HL Deb 28 October 1970 vol 312 cc112-26

3.15 p.m.


My Lords, with permission I should like to make a Statement on the progress which the Government have made since taking office towards fulfilling their undertakings on defence. We set ourselves three objectives: to enable Britain to resume within her resources a proper share of responsibility for the preservation of peace and stability in the world; to make good, so far as possible, the deficiencies we found in the Armed Forces and to create a better appreciation of their role in the community; and to establish a sound financial basis for defence plans in the future. Following a searching and critical review of the defence programme we inherited, we have taken a number of major decisions. NATO remains the first priority, but these decisions reflect the Government's determination that Britain should also play her part in countering threats to stability outside the NATO area. They cover a continuing British military presence in the Malaysia and Singapore area; major improvements in the capabilities of each Service; and, as my right honourable friend announced yesterday, Defence Budget targets for the next four years.

First, South East Asia. We have proposed to the Commonwealth Governments of Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore that Five-Power defence arrangements should be established as soon as possible, to which we would contribute forces from the three Services which would broadly complement the contributions of the other four Governments. These arrangements would be based on a political commitment of a consultative nature, undertaken equally by all five Governments, relating to the defence of Malaysia and Singapore; they would replace the Anglo-Malaysian Defence Agreement. The four Governments have welcomed our planned military contribution. The main components of this will be a number of frigates or destroyers, a battalion group, a detachment of Nimrod long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft and some Whirlwind helicopters. The four Governments have agreed to work out with us the new political arrangements. Consultation on this, and on other aspects of our proposals, is now taking place. We have proposed that there should be a meeting next year of the Ministers of the five Governments.

We are continuing discussions with leaders in the Gulf and other interested countries on how Britain can best contribute to the maintenance of peace and stability in the area.

Next, the capabilities of the Services. We found the Services deficient in both manpower and equipment. The Royal Navy would have been left with a most serious gap in its capability as a result of the plan of the previous Administration to phase out the fixed-wing aircraft carriers in 1972. We have therefore decided to introduce as soon as possible a surface-launched anti-ship guided-weapon system, EXOCET. This system is in an advanced stage of development by the French Government, with whom we are now negotiating an Anglo-French collaborative programme for its production. We have also decided to run on H.M.S. "Ark Royal" until the late 1970s thus contributing a valuable increase to NATO's maritime strength. This decision will not prejudice the gradual assumption by the Royal Air Force of the responsibility for the provision of fixed-wing air support for the Royal Navy.

The Army, as a result of poor recruitment in recent years, is seriously short of the men it needs. The rundown plan of the previous Administration failed to provide adequately for unforeseen contingencies and the Territorial and Army Volunteer Reserve has been reduced to a level where there is no longer any uncommitted element. As the demands of the Northern Ireland situation have shown, the Army's infantry resources are especially under strain. The Government have already announced their decision to halt the rundown of the Army to the extent that the manpower shortage permits. Its plans for representative squadron and company units will provide a nucleus for potential expansion and enable the names of a number of famous regiments to be retained. We have now decided to retain the Brigade of Gurkhas whose future was put in doubt by the previous Administration. The retention of these splendid soldiers in the British Army will help to relieve the strain on the infantry.

We are also embarking on a gradual expansion of the T. & A.V.R. by establishing an uncommitted reserve of initially around 10,000 men, armed with modern equipment though on lighter scales than existing T. & A.V.R. units. We shall be opening discussions immediately with the Council of Territorial, Auxiliary and Volunteer Reserve Associations and with the Associations themselves. In addition we intend to increase our contribution of reserve forces to NATO by forming an additional T. & A.V.R. armoured car regiment.

The Royal Air Force is short of frontline aircraft, particularly in Germany. We have decided to provide a further four squadrons of Jaguar close support aircraft for NATO in this important role. This will be achieved by reorganising our plans for the advanced training of pilots, without reducing the essentially high standard of training, and by revising our plans for the production of Jaguar aircraft. More information about these decisions is set out in a White Paper presented to-day, and now available to your Lordships in the Printed Paper Office. They will have to be worked out within the constraints imposed by the current serious shortage of uniformed manpower; and within Defence Budget targets which, although higher than the provisional allocations to defence published last year by the previous Administration, will make a valuable contribution towards the Government's public expenditure objectives. We shall not, however, be cancelling any major project now on order; but savings to be made will require us to cut or defer a number of projects of lesser priority mainly in the building and equipment field. The Government are satisfied that these reductions will not affect their ability to meet their planned commitments.

