existence. Although people seemed to know its contents, the document itself could not be mentioned. We therefore have to rely on the summation of the document that was printed a couple of weeks ago in The Sunday Telegraph.
I should like to deal with the specific case, in my own constituency, of the possible demise of the 4th battalion, Devonshire and Dorset Regiment, which is very much a part of the TA infantry. First, however, I should deal with the general problem of the review's handling of the TA infantry, and consider four possible consequences that the review and proposed measures may have on the TA infantry—on recruiting, reinforcement, regeneration and community links between the TA and local communities.
There is in the Army a natural balance between the Regular Army, the Territorial Army and the Army cadet forces. The proposals, particularly those affecting the infantry, will disturb that balance. I do not think that sufficient weight has been given, in either the SDR or the TA review, to the TA's role in Regular Army recruitment. Although that role is certainly a non-operational one, it is one that has been very much undervalued. If there is a reduced or no TA presence in large parts of the United Kingdom, the TA's recruitment role will be greatly diminished. The TA infantry personnel ceiling of 6,500 is woefully inadequate if the TA is to play any significant role in recruitment.
The reduced personnel ceiling will have a severe impact also on the support that is given to the Army cadet force, which is itself a traditional source of Army recruits. 417 More practically, the reduction will have a severe long-term impact on the number of instructors in the Army cadet force.
Hon. Members have already mentioned in this debate the TA soldiers who serve gallantly in Bosnia backing up the Regular Army. To reduce the TA is to reduce the pool of willing volunteers who are able to fill the shortfall in deployment of regulars. Further overstretching of regulars inevitably will have a negative impact on Regular Army training and morale if TA soldiers, especially TA infantrymen, are not available to reinforce them.
Traditionally, in times of conflict, the TA infantry has been the regenerative force. If the TA is reduced, that essential role also will be reduced. In a conflict, if we had speedily to increase the size of the Regular Army, the TA would be much less able to provide the base essential to do that if it were reduced or eliminated in parts of the United Kingdom.
I must also deal with community links which are an essential part of the TA. The TA is a key element in the relationship between the civil and military populations. Cutting the TA and reducing that experience of contact with the Army will have a fairly devastating effect, not only on the TA itself, but on the Army cadet force which performs the essential role of instilling the qualities of service, discipline and loyalty into many of our young people.
That leads me neatly to the 4th battalion, Devonshire and Dorset Regiment in my constituency. It is very much part of the local scene, but also of the Army establishment. Within the two counties of Devon and Dorset, we currently have five companies of the TA in Exeter, Plymouth, Paignton, Dorchester and Poole. We have affiliated combined cadet forces at 12 schools—two in Lyme Regis, one in Tiverton where both my sons served in the combined cadet force, one in Wimborne and Iwerne Minster in my constituency, two in Exeter, and one in Dorchester, Plympton, Bruton, Plymouth and Sherborne. That represents quite a spread across the two counties. We have six companies of the Army cadet force spread across 58 detachments. In my constituency, A and C companies are represented at Blandford, Gillingham, Shaftesbury and Wimborne.
The strategic defence review is coy about the future of the combined cadet force and the Army cadet force. However, if we consider the SDR and what we believe to be in the TA restructuring document. it is clear what is going to happen to the five companies of TA soldiers in the Devons and Dorsets—there will be not five companies but two. In my county, there will be just one and, to add insult to injury—if The Sunday Telegraph article is correct—it will no longer be a company of the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment anyway. It will be renamed and reformed as something called the South West Battalion.
I imagine that, in the view of some civil servant, such a name will fit neatly alongside the Government office for the south-west, the south-west regional development agency, the south-west regional chamber and the great move towards regionalism. However, these proposals destroy the Devon and Dorset family, or at least a very important part of the historic links between the soldiers and their community.
418 The combined strength of the volunteers in the 4th battalion and in the cadets is some 2,200 soldiers. They are all proud to wear the cap badge of their county regiment, and are proud of the regimental band which is very much part of the TA, but which nevertheless serves the whole regiment. Why is it that in new Britain under new Labour, it is not very hip to be in the TA, not very cool to be a cadet or, especially if we are to believe the proposals, not terribly cool to be part of a county regiment? That is poppycock. It is another example of the Government's insensitivity to what happens in vast swathes of rural Britain.
The strength of the TA is its local associations. In the debate on the SDR, the Minister talked of greater integration between the TA and the Regular Army. If I take my own county TA regiment as an example, the proposals will break the link between the TA and the regulars. At the moment, the 4th battalion, the TA, operates alongside, and under the same command structure as, the 1st battalion, the regulars. That will be wholly destroyed. We shall destroy the conduit which is not only part of our community and county structure, but part of the British Army.
When he opened today's debate, the Minister said that the proposals were based on the principle that the TA was to be integrated and relevant. Having considered the proposals for the county that I represent in part, they are pretty disintegrated and will make the TA pretty irrelevant. That is because there will be so little of the TA in the county to be seen.
I make a plea to the Minister on behalf of the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment and of all county regiments with TA links. We should keep these TA units with their county regiments. I believe that the ceiling of 6,500 men for the TA infantry is inadequate, and that it will lead to manning problems in the regular Army. If anything comes of this debate and last week's, I hope that Ministers will reconsider the overall numbers of TA infantry and their links with local communities, particularly local communities in rural Britain.
§ Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)
I had not intended to speak in the debate, having had a good run last week. I did not want to replicate my speech of last week. However, I thought it was important to participate this evening because I would not want to give the Whips the opportunity to say, "Let's abandon this single-service-debate concept because the debate petered out before the time when it was supposed to end." It is important that we sustain sufficient debates on defence because defence remains a vital subject.
