HL Deb 12 February 1980 vol 405 cc5-9

2.46 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will now restore compulsory national service.

The MINISTER of STATE, MINITRY of DEFENCE (Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal)

My Lords, may I first take the opportunity of congratulating the noble Lord on reaching four score years. I fear my Answer may not be the present he is looking for for his birthday, because the Government do not intend to reintroduce national service. We believe that all volunteer forces are the best way of meeting our defence requirements.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind congratulations. It means at least that I cannot be called up. I should like briefly to put two questions to the noble Lord. First, on the military aspect, is it not a fact that during the past decade the Soviet Union has built up an enormous superiority over the West in conventional weapons of every kind and for every purpose; and that we watched the Germans doing just the same in the 1930s, with the kind of stagnant wonder with which we are doing so today? Also, is it not the fact that, without compulsory national service and the register which it would necessitate, it is quite impossible for us to expand our conventional forces to any marked extent or to build up a civil defence organisation? Without compulsory national service we cannot carry out any rapid expansion of conventional forces to meet any emergencies. Finally, on the social side, may I ask the noble Lord whether Her Majesty's Government do not think that it would be better to send boys and girls in this country who are leaving school, for a period of good training, rather than to the labour exchanges and the streets or to prison, where far too many of them are now going?


My Lords, to do justice to those questions I should need to give a sort of wind-up answer to a defence debate. However, I will do my best. I agree with the noble Lord that the Soviet Union has built up a massive superiority in conventional weapons. That we are regarding it with stagnant wonder I would have to dispute with him and deny most hotly. We believe that unquestionably conscription would offer good training. The difficulty is that in a highly technical age, such as the armed forces are in today, we believe that professional training is required to exploit the sophisticated equipment which they are using, and we believe further that the concept of having large numbers of conscripts standing around with nothing to do, which basically would be the posture we should be in today, would be counter-productive.


My Lords, would the Minister not agree that his Answer, while it was an agreeable one to my noble friend on his 80th birthday—and I should like to extend my congratulations also to an old political opponent—reveals that the Government do not understand the problem? Will the Government be good enough to look at what President Carter is doing in an election year? He is reintroducing the draft, not because he wants a large conscript army but because armed forces cannot fight unless they have balance: if you have no doctors you cannot fight, if you have no ammunition examiners you cannot fight. Modern armies need the draft in order that they may get access to those scarce skills which they will not get by voluntary methods. Will he also bear in mind that it is probable that President Carter has introduced the draft in his Congress, not because of Afghanistan but because the armed forces of the United States are in crisis because they abandoned the draft prematurely?


My Lords, I think the first thing I should say to the noble Lord is that we must understand clearly that the United States have not introduced the draft. They have introduced a register in case they need the draft. They have a problem of recruitment far greater than ours, and I am happy to say that ours is smaller. There is no need to be smug about it. We are better placed than they are. So far as balance is concerned, while we are far from satisfied with the overall size and the equipment of our forces, their balance is satisfactory at the present time.


My Lords, does the noble Lord not agree that this country would be better placed if for the last few years it had had, let us say, the Swiss system of national militia?


My Lords, I would agree that this is a debatable question. I have already explained that we believe that, because of the sophisticated equipment which the forces use, a longer-term technical training is the best use of our resources. It is tempting to say that a register would be a useful hedge, but one has to recognise that that would cost money and would require a large amount of manpower at a time when we are trying to reduce the number of Government employees.


My Lords, do the Government not recognise that, whatever the merits or demerits of conscription, there is now in this country a very large body of opinion, as manifested in a recent debate in the other place, in favour of the organisation of some kind of voluntary national service, perhaps to start off with some extension of the Territorial Army?


My Lords, I should have thought, with the greatest respect to the noble Lord, that voluntary national service was almost a contradiction in terms, as I understand it.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, said he could not be called up. Is that true?


My Lords, having regard to the Question put by the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, would not the noble Lord agree that it is the duty of a civilised Government to find employment for its young people and not to have conscription as a substitute?


My Lords, in answering this Question I am talking about conscription so far as the Ministry of Defence is concerned. I think the issue of employment is a completely separate one.


My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that experience in other countries belies the criticism which he made of conscription? Is he aware that in France, on a poll, 60 per cent. of those who had been conscripted said that it had done them good; 70 per cent. of the population felt that conscription was a good thing. Does it not provide cadres of older experienced soldiers which are able to expand and to teach other people when the necessity arises?


My Lords, I am perfectly ready to believe and concede that there are advantages in conscription. But so far as we are concerned we are totally convinced that the professional forces we have today are the right and appropriate forces for the equipment and the people that we have in this country.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the effective fighting today, in East Asia, in Afghanistan and in Africa, is being conducted not by armies with sophisticated weapons but by people who have been taught to fire a rifle? In this country only people in their late forties have even been taught to fire a rifle and our professional forces are overstrained by the activities of a few score of IRA men. While we are in that posture how can anybody take seriously a decadent empire that appears to have no will to defend itself?


My Lords, the empire may be decadent, but it certainly has a will to defend itself and it has a very considerable capacity so to do.


My Lords, does the Minister mean that the decadent empire pays a bill—£90,000 million for defence since the end of the last war—and all we can do for it is produce the tattoo, the military tournament, and, I would agree, an effective gendarmerie in Northern Ireland, but anything else, rien?


My Lords, among other things, we are committed to providing, I think it is, 55,000 soldiers to the central front of NATO. This we do.


My Lords, I wonder whether, in view of the fact that we have a long list of speakers, and we have only got through two Questions in 15 minutes, your Lordships may think it appropriate to move on.


My Lords, I have been talking about this subject for years when other people have kept quiet. Surely I can get a word in. I am asking a question which I think is very important. If for technical and perhaps political reasons we are unable to adopt compulsory service, can we not do more than we are doing in order to build up our reserve forces, our auxiliary forces, and at any rate bring the TAVR up to establishment? Is not that something we ought to be doing at once, doing expeditiously, doing it technically and making it effective?


My Lords, perhaps I may answer what I hope will be the last supplementary question. We did have a debate, as the noble Lord will recall, because I believe he participated in it, about the reserve forces. We do believe in building up the reserve forces. We believe we are having some success in that direction and we are in the process of implementing the recommendations of the Shapland Report.