HL Deb 05 December 1990 vol 524 cc178-80

2.47 p.m.

Lord Stallard asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will arrange with British Telecom to permit service personnel stationed in the Gulf to make at least one free telephone call to their next of kin during the Christmas period.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (The Earl of Arran)

My Lords, in consultation with British Telecom, Mercury and Cable and Wireless, we are giving urgent consideration to the establishment of a welfare telephone link between the Gulf and the UK and Germany. A trial system is currently being tested.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer, though it is not clear. I am sure that thousands of people are glad that something is being done and that the Government are bowing to press and public pressure. Can the Minister give a little more detail, because the press releases from Mercury and British Telecom are not clear? They appear to be hedging about prices, telephone cards, available boxes, reversed charges and below standard charges. What is the position, because my Question asks for a free telephone call to relatives?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, we hope that an easier and more understandable position will be announced by the Ministry of Defence within the next few days. The system that we aim to establish will operate on a telephone card basis. I am pleased to be able to tell your Lordships that the British Legion is aware of the matter and has generously offered to sponsor one free telephone card to all service personnel in the Gulf. Noble Lords will agree that that is a wonderful gesture and will provide a great boost to morale, particularly with Christmas fast approaching.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, the last part of the Minister's answer is well received. However, is he aware that the facility is already available to the majority of the forces of other countries now serving in the area? Why must our people wait? Is red tape holding things up? If so, will the Government cut through it, get on with the job and make the facility available as a matter of urgency?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that this is an urgent matter and we are giving it serious attention. We are confident that a system will be in operation well before Christmas. The Americans tried a free charge call originally but I understand that that has now been changed and that instead there is improved access to telephones. However, American users must pay the current rate. Our charging arrangements have yet to be determined but they will almost certainly be on a concessionary basis rather similar to that existing at present in Northern Ireland where a 50 per cent. subsidy is given.

Lord Shepherd

My Lords, bearing in mind the very heavy burdens which are continually placed on the British Legion, is it really right that we should leave it to the British Legion to provide that essential service at Christmas time to our forces who are on duty on our behalf in Saudi Arabia? Is it right that that should be left to the British Legion with all its present burdens? Should we not bear some part of the cost?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, that is precisely what I said. We are looking at this matter and the probability is that the scheme will be subsidised on a concessionary basis.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, will the noble Earl tell the House whether British Telecom or Cable and Wireless are making any contribution in monetary terms to this project? Is it entirely a matter for the British Legion and possibly a subsidy from the Government? What are British Telecom and Cable and Wireless doing?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the final details as to who pays what are still being ironed out by the Ministry of Defence. When the details are announced, I am sure that that point will be incorporated.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, if it is not too wide of the Question on the Order Paper, will the noble Earl also look into broadcasting services for the forces? Members of the parliamentary delegation who recently visited the Gulf thought that that was important and that some heads needed knocking together in this country.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, there is a slightly tenuous link between the noble Lord's question and the Question on the Order Paper. However, BFPS already uses spare BBC world service short wave frequencies for three 30-minute programmes per day. There are deficiencies in that system which is why we are at present looking at the possibility of increasing the VHF system, which we hope will be in place soon. However, I do not anticipate that that will be much before March.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, will the Minister agree that all sides of the House are very anxious about the welfare and morale of British forces everywhere, and particularly in the Gulf? Will he not agree that the matter of cheap communication is of some urgency, particularly as there are only 15 shopping days to Christmas?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend, but I have tried to make it clear that well before Christmas a system will be in place which British forces will be able to use on a very good concessionary basis.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that most of the international telecommunications in the Gulf countries are owned by Cable and Wireless? Can he not contact his noble friend Lord Young, who no doubt could arrange such a scheme without difficulty?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Young is a splendid man but we are in full command of the situation and can act accordingly and responsibly in a short time.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, the noble Earl mentioned March as being the earliest date by which broadcasts can be provided in the Gulf. That will be nine months after the invasion. One and a half hours of broadcasting per day is not very much for forces serving in a featureless area without any amusement. Surely in a matter of days, or a week at the most, transportable VHF equipment could be in place so that radio receivers can pick up transmissions in that area. Can that not take place more rapidly?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, there is a target date of 16th December for VHF broadcasting to troops in Eastern Saudi Arabia within a 20 mile radius of Al Jubayl. The March date concerns transmissions to a much wider area.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Young, may well be splendid and the noble Earl and his right honourable friend may well be in command of the situation. However, will the noble Earl take account of the question put by my noble friend Lord Glenamara who is also expert in these matters? Can the Minister not arrange for his right honourable friend to talk to the noble Lord, Lord Young, to see whether better arrangements can be made?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, no system is perfect. If the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition wishes it, then I shall ask my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to speak to my noble friend Lord Young to see whether any improvement can be made to the existing situation.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I hesitate to interrupt but we have now spent nearly 18 minutes discussing two Questions. Perhaps I may suggest that the noble Lord, Lord Mason of Barnsley, asks his question and then we move on to the next Question.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, can the Minister inform the House of the estimated total cost of providing that facility for the troops if it is borne wholly by Her Majesty's Government?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the total cost has not yet been calculated but that will be considered when the details are worked out and announced shortly.