Defence debates are rather like London Transport buses in that we wait a long time for them to come and finally, when they do arrive, they arrive en masse. I understand that there may be a debate next week on the Royal Navy, which will prove the point.
I had an invitation to join a number of people in the Guildhall this evening to celebrate the arrival of President Menem. However, there was the Army debate and I was organising a function in the Jubilee Room with the Royal British Legion. That meant that the world was spared the sight of me in a white tie and tails. Tailors were denied the £100 fee that I would have paid to participate in that unique occasion.
419 The debate is important. I have been rather embarrassed by some of the speeches of Opposition Members. I recall making one of my early speeches on defence a long time ago in the mid-1970s, when I was not treated with discourtesy. I was not treated by Members on the Benches opposite mocking or sneering because, never having served in the armed forces, I was daring to participate in a debate where some Members thought, because they had served as majors in the catering corps, they had a depth of knowledge sufficient to pontificate like some latter-day Clausewitz on affairs of state.
I do not buy the argument that only those who have served in the armed forces or whose great, great, great-grandfathers served, have a monopoly of wisdom, concern or, dare I say, knowledge of defence issues. I welcome the contributions of Members such as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe). I hope that he will participate regularly in these debates, despite the disgraceful way in which his speech was treated by some Opposition Members, with a pomposity that I found deeply repugnant.
The view seemed to be expressed that on day 1, 2 May, the armed forces suddenly declined and that hitherto they had been wisely led and funded by a group of people who made impeccable, perfect decisions. It seemed to be thought that, the moment the Labour Government came into office, pacifist, unilateralist thickos ruled the roost and brilliant men, like the drivers of black taxi cabs who regularly pontificate on all affairs of state, were denied the opportunity of making key decisions.
I looked at some of the reports produced by the Defence Committee in the last year of the Conservative Government to remind myself of those latter-day Clausewitzes and Churchills who had been responsible for our armed forces. Reports from the Session 1996–97 included one on the sale of the married quarters estate—not one that I would be particularly proud of if I was a Tory. Our third report was on defence medical services, about which they should feel distinctly embarrassed, if not humiliated.
I quoted from the report on defence spending last week. I offer no apologies for repeating our insistence that the defence spending plans set out in the 1996 Budget should at least be maintained in real terms in future years, because any further reduction would jeopardise the defence of the realm.
Our sixth report was on the latest developments on Gulf war illness—which, under the previous Government, were virtually nil. Then there was heavy lift. What heavy lift? There was prevarication on the future large aircraft. Is the Royal Air Force going to fly a concept? The Defence Committee must accept some responsibility, but the previous Government decided to go for the C130J, on which there was two years' delay. What about sea lift? If we wanted sea lift, we had to go to the open market and get the Ukrainians or the Poles to provide it. What happened to the merchant marine under the brilliant Conservative Government from 1979? It almost disappeared.
Some Conservatives argue that we should feel slightly ashamed because of the period in the 1980s when the Labour party was infected by a disease that it contracts every 30 years or so. We were cured and now the Government are sensible. I recall—although not from personal experience—periods about which Conservative 420 Members should have some humility. I remember reading about the British Army in the 1930s—denied equipment and led by officers who were not very well qualified, with a general staff as inept as they were during the period when, one Conservative Member has asserted, they were donkeys. In a vote of confidence in 1940, instigated by the Labour party and the Liberal party, Conservative Members either sat on their hands or voted for the Government of Neville Chamberlain. The Winston Churchill Government was established with the support of the Labour party, the Liberals and a handful of Conservatives who had had the courage to vote against their party leadership. When I am lectured about periods of humiliation for the Labour party, I ponder the periods in the past 50, 70 or 90 years of which neither party can be particularly proud. Some humility is appropriate on both sides.
§ Dr. Julian Lewis
The hon. Gentleman is right to point to periods in which both parties behaved disgracefully, including the 1930s, when the Conservatives allowed themselves to be intimidated by a pacifist movement. The Labour party at the time was calling for even more disarmament than the Conservatives. The difference is that, when we got to the 1980s, the Conservatives had learnt the lesson of the 1930s, whereas the Labour party had to undergo the terrible defeats of 1983 and 1987 before abandoning unilateralism. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we have had to refer to the 1980s tonight only when challenges were unwisely directed against the Conservatives by Labour Members saying that they had nothing to be ashamed of?
§ Mr. George
I would not have objected if the intervention had been sensible. I defer to the ability of the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) to penetrate the Labour party. Perhaps he should penetrate some history books and read about the Labour party. Ernie Bevin played a major role in destroying George Lansbury at the 1935 Labour conference. A. J. P. Taylor said that the subsequent Fulham by-election frightened the Tories out of what little sense they had. Labour Members in opposition and members of the trade union movement, who had seen their friends and comrades in Europe gaoled or murdered by the Nazis, saw the light much earlier than the Government of appeasement. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and I should have a little seminar so that we can discuss who the guilty men were and distribute that guilt fairly evenly among political parties.
§ Mr. George
I shall not give way again. I make the point because it is necessary to get over to Conservative Members that there is no history of perfection in their party.