There is much work to be done to put these changes into effect. We are also still examining parts of the defence programme; and the streamlining of the headquarters and the introduction of improved management techniques will continue. I shall be making a fuller report in the annual Defence White Paper early next year. But the decisions we have already taken will enable us to make a significant improvement in our military contribution to NATO while, at the same time, fulfilling our obligations to our Commonwealth partners in South-East Asia. I also believe that they clearly demonstrate the importance which this Government attach to the security of the nation and the high value they place on our Armed Forces.

3.22 p.m.


My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord: He knows that we on this side of the House are very glad indeed to sec him in his present post. I only wish I could congratulate him on his White Paper. However, there is one subject of satisfaction to us on this side of the House in that there is very little in the way of significant change from the policy of the previous Government, except that the present Government appear to be continuing the rundown in the percentage of the gross national product devoted to defence, one of the things about which, when they were in Opposition, they complained.

I should like to ask the noble Lord one or two questions. First, does he really think that the statement that was made yesterday and is repeated in the White Paper, drawing attention to the variance or variation between the project costs for next year and the long-term costings, on which a good deal of emphasis has been put, is really fair? I asked the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, a question yesterday and he gave a very frank and friendly answer. He said that there was nothing tendentious about it and no political points were made, but from the reading the implication is that somehow or other the previous Government got their figures wrong. The noble Lord knows very well that the project costs will always be different—the long-term costings—until the moment comes when necessarily these are brought into line. He may possibly care to say something on this: on the other hand, knowing his dislike of this new variation of the numbers game I can only say that if he does not want to say anything now we shall be pressing it in the debate next week.

Secondly, the Statement referred to major improvements in the capabilities. I have totally failed to detect any major improvement. For instance, the noble Lord is continuing with the Royal Navy to carry on one carrier, and he knows perfectly well that all the cost effective studies, and all the analytical studies suggest that numbers count in carriers as they do in aircraft. The one carrier adds very little, except purely fortuitously to the protection of the Fleet or to our general capability. That is point one. Secondly, the noble Lord talks about a major improvement because our Army reserves are stretched. He knows, of course, that thanks to the policy of the previous Government there have been more infantry battalions available during the last two or three years than there were during the previous three or four years. But is the increase in the T. & A.V.R. to be of the T. & A.V.R. III kind or the T. & A.V.R. II? Is this just to be an expansion of the old Territorial Army? What precisely is this going to do, and how far will these troops be immediately available for operations either of the Northern Ireland type or of any other type? Because when troops are needed these days they are needed urgently and with a high degree of training, and we doubt whether in fact this represents anything other than lip-service to the pressure in relation to the Territorial Army. Let me say that if we could increase the T. & A.V.R. III should certainly welcome it.

Finally, how can the noble Lord really defend the argument that a single company adds to our military strength? He said that one company was better than nothing, but it also costs a great deal more than nothing. I think the point made by my noble friend was that it was the least effective way of providing military force.

What is the target going to be for recruiting? The noble Lord knows perfectly well that, thanks to the improvements in military salaries, and the improvements introduced by the late Government, this year has been a very good year for recruiting—indeed, this is partly a factor in the over-run. Perhaps the noble Lord can give us some figures. The other major improvement about which I would ask the noble Lord is whether he seriously argues that a single battalion added to the commitment—which seems to be very similar to the commitment of the previous Government—adds very much to security? I am all in favour of playing the part that the previous Government had undertaken in this matter, but what is the value of this single battalion in Malaysia?


My Lords, may I finally answer the noble Lord and thank him at any rate for his initial remarks?


My Lords, I apologise.


My Lords, I have absolutely no wish to misrepresent any figures in relation to defence which were produced by the previous Administration, but the fact is that in Cmnd. 4234 there was a certain set of figures allocated to defence, and the long-term costings which were prepared by the previous Administration were greatly in excess of those figures. It is for the noble Lord opposite to explain that, and not for me.


My Lords, if I may interrupt the noble Lord, will he ask his officials to explain it to him because it is perfectly simple? He knows that this happened under previous Governments, including his own Government.


It did not, my Lords, because a White Paper of that kind was never produced before. It was an entirely new White Paper for five years' public expenditure, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer produced a set of figures which were at variance with the long-term costings. There may have been perfectly good reasons for this, but it is not for me to explain it—it is for noble Lords opposite to explain it.

With regard to the second statement made by the noble Lord, that he sees no major improvements in our forces, I find it odd that a noble Lord who has been a Minister for the Royal Air Force does not acknowledge that four extra operational Jaguar squadrons increases the capability of the Royal Air Force. I really find that very difficult to understand.


