HL Deb 17 February 1981 vol 417 cc552-4

2.38 p.m.

Lord Westbury

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 what promised improvements in amenities and conditions of service generally will not be implemented in the next financial year through the application of cash limits to defence expenditure.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Viscount Trenchard)

My Lords, all firm commitments will be honoured. However, the need to keep defence expenditure within cash limits for 1981–82 has necessitated our deferring some expenditure and improvements. A policy of severe restraint on all but essential maintenance is being applied to works expenditure. We have deferred the introduction of an improved assisted house purchase scheme, and an arrangement to permit servicemen to purchase surplus married quarters at a discount. We have, however, fully confirmed our commitment to maintaining the pay of the forces at a level comparable to their counterparts in civilian life.

Lord Westbury

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for his Answer, may I ask whether he is aware of the damage being caused to the training and recreational facilities in the armed forces by the 20 per cent. reduction in the fuel allocation?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, in containing the over-expenditure of our budget, wherever possible we have had to save without affecting central operational efficiency; and the particular cuts in fuel supplies to the armed forces have been as advised by the armed forces themselves in order to maintain essential training requirements and also essential minimum operational requirements.

Lord Clifford of Chudleigh

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that the Territorial Army Regiment, of which I am an honorary colonel, is now restricted to its drill halls because of the cut-down on fuel for training, and can he possibly imagine the effect of this on morale, recruiting and everything else? And if he cannot, will he ask his noble friend Lord Avon, who has experience of its effect?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I appreciate the noble Lord's feelings on an important aspect for the territorial army. It is not that they have not been allowed any petrol at all, nor has training been cut to a nil level. We were faced with an over-expenditure of serious proportions on a budget which was increased in real terms and, in those circumstances and in the short-term, the only thing to do was to consult the Services on cuts which could be made which, in their opinion, did not affect essential operational efficiency and training. That is what we have done.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that there is some feeling in the forces overseas, whom I had the privilege to visit recently, that the overseas allowance is becoming completely inadequate? Are Her Majesty's Government looking into this matter?—because although the troops are in good heart this is causing some degree of feeling.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, we are currently undertaking a review of these allowances to ensure that they compensate adequately but not over-generously for the extra cost of living that they are intended to meet.

Earl Cathcart

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister agree that the most important factor in providing satisfactory amenities and conditions of service for the armed forces is to ensure that there is a high standard of maintenance of barracks and buildings in which they live and work; and will he confirm that the maintenance of these buildings is not being curtailed? Further, will he agree that if the maintenance of these buildings is allowed to fall back to a low standard, the cost of repairing them subsequently will be far greater?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, my noble friend's point is fully taken in relation to letting standards deteriorate, and for that reason the policy overall is to ensure that essential maintenance of living accommodation to an overall standard is continued. We have nevertheless had to impose a period of severe restraint on works expenditure except in the cases of the most important building projects.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the fighter-intercept force, numbering a total of 70 in this country, is flying only 17 hours in every month? This is the barest possible minimum. Will my noble friend assure the House and the country that there will be no further cuts, since Soviet aircraft continue many times a week to make probing flights into British airspace and these must be countered? Operational practice is absolutely essential for the defence of our airspace.

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that we will not cut below the minimum operational requirements that the Services consider absolutely necessary.

Lord Whaddon

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that one of the amenities traditionally provided by the RAF has been the location of civilian aircraft lost in British airspace? Is he aware that General Aviation is expecting the installation of automatic location equipment by the RAF any time now, which would eliminate delays? Can he assure the House that the installation of this equipment will not be delayed?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I cannot satisfy the noble Lord on that detailed point, but I will let him know.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, if my noble friend says that fuel has been cut by 20 per cent. and that it is adequate for training purposes, presumably the previous amount was excessive for training purposes. Would he please comment?

Viscount Trenchard

My Lords, I do not think that that follows at all. I think there are essential minimums and desirable standards in almost every area of life.

The Lord President of the Council (Lord Soames)

My Lords, I think perhaps we should not extend this Question into a defence debate. I suggest that we should move on.