When I came into Parliament, everyone recalled that Denis Healey in the 1960s was the best Secretary of State for Defence since the second world war. One recalls the previous Labour Government leaving office having spent an average of 4.9 per cent. of gross domestic product on defence. Yes, spending rose a little under the Tories after the iron lady came into office, but that peak was largely 421 due to funding the ships that were sunk in the Falklands war. Not long afterwards, the Conservative Government abandoned the commitment of the previous Labour Government to increase defence expenditure by 3 per cent. in real terms, in line with a NATO decision. Yes, defence spending declined following the end of the cold war, although I should point out to Conservative Members that it began to decline in 1985—four years before the cold war ended. I would willingly engage in a history seminar with anyone who wishes to take part.
I have enormous affection for the British Army despite never having served in it. The only time that I threatened to vote Conservative—a long, long time ago—was when they abolished conscription. That decision led to the gradual fading away of militarily experience among Members of Parliament. It is important to sustain an interest in the armed forces in the House so that, even though very few of us have served in them, we are still able to comprehend the defence interests of the country.
I have an immense admiration for British soldiers. I recall that, when I went to Bosnia with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) we saw British forces of quite amazing professionalism. The Defence Committee said that the King's Royal Hussars had an immense versatility. They drove Challenger 1 tanks, which were then in operation, and Warrior vehicles. They were engaged in peacekeeping and inspecting ammunition sites held by various "Entity Forces", operated in a public order environment and were involved in many community-based projects, many of which we saw. Those are British professional soldiers, who are now, thankfully, well led and reasonably well equipped—unlike those during many previous periods and decades.
To go back even further, I shall cite a man who is not quoted particularly frequently by any hon. Member, but who admired the armed forces even more. I should like to indulge in citing one short verse of poetry. I see a Conservative Member starting to snigger. Hon. Members will know the author, whose words I endorse. He said:
That is Rudyard Kipling's "Ode to Thomas Atkins".
- "There'll surely come a day
- When they give you all your pay
- And treat you like a Christian ought to do.
- But 'til that day comes round
- Heaven keep you safe and sound
- And Thomas here's my great respect to you."
Those people deserve better than they have got from politicians over the past 200 years—an era in which they were led by men who purchased their commissions. Ability to lead was ignored; ability to pay was supreme. In the 18th century, a War Minister had previously been drummed out of the Army for cowardice. Regiments were frequently raised in times of war, but when the war was over, they were disbanded within days.
The Army was led by men such as the Duke of Cambridge, a relative of Queen Victoria and a man of stupefying conservatism who vehemently and successfully opposed almost every reform proposed by politicians in the House and elsewhere. I hope that we are now in an era when all that is well and truly over.
I remind hon. Members that, during the cold war, the British Army of the Rhine was, as one respected academic who gave evidence to the Defence Select Committee said, 422 a "shop window" force. When we saw British efforts in the Gulf, noble though they were, and when we saw how difficult it was to run even Challenger 1 tanks on the sand, we realised what might have happened if the Army of the Rhine had been confronted by the massed armies of the Warsaw pact.
We must learn the lessons of the past. One lesson that we must learn and relearn is the critical importance of our relationship with the United States, and of our key membership of NATO. European defence institutions can supplement NATO, but they must never replace it. I hope that despite what, if I interpret it correctly, I read in The Sun—great newspaper though it is—I may reappraise what the Government are supposed to be saying. I hope that we never forget that lesson.
The strategic defence review was helpful. NBC—nuclear, biological and chemical—in-theatre defence is improving. It is important that we learn the lessons of Granby, and that we in the House support the continuation and refining of the concepts of readiness and deployability, and a joint rapid deployment force. It is right to support the establishment of a second logistical chain.
It is also important to have our own in-house sea lift capability. I hope that more will be done to enhance what is left of the British merchant marine, and that a decision will soon be made on the heavy-lift aircraft. Will it be a C17 or its equivalent? That would be a great addition to our heavy-lift capability. I hope that a decision will soon be made whether to stay with the plan for the future large aircraft, which is looking increasingly like the kind of mirage that one sees when walking in the desert, or to go in for something that the Royal Air Force can deploy reasonably quickly.
One of my hon. Friends was a little sceptical about British forces in Germany. I do not expect the Red army to come through the Fulder gap, but if we believe in the concept of rapid deployment, I should prefer substantial forces to be located in Germany rather than on this side of the channel.
I hope that the Minister will use every opportunity to improve our defence medical services. A great deal has been promised and, over the next few years, it will be time for that to be delivered. I also hope that the Government, and certainly the Defence Select Committee, will watch the new training cycle.
Over the years, the Defence Committee has inquired into a number of major procurement failures. I hope that smart procurement will at least diminish the likelihood of defence projects going hopelessly over budget, being hopelessly delayed or, when they are finally delivered to the Army, the Air Force or the Navy, failing to achieve the objectives that they were designed to achieve. One of the areas we shall look at is Bowman.
The Select Committee will explore what progress is being made on Gulf war syndrome. We are collectively anxious about what will happen in terms of the future of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. I am pleased to say that we will hold a public hearing on 2 December on a subject on which the Select Committee is unanimous, as is most of the House of Commons—we will take evidence from the Minister for the Armed Forces on the "consultation" that has been, or will be, undertaken on the Territorial Army. Whatever the Government say, the issue will not go away.
423 I hope that the Government have the good sense, belatedly, to do what the previous Government did under immense pressure—that is, to cancel a number of proposed mergers. It was difficult for Malcolm Rifkind to turn Government policy on its head, but I believe that it was done for the best of motives. I hope that there will be some add-back to our armed forces, and soon.