My Lords, is the noble Lord in fact ordering any more Jaguars?


My Lords, if I may say so, that is not the point. The point is that these aircraft were going to be training aircraft; they are now to be operational aircraft declared to NATO. Therefore there are four new operational squadrons declared to NATO and for the front line of the Royal Air Force. That is a new and major improvement and none of the smiles on the faces of noble Lords opposite will remove that fact, because it is abundantly true.

My Lords, nobody can say that the fact that the "Ark Royal" is being continued does not add to the capability of the Royal Navy. Indeed the noble Lord will know that NATO and the Supreme Allied Commander, North Atlantic, has asked on frequent occasions that the Royal Navy should continue with the "Ark Royal" because he believes that it is necessary for NATO. Indeed, the provision of EXOCET itself is a major improvement in the capability of the Navy.

I should have thought that the provision of 10,000 extra troops in the T. & A.V.R. was an improvement in the capability of the Army, and that an extra armoured car regiment was a major improvement in the capability of the Army reserves. I find it rather disappointing, if I may say so, that the noble Lord should get up and make those points when it is quite clear that we are really improving the capability of the forces that we inherited from the noble Lord. I am sorry if I have not got these points in the right order.

As regards manpower, the noble Lord will know the manpower situation we inherited. It is perfectly true—and I am very pleased about it—the recruitment is better this year. I do not know yet whether it will be quite good enough. Certainly I hope we shall get more recruits than in the last two or three years, but I do not believe that that is going to solve our shortage. This is the problem which worries me most about the Services at the present time. I do not think there is an instant solution. I think we need as many men as we can get.

Lastly, with regard to the battalion in South East Asia, I wish the noble Lord had been with me at the end of July and beginning of August when I went round the four countries concerned in our Five-Power defence arrangements and proposed to them the level of forces we were thinking of at that time. The proposals were welcomed by all four countries and all of them believed that the presence of British troops in Singapore and Malaysia maintained a stability in the situation there which would have been removed if the previous Government's policy had been followed.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for the Statement he has made, but I must say to him that there is something pretty odd about it. I am not challenging the claim he has rightly substantiated about the improvements. As I understand it, the commitments to NATO are to be increased, there is a new commitment to be undertaken in Malaysia and possibly one in the Gulf, and there are to be larger reserve forces recruited. In addition there are all the other points he has made. Yet yesterday we were told that by 1974–75 there is going to be a saving of £130 million. Surely that cannot all be in matters of lower priority, mainly buildings and equipment. What is the explanation of our being able to save £130 million and get all this capability? It is no use saying new Tory techniques.


My Lords, apart from the last sentence, that is a perfectly fair question. These long-term costings are five years in advance, and to that extent they are fairly flexible and not entirely firm. We know from previous experience that there is always an underestimate, an under-projection of what actually appears five years hence. You can take a certain amount of that into account. Secondly, you have to look very carefully at the items which are not vitally important, and we have done that, and in this way we can save large sums of money five years hence. Although we have cut no major project, we have decided not to go ahead and order the C.5 aircraft, which does save a very large sum of money. These are the three ways in which we can save the money in 1974–75.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that he now seems to be grasping the difference between long-term estimates and actual cost? They do, of course, vary. I did not want to raise any instant opposition to his Statement to-day because we shall have a chance to debate this subject, I hope, in the near future. It seems to me that neither his Statement nor the White Paper are the world-shaking documents we might have been led to expect. But so that we can debate them with some clarity when we do debate them next week, I wonder whether I might ask some specific and factual questions. First of all, what is the command structure of this five-nation force in the Far East? There is a vague statement in the White Paper about political consultations but that does not help us to know who is going to command these forces. Will all five nations be represented, and if so in what way?

Where is the battalion group to be stationed? May we know exactly where that will be? May we know on what basis the calculation of the extra £5 million to £10 million is made? Is this extra £5 million to £10 million over the costings of the plans of the previous Administration, because, if not, it seems to me a figure strangely at variance with that made by the Prime Minister when he was in Opposition, when he made an estimate of about £100 million for an operation of this kind? Finally, can the noble Lord tell we where the Nimrods and Whirlwinds will be stationed? As there is no sign of an aircraft carrier in the order of battle for the Far East, presumably they will be land-based. Will they be stationed at airports in Singapore and, if so who will pay for them? EXOCET adds to the capability of the Royal Navy. This is a new idea—about the only new thing in the White Paper. How much is that likely to cost?

There is the question which the noble Lord, Lord Byers brought up, and I think we really must have a slightly better and more specific answer about the cancellation of a very important strategic project. I have had a quick glance through the Statement and the White Paper. It is estimated that we are going to have extra costs in the Far East, extra costs in keeping "Ark Royal" on, extra costs for EXOCET, extra costs in the Territorial Army, extra costs in the Jaguar aircraft, extra cost in keeping the Gurkhas, and possibly, unless the Government come to their senses, extra cost for a presence in the Gulf. Yet no major projects are to be cut and the Defence Budget is to be reduced in real terms over the next three or four years. Can we now know where, apart from the few economies in buildings and I hope for the headquarters staffs, this curious piece of financial jugglery is going to be achieved?


My Lords, I make absolutely no complaint about this long series of questions, but if we are to have a debate as soon as next Thursday, I wonder whether it is really right to turn this into a very long inquisition by noble Lords opposite. I think it is for consideration for the noble Earl the Leader of the House and the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, that perhaps we are widening the normal usage of the Statement in this House. However, I make no complaint about it.


My Lords, may I say that the sole reason for this is to get some factual information on which reasonable debate can be based? The noble Lord knows that when we come to debate these things what usually happens, when a number of questions are asked, is that someone says, "I will let you know next week", I am asking these questions now so that I can have the answers for next week.


My Lords, the last thing I want to do is to deprive the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, of facts for his speech.

So far as the command structure in the Far East is concerned, we are still discussing this with our allies, and I cannot tell him at the moment what form it will take. The battalion group will be stationed in Singapore alongside the Australians and New Zealanders. The figure of between £5 million and £10 million for the extra cost of our forces in the Far East is the amount of money it costs extra to station them in the Far East: because whatever the decision about their being in the Far East they would still be in existence and would have to be paid for in some form. So it is the cost extra to their ordinary pay and equipment, and so on. The Nimrods and helicopters will also be stationed in Singapore.

I do not think it is customary to reveal the price of any new weapon, and I do not think I ought to tell noble Lords the cost of EXOCET. With regard to the C.5, of course the Royal Air Force Air Support Command will need a replacement for its Britannias some time after the middle of the 1970s. It was tentatively proposed that in 1973/4/5 we should start replacing the Britannias with the C.5. We have taken the decision that this is no longer necessary. That does not alter the fact that there will have to be some replacement later on, but this saves a substantial sum of money.

With regard to the question of finance, I might perhaps draw noble Lords' attention again to the fact that there is this difference between long-term costings and Cmnd. 4234. The Command Paper goes right into 1973–74, and says that the amount of money likely to be spent on defence, which is a projection of what was spent before, is £2,230 million; and the long-term costing of the previous Administration was £2,359 million; so there is a difference there. I am not making anything of it. Surely it is for noble Lords to explain if they are dissatisfied.


My Lords, without in any way trying to transform this interchange into a debate, I wonder whether the Minister would be prepared to enlarge just a little on what is meant by the phrase used in connection with Malaya and Singapore; namely, "a political commitment of a consultative nature". Is it to be taken as meaning that we shall be committed in some way to defend the countries concerned against any external aggression, or would the commitment, or apparent commitment, cover defence against internal subversion? In the latter case, is there not perhaps a slight danger of our being drawn into another Vietnam war?


My Lords, it is the intention that the commitment should be consultative, and not automatic and open-ended as it is under the Anglo-Malaysian Defence Agreement; and it would not include internal security.


My Lords, reluctant as I am at this early stage to compliment the Government, may I ask whether the noble Lord is aware that I personally welcome the decision of the Government to retain the Brigade of Gurkhas? I think that this is a very wise step. I do not believe that the cost will be beyond the capability of the Government, despite the Statement that was made yesterday. But may I ask this question on the matter of Reserves? The implication of something that the noble Lord said would indicate that we are somewhat doubtful about stepping up recruitment. In those circumstances, does he consider that the decision to improve the T. & A.V.R., a part of the auxiliary forces, is satisfactory? Has not the time come for a re-appraisal of our reserve forces? Secondly, may I ask the noble Lord about the Command structure in the Far East. Is he aware that the I United States of America are concerned about the Far East; that indeed there exists a pact between the United States of America, New Zealand and Australia, described as the ANZUS Pact, which indicates their interest in that area? In those circumstances, may I ask whether the United States have been consulted about the situation as regards the Command structure, and their desire to have a relationship with the other five Governments?