In conclusion, let me say that we have so much of which we can be proud about our Army and our armed forces. We have heard of cases of bad behaviour, drunkenness and brutality, but they involve only a tiny percentage of those who serve in our armed forces. These are young men and women—and some who are not so young—who work for a pay scale that most people would run away from. They work hours that any trade unionist would instantly organise a campaign against. In some parts of the world, they live in accommodation that pigs would be reticent about. Those people and their spouses—who face enormous strain—suffer, in some cases, public ridicule and indifference.
I do not wish to quote Kipling again butwhen the guns begin to shoot",they are the "despised people" who fight. It is not us—we are safe and secure in our homes, protected by our armed forces. It is those men and women who go out and run the risk of death. We owe them an enormous debt, and we should hold them in immense admiration. It is incumbent upon us to provide properly for our armed forces, to give them proper training and equipment and to ensure that they are well led, and wisely led, at all levels.
Historically, we have been derelict in our duties. I hope that the strategic defence review will achieve what we all want to see, regardless of political affiliation—armed forces which we can afford and which, every now and again, abandon their peacekeeping operations and those activities that are not particularly violent so that we can test how wise we have been in equipping them. If we have been wise, they will perform their duties well and will be successful.
There have been times in our history when we have believed that there was no requirement for well-funded armed forces. When the crisis comes, men go off to fight wars in faraway places and suffer death from war and illness. Who is ultimately responsible for their plight? It is Governments and Parliaments. I hope that we shall serve our country and our armed forces to such a degree that, when they are called upon to put their lives to the test, we can say that we did what was necessary.
§ Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)
Although we obviously ignore history at our peril, I wish to concentrate on the present and the immediate future. I must draw the Minister's attention to the fact that I represent one of the premier division garrison towns and, in addition to the soldiers, I represent their wives and families. There are approximately 3,500 troops and 5,500 wives and dependants in Colchester.
I want the Minister to organise a survey and a complete audit of married quarters. The previous Government, in one of the most wicked privatisations, disposed of Army housing stock in the build-up to the last general election. The Government and the Ministry of Defence have a responsibility. We have been discussing recruitment and retention: a high standard of accommodation for the 424 families of those in the services, as well for single men in barracks, is of critical importance. I want an assurance that the Minister will arrange for a survey and audit of the state of married quarters.
Reference has been made to the future of the Territorial Army, and I certainly endorse all the sentimental reasons given for retaining a strong civilian-military link. I would argue the case for the TA, but it has to evolve to have a meaningful role for the 21st century. All that enthusiasm and voluntary effort can be put to good use, but it must evolve.
Recruitment could be encouraged through the Army cadets. It is all very well for the Government to say that they support the cadet movement, but its budget has been cut and is insufficient. If more money were put into the cadets, more young men and women would be encouraged to join and might well go into the armed forces. Although we have heard that recruitment is up on the figure that the Government inherited from the previous Government, I think that the Minister will confirm that the complement of the British Army is still more than 3,000 below what it should be. We must increase recruitment as well as retention, and giving the cadet movement a boost is one way to do so. The Government would thereby be following the spirit of the Home Secretary's attempts—in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998—to encourage young people to lead more meaningful lives and the efforts of the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to encourage people to lead fruitful lives. More investment in the cadet forces would contribute to those goals.
I wish to draw attention to 24 Airmobile Brigade. The rumours are flying around. Perhaps the Minister can confirm or deny them. It is reported that the airborne elements of 5 Airborne Brigade, including two Parachute Regiment battalions, will be grouped with 24 Airmobile Brigade to form 16 Air Assault Brigade. By 2005, the new brigade will include three Army Air Corps regiments. However, we are not being told where the new brigade will be located.
I suggest that there have been behind-the-scenes manoeuvres to ensure that the Parachute Regiment stays in Aldershot. If so, how will the new brigade operate if 24 Airmobile Brigade, as we now know it, is to remain in Colchester? It would be helpful if the Minister said that the 16 Air Assault Brigade would indeed be based in Colchester; at a stroke, that would remove the many rumours and provide stability for all the members of the forces who are to form the new brigade. I welcome the Secretary of State to the Chamber and hope that he, too, can assure the House that the 16 Air Assault Brigade will be based at Colchester.
§ Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)
The Army is undermanned by 5,000 people and turnover is high—15,000 people a year—yet we are planning to cut the number of people in the Territorial Army, the Regular Army's main source of recruitment. In 1990, the TA consisted of 85,300 people. The current figure is 56,000, yet a dramatic drop to 40,000 is proposed.
That ignores history over the past centuries and more recently—the TA infantry fought alongside regular regiments in the Falklands and 10 per cent. of the forces in Bosnia consisted of the TA. It also ignores the experience of our closest allies. In the USA, two thirds of 425 artillery units will, by the end of 1999, be from the reserves. The highest-scoring tank unit in the Gulf war was the 4th US Marine Reserve Tank Battalion.
The aim is to save money. The Reserves currently cost £360 million and the Territorial Auxiliary and Volunteer Reserve Association costs £80 million, which is 2 per cent. of the defence budget. The aim is to save £69 million, or 0.3 per cent. of the defence budget.
I give two examples of why I do not think the measure will save any money. One of the highly skilled TA units that is to be abolished is 198 Field Park Squadron, the Royal Engineers Territorial Army—80 per cent. of its members are ex-Regular Army or independent TA. The turnover is very low—only 5 per cent.—and the unit is tightly knit. I give only one example of its skills. A two-mile relief road was needed at the Cultybraggan training camp in Scotland. The challenge was funked by regular engineer units, but 198 took the job on, designing and planning the road in eight weeks flat. The unit estimates that it has saved the Ministry of Defence £500,000 over the past three years by taking on jobs that otherwise would have gone to civilian contractors.
My other example is the Royal Yeomanry, which is the Army's only nuclear, biological and chemical reconnaissance regiment—the Regular Army contains no counterpart. If the Minister reads paragraph 102 of the strategic defence review, he will see that the Royal Yeomanry is to be replaced by a Regular Army unit. That is daft—450 TA soldiers at £45 a day, together with the permanent staff, cost the taxpayer about £1.9 million, whereas Regular Army soldiers at £15,500 a year would cost an additional £7 million. That would not mean any quality gain, as the unit has recently passed the American chemical defence establishment assessment with flying colours.
The Secretary of State—I am delighted that he has joined our deliberations—frequently uses the word "relevant", but what about the poisoning on the Tokyo underground? The people in the Royal Yeomanry are excellent and should be retained—that would save money.
I see no savings, but I see long-term damage to the Army. Some 40 per cent. of Regular Army recruits come from the TA and the Army Cadet Force. The 1,700 ACF detachments across the country depend on the local TA unit for support. In a sparsely populated rural county such as Shropshire, one cannot close the training units and expect young people to travel. They simply cannot. No matter how hard one tries to create an integrated transport system, it is not possible in my constituency, which has 98 villages.
In a metropolitan area a training hall can be closed and young people can get public transport, but in a rural area that is not possible. The result will be the removal of military presence in a county such as Shropshire. The rumoured move to cut Shropshire down to one company of TA, based in Shrewsbury, will be disastrous. The TA will be spread far too thin and will simply not be able to cover the large geographical distances. Once the presence is gone, the footprint demanded by the Select Committee will be lost for good.
The move to lose the cap badge will be catastrophic. There is a rumour that the new regiment will be called the Midlands Regiment. Who on earth will be loyal to the 426 Midlands Regiment? People are loyal to 5 Light Infantry, which has been there for hundreds of years, or to the Staffords. The regiments work like a family, and we have a record of success.
There is a real local role for the regiments: 18 to 22 per cent. of the LI are from the unemployed. A highly valued training framework is provided, giving civilians a role and a real purpose in life. I cannot express it better than my constituent, Major Hutchinson, who is chairman of the Ellesmere ACF detachment. He wrote to me in May, with some prescience, and said:It is my belief that ACFs, and very possibly CCFs, will be unable to continue their splendid youth work if the TA is cut back by anything like the scale suggested in the 'leaks' to the press. The Ellesmere ACF is the only organisation in the town, outside of schools, which offers opportunities for our young people to develop all of their non-academic talents to the full.
Furthermore, the TA has a real civil defence role. Unexpected events catch one behind the ear like a wet sandbag. That is a relevant phrase tonight, because as we have been talking the Rivers Severn and Vyrnwy have been rising. The brooks have backed up and in places they have breached. Two villages in my constituency, Melverley and Pentre, may be evacuated this evening. Shrewsbury may be inundated tomorrow.
This morning, I talked to Shropshire's county emergency planning officer, who was in the throes of debating whether to call in the military and put them on alert to help with the evacuation this evening. He said that itgave him great comfort as a member of the local authority to know that the TA is available at short notice, but that the option might not be available in a year's time.
According to a Ministry of Defence statement on 25 September, a tri-service equal opportunities training centre will be set up at Shrivenham toequip around 1,000 service and civilian equal opportunities advisers with the practical knowledge and skills needed to effectively advise and train their colleagues."In a phrase that I do not understand, it said thatthe centre would encourage a 'top down bottom up' approach to equal opportunities awareness.
Bluntly, I do not believe that there is prejudice in the Army or the TA. London's TA regiments have a higher proportion of non-whites than exists in the general population. My right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) most eloquently stated that the Royal Green Jackets have more than 20 per cent. non-whites.
This is political correctness gone mad. When resources are scarce, every pound should be spent training and equipping our armed forces so that they are in such a state of readiness as to deter an aggressor. In the event that war breaks out, as it did in the Gulf, all the Army's efforts should be concentrated on preparing to rain down on our enemies every possible devastation, to bring conflict to a halt as quickly as possible.
As a glaring example, today we have welcomed the democratically elected president of Argentina. He would not have come here but for the bravery of our men in the Falklands. They went up Mount Tumbledown in the teeth of enemy bullets, not because they had been on an equal opportunities course but because they had been trained to go through the horrors of armed conflict: something that many of us, luckily, have never been through—I hope that 427 we will never have to. Training, skill and equipment win wars, not equal opportunities awareness. Shrivenham is an expensive disgrace. It is politically correct gesture politics. It is a self-indulgent distraction. Our armed forces are being put at risk while savage, far reaching and ill-thought-out cuts are made to our reserve forces.
§ Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)
Once again, the debate on the Army has been wide ranging. We have been able to squeeze in some 15 speeches from Back Benchers, of whom, it will not surprise you to learn, Mr. Deputy Speaker, 11 have spoken out about the TA, and the majority have made the case for the Government to reconsider their proposals as outlined in the strategic defence review and in the pages of our press.
I welcome the commitment from the Minister for the Armed Forces to continue the three single-service debates. I think that we might profitably discuss how to focus those debates in future.
Eighty years ago today, British armies in France numbered 1.7 million men and women. On 28 October 1918, they were back almost to the positions on the Franco-Belgian border where the original British expeditionary force of 120,000 men—almost overwhelmingly regulars and regular reservists, although there were a few members of the TA—were deployed in August 1914. It is mind boggling because that is the largest group of armies that the British empire has ever deployed. We will never see their like again.