My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord for the first generous observation from the Labour side of the House since we started on this matter—though I notice that he is sitting on the Liberal Benches? I am most grateful to him. I agree with him that the retention of the Gurkhas is indeed a major improvement in the capability of the Army. To take his question about Reserves, I agree with him about recruiting. I am seriously worried about the Regular manpower situation, and I therefore propose that for the T. & A.V.R. we should initially start with 10,000 men, still in Category I, but rather more lightly equipped. I think that I would rather see how we go on with recruiting over the first year with those 10,000 men before we try to be any more ambitious. I think it is wise to start slowly and see how the matter goes. With regard to the Command structure, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, opposite, I cannot tell him exactly what our proposals are at the moment, but I can tell him that we have kept the United States informed all the way through of what we are doing and they very widely and warmly welcome our return to that part of the world.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he recognises the satisfaction which he has given in the quiet, effective and, if I may say so, courteous manner in which he has reversed a number of policies which, if pursued, would in the judgment of many of us have been a great danger to this country; and at the same time managed to do so while keeping the inevitably high burden of defence within reasonable bounds?


My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend. I think that if I have been at all successful I must have learned it while he was administering defence.


My Lords, may I just correct one point made by the noble Lord, for which I apologise? I accept the Jaguar as a major improvement in capability, but it is my recollection that the decision was in principle taken by the previous Government. The noble Lord may be able to answer that. Further, will the R.A.F. now be deprived of the Phantoms and Buccaneers which they were going to have? He may not want to answer that question now, but the answer would be interesting. I think I ought to say that it was not my impression that any decision was taken by the previous Government to abolish the Brigade of Gurkhas. Certainly there were proposals for run-down, but I must deny that to the best of my knowledge there was any such decision.


My Lords, I did not say that there was; I said that it was to end the uncertainty. I do not remember which Minister in the previous Administration said that they were not going to take a decision about the Gurkhas until the end of 1971; I am now ending the uncertainty. We shall continue with the Gurkhas. The decision on the Jaguar was not taken by the previous Administration. With regard to the Phantoms and the Buccaneers, there will not be an additional buy of Phantoms and Buccaneers. So to that extent the R.A.F. will have less.


My Lords, as I am one who welcomes greatly the Government's statement that there is to be a new Franco-British defence collaborative project, EXOCET, may I ask whether my noble friend is in a position to give any further detail? It is a naval project; but is he able to expand a little in regard to this matter?


My Lords, what I said was that we were intending, subject to the reaching of satisfactory arrangements on production, to buy the French missile, EXOCET. We hope to produce it here, rather than buy it from the French.


My Lords, before I come to a couple of questions, may I support what the noble Lord, Lord Thorneycroft, said, that most of us who speak regularly on Defence affairs welcome the statement which was made by the noble Lord, the Secretary of State for Defence? It so happens that I have just been on a fairly long tour of South-East Asia, and the decision to leave even small forces, which I have constantly recommended in your Lordships' House during the last two or three years, as opposed to leaving nothing and revisiting the area for exercises at irregular intervals, is quite dramatic.

I now come to the questions that I should like to ask. No mention has been made of the Persian Gulf. It may be that the question of whether we do or do not leave small forces in that area will be dealt with in the debate, and if we cannot be told today we shall quite understand. The other question I ask is a numerical one about the Gurkhas. How many battalions of Gurkhas are we due to keep?


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for what he has said, and I agree with him about the reaction in the Far East, because I found that myself. I did in point of fact say something about the Gulf. I said that we were still consulting about this and that I hoped to make a statement later on. There will be either four or five Gurkha battalions, depending on what happens about Brunei. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs is seeing the Sultan later this month.


My Lords, the noble Lord knows where I stand on Territorial Army questions, but may I seek a little clarification? Is it not a fact that under the last Government there was an increase in the strength last year of 7,000? Is it not a fact that at the beginning of this year the strength was 45,000—or 47,000 if we are allowed to embrace the women? And can he give us some assurance about these so-called lighter weapons with which the extra 10,000 territorials are to be equipped? Can he assure us that this will not be a kind of "Dad's Army", but that they will really all be proper soldiers?


My Lords, I most certainly can give the noble Lord that assurance. I know what an interest he takes in this matter. There is no question of their being second-rate. They will have the same uniforms, the same equipment, but will be more lightly armed, and will have the same obligations as the rest of the T. & A.V.R. They may have slightly different training obligations, and I hope that perhaps in that way one may be able to attract people who have difficulty in fulfilling the bigger training obligations of the ordinary T. & A.V.R. But there is no question of their being in any way different, and I hope very much that the noble Lord, who knows a great deal about these things, will do what he can to publicise this and to get people to join.