Eighty years ago tonight, the 2nd battalion, Manchester Regiment was preparing plans to cross a section of the Oise-Sambre canal. In the subsequent attempt, on 4 November, Lieutenant Wilfred Owen was killed. His parents received the news on the morning of 11 November as the church bells rang to celebrate the armistice. That is a world away from us today, but resonant with images, memories and traditions for today's generation and for the modern British Army.
A number of hon. Members have been at the reception given this evening by the British Legion. I associate myself with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) and other hon. Members about the British Legion's work and the work done by SSAFA—the Soldiers' Sailors' and Airmen's Families Association. I have the honour of being one of the parliamentary members of SSAFA' s council.
All hon. Members who have spoken have emphasised the professionalism of the modern British Army, its very high reputation, and the stress and strain placed on today's families owing to overstretch and frequency of postings overseas—yet that is not new. What is perhaps new is the fact that service men and their families are no longer prepared just to accept it. Because they are volunteer armed forces, they will ultimately talk with their feet; so what Governments have to do is to make certain that, as far as possible, their time in the Army is made as fair as possible, and they have some idea of when their postings will take place. Alternatively, we have to restrict what we want to do with our armed forces.
It is not an either/or. This Government and previous Governments have attempted to square the circle. Yes, from 1989, Conservative Governments did cut our armed forces and I never heard a word from any of the then Opposition parties that we should maintain our armed 428 forces at their former strength. I observed members of the then Opposition parties from the Box as a special adviser. And I did not hear them say that we should maintain our armed forces at that level.
Several hon. Members have referred to the British Army's contribution to the Gulf war. We were able to make that contribution because the British Army of the Rhine, the RAF Germany and the Royal Navy had a large enough critical mass. We should face the fact that the critical mass of our Army today imposes major limitations on what it can do. The positions outlined by the strategic defence review, of a one-shot deployment of a large division or of trying to maintain two brigades overseas at the same time, will be extremely difficult to sustain over any lengthy period without having to call up reserves or thinking about using large numbers of Territorial Army soldiers. I am sure that Ministers are only too well aware of that fact.
Our task is to hold the Government to account for the wide range of UK defence policy—financial resources, weapons, equipment, welfare and support facilities. Members of Parliament should also hold the Army to account for how it carries out its professional duties and manages itself as one of the great public services. I entirely endorse what the Chairman of the Select Committee said about not having had to serve in the armed forces in order to take a view on them. I did not agree with all that was said by the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Reed), but he made a thoughtful contribution. However, the recent service in the Army of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) helped him to make a forceful and powerful contribution to the debate.
We must consider the Army in the wide context of the strategic defence review. The SDR must in turn be considered against a real cut in the defence budget. Ministers are aware of the enormous resource constraints. The debate about the Territorial Army is not just about making it modern and usable. Like other hon. Members, I have always argued that the TA cannot be set in aspic. It is too expensive to be a museum piece, and the men and women who serve in it would not want it to be one. We know from evidence to the Select Committee and from those involved in the Regular Army and the Territorial Army that cuts in the TA are funding the expeditionary role of the Regular Army, particularly its logistic chain.
That poses a major problem for the Minister of State. We are in a consultation period during which difficult decisions will have to be made. Either he will make hardly any movement, in which case there will be broken crockery when he speaks in the House, much of it broken by his own side, or he will make a major add-back which, unless extra financial resources are provided, will mean that money will have to come from the Regular Army. I suspect that that money will have to come from the logistic chain.
If we are to have an expeditionary force capability and to take part in real power projection during the next 10 years; and if, in the words of Admiral Fisher, we are to see the Navy firing the Army once again ashore as a giant shell, the crucial element will be the logistic chain. A month ago, I was fortunate enough to observe regular and territorial soldiers in one of the largest logistics exercises that the United Kingdom has ever held. I commend all the men and women involved, particularly 429 the commander of the support group, Brigadier Tim Cross. Logistics is not a boring area, because the logistic element precedes all others. Logistics operatives pass the fighting troops forward, and when the fighting troops are withdrawn, they are the last to leave. That is a major problem for Ministers to solve. I am afraid that, on the evidence so far of the financial constraints, and on what we have seen from the strategic defence review, the figures do not add up.
My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury mentioned something that we have referred to time and again over the past 18 months in the debate on the SDR. Our military policy is suffering from a vacuum, if not a contradiction, in our foreign and security policy. Once again, why will Ministers not publish the foreign policy baseline?
§ Mr. Simpson
They say that it is boring—but then why do they not publish it? It is the fundamental premise upon which the SDR is supposed to be based.
Several hon. Members mentioned the Government's disarray on European security policy over the past week. In the old Army expression, it is greatcoats on, greatcoats off; we do not know. That was reflected in some contributions from Labour Members.
There has also been disarray on foreign policy which may affect our arms exports. The disarray over our relations with Chile sends, to say the least, a strange signal to friends and allies, many of whom purchase arms from us for their self-defence and in respect of which there is a £5 billion balance in our favour that supports some 300,000 men and women in defence industry. The Government need to get their foreign and security policy well and truly thought out.
I support hon. Members on both sides of the House, in particular my hon. Friends the Members for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) and for Reigate, who mentioned the importance of the qualitative nature of our Army. To use crude military jargon, the British Army is a force multiplier. That force multiplier consists in the quality of all ranks.
I agree with the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) that the backbone of the British Army has been its non-commissioned officers, who have been outstanding in peace and war. They have usually managed to get a grip of officers in a way that no senior officer could. However, I am concerned that there was a touch of old Labour class warfare in this. There were some crude interpretations of British history—upper-class twits and so on. There are resonances here from the first world war; General Melchett comes to mind. [Interruption.] If the Minister of State's laughter is a reflection of his impression of British generals today, he is sadly misled. One of our major force multipliers is the quality of our senior officers.
It is perhaps unfair to pick out two or three but I highlight high-quality senior British officers such as General Sir Jeremy Mackenzie, who is about to finish as our Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe. He has made a major impact on the way in which NATO has operated in Bosnia. I have to pick out General 430 Sir Rupert Smith, General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland, who is about to become Deputy SACEUR, the outstanding professional soldier of his generation and a man who has shown great physical courage. There is also General Sir Sam Cowans, who is, I think, the first member of the Royal Signals to reach the Army Board. He will be the first chief of defence logistics and will have to deliver the efficiency savings. He will find it challenging, to say the least.
I could run down the list from the generals to the brigadiers, colonels, captains and others. They are high-quality men; I hope that there will be more women. They are our force multipliers. I refer to women because I never served in the British Army—I married into it. No one has to preach to me about the role of women in the armed forces, or about what they can or cannot do.
The British Army has fine traditions. It is a real force multiplier. It is now down to what I think is a pretty low-level critical mass. The strategic defence review has configured the Army for an expeditionary force capability.
Financial cuts and the current downturn in the economy must call into question our ability to achieve the SDR's objectives. The Army is operating in a foreign and security policy vacuum. At present, the jury is out on the SDR: the jury being the men and women serving in the Regular Army and their families. On the TA, the jury is in and is delivering a massive vote of no confidence in the Government, who have not got their policy right in this crucial area. The Minister has a few weeks to address these problems.
As in so many areas of policy—education, health and welfare—the Government raised massive expectations, spinning widely and deeply, and now comes the pay off. There are no more excuses. In the next year, our service men and women will make a judgment about whether to stay or go. They are volunteers: they are not conscripts. We all want them to stay and carry out a worthwhile and vital job. It is a vital job because no other area of Government policy is as important as defence.
One of the Secretary of State's predecessors, Lord Healey, said that we cannot have hospitals and schools without defence. I fear that for the armed forces—to paraphrase Labour's election song—things may only get worse.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Spellar)
I pay tribute to hon. Members for their informed contributions to the debate. They were ample testimony to the value and importance that hon. Members attach to the Army and to those who serve in it, particularly for their professionalism, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson). However, the hon. Gentleman did not trust the judgment of the chiefs of staff on these matters, because he seemed to think that he had a better view than they did. He also seemed willing to spend far more money than I suspect the shadow Chancellor would consider prudent. We await some reconciliation of those views by the time we get to the debate on the Navy.
I shall have some difficulty covering all the points that were raised, so I shall write to colleagues. However, I must mention the Army equipment programme. The thorough scrutiny that was carried out during the SDR 431 strongly confirmed the overall direction of the Army equipment programme, in particular its emphasis on increased deployability, improved reconnaissance, surveillance, communication, information systems and longer range and precision for artillery. In turn, those capabilities are closely linked to the key SDR theme of exploiting new technology, especially information technology.
Following the SDR, the equipment programme will ensure that the Army continues to be well equipped to conduct the full range of operations identified in the review, from peacekeeping to high-intensity warfighting.
Two major initiatives within the SDR will help to improve the operational effectiveness and value for money of the Army equipment programme in the years to come. The smart procurement initiative will enable us to bring equipment into operational service with the armed forces more quickly, at lower cost, and with better performance. The creation of a fully integrated defence logistics organisation under a chief of defence logistics—rightly identified by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk as General Sam Cowan—will achieve better, more effective support for the services. Most importantly, these two initiatives—along with others in the SDR—will improve the military effectiveness of the armed forces when deployed on operations. In parallel with the SDR, we have taken a number of key decisions on major equipment projects, while other projects have achieved significant milestones over recent months.
The SDR confirmed the continuing requirement for a main battle tank as a fundamental capability to enable the Army to conduct both modern conventional warfare and peace support operations in spite of some of the press reports to the contrary during the process of the SDR. We are, therefore, procuring 386 Challenger 2 tanks, to equip six strong armoured regiments of 58 tanks each for operations. I am equally pleased to say that Challenger 2 successfully met its in-service date on 30 June, with deliveries of tanks to the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards completed ahead of schedule.
The hon. Members for Salisbury (Mr. Key) and for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) both raised queries about the tank transporter. I am advised that the transporter currently in service, the Scammell Commander, is capable of taking Challenger 2.
The SDR also confirmed the importance of the Apache attack helicopter as a key battle-winning equipment. The project is on course to meet its in-service date of December 2000, and the first flight equipped with Rolls-Royce 322 engines took place in the United States in September. The attack helicopter has been selected as one of the pilot projects for smart procurement. The hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) would not expect me to give a definitive decision tonight on that, but we shall make that announcement as soon as possible.
We have made important decisions on two key reconnaissance and target acquisition capabilities. In March, jointly with France and Germany, we placed a contract for production of the COBRA counter-battery radar system, which will allow hostile artillery to be accurately detected, located and attacked at long ranges. COBRA will provide a vital capability both for war fighting and for peacekeeping operations such as Bosnia. In July, we announced our decision to undertake a programme of work to enhance the Army's tactical 432 reconnaissance capability. This will include studies into unmanned air vehicles, as well as participation with the United States in the TRACER—as it is properly known—programme to provide a highly mobile, stealthy manned battlefield reconnaissance capability.
In that context, I must say that I was surprised not so much at the fact that the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) did not know the title of the programme, as at her dismissive comments of the programme as toys for boys. That was rather reminiscent of the comments from the Scottish nationalist hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) about equipment programmes as the result of a mid-life crisis. We expect such comments from the Scottish nationalists, but we are slightly surprised to get them from the Conservative party. No doubt, the Front-Bench colleagues of the hon. Lady for Beckenham will have a word with her about that sort of attitude.
We expect to make further major decisions on critical new reconnaissance and communications capabilities during the coming year. ASTOR—the airborne stand-off radar—will be a joint Army-RAF long-range theatre surveillance and target acquisition system, required to operate in all weather, by day and night. BOWMAN will provide a secure communication system, for both voice and data, for all elements of the three armed services engaged in the tactical land battle. BOWMAN will also provide an essential part of our joint battlespace digitisation initiative, to maximise the operational benefits of improved communication and information systems.
We are also taking action to improve the Army's indirect fire and air defence capabilities. Building on the success of the MLRS rocket system, which played an important part in the Gulf War, in July we entered a programme with the United States, France, Germany and Italy to develop a new guided rocket, with improved range, accuracy and effectiveness. In August, we announced our decision to join the United States in a programme for development of the Marconi marine land and naval systems ultra lightweight field howitzer. Our participation in this programme will provide information to inform future decisions on artillery weapons systems. In addition, we have recently approved, subject to the satisfactory conclusion of contractual negotiations, an order for additional launchers and missiles for the high velocity missile close air defence system.
In April we announced our intention, subject to satisfactory conclusion of contractual negotiations, to proceed with development and initial production of MRAV, the multi-role armoured vehicle, to replace some of the Army's aging in-service armoured utility vehicles. That is a joint venture with France and Germany, and we hope to sign a contract soon, together with Germany and France, for that product.
In September, we placed a contract for the area weapons effects simulator, which will complete the Army's tactical simulation strategy.
In summary, key decisions have been taken and significant progress made on a number of major national and collaborative projects involving either European or US allies, or both. Those equipments are part of a coherent programme that will reinforce capabilities whose importance was confirmed in the SDR and ensure that we have an Army that is equipped, trained and ready to carry out the tasks that the SDR identified.
433 I turn now to points raised during the debate. If there is time, I shall return to the subject of the Territorial Army. The restructuring of Land Command and its impact on York was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Mr. Ennis) and the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh). We emphasise that the purpose of the Land Command restructuring is to make the Army more effective and efficient, so that it can meet the challenges of the 21st century. That is in the forefront of our minds as my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces makes his final deliberations on the future district structure of the Army. I can assure hon. Members that we hope to be able to make the relevant announcements shortly.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell
In his consideration of those important issues, will the Minister take account of the political requirement to ensure that, at a time of constitutional change in the United Kingdom, the Army in Scotland remains commanded in Scotland?
§ Mr. Spellar
I am absolutely certain that my hon. Friend will take account of a broad range of factors during his deliberations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) and the hon. Member for Colchester mentioned accommodation and its importance to recruitment and retention. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces made clear when he opened the debate the Government's commitment to the people who serve in the armed forces. Part of that commitment relates to their living accommodation.
The liaison team that we established during the strategic defence review to talk directly to service and civilian staff found the low standard of some of our single living accommodation for service personnel to be a significant cause of complaint. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body has also criticised the Department on that issue in the past. As a result, we are taking action to address the single living accommodation problem, and plans are now in place to raise the standard of single living accommodation across all three services over the next few years. That ties in with the reforms I announced earlier this month about relations with the construction industry.
My hon. Friends the Members for Loughborough (Mr. Reed) and for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) and the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South mentioned Gulf war and nuclear test veterans. On several occasions, my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces has answered 434 questions and demonstrated the Government's continuing commitment to addressing the concerns of Gulf veterans openly, sympathetically and seriously. We have had several debates on the subject of nuclear test veterans. I urge hon. Members who raise the issue to look at the scientific evidence produced by the highly respected National Radiological Protection Board.
The issue of ethnic minorities and their service in the armed forces was raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) and for Loughborough, the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) and the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South. My hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green will remember the introductory course we both attended at a south Birmingham college.
I have to say—particularly to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), who used the words "touchy-feely", and the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), who referred to political correctness—that there are two key drivers behind our policy in respect of ethnic minorities and equal opportunities in the armed forces. First, we want to ensure that our armed forces have the pick of the best youngsters across the board, without regard to irrelevant considerations. Only then can we achieve proper operational effectiveness. Secondly, the policy is not about political correctness or some transatlantic fad, but about the good, old-fashioned British virtues of decency and fair play. That is what we have done and what we shall continue to do. We regret that Conservative Members seem to feel that there is some political advantage in trying to carp on the matter. However, such carping demeans them far more than it undermines the process that we are undertaking.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) and my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough mentioned fitness in the services. We are in discussions with the Minister for Sport on that important matter. We have also devised new fitness and training regimes, to ensure that people get up to the right fitness level and are able to participate fully in the services.
This has been a timely debate. The Army has embarked on a process of change, making it a modern force that is capable of meeting our future defence needs more effectively. We have outlined how we are to achieving that goal with both equipment and people. Our policy is good for both the Army and the country, and we are proud of our part in it."
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.