HL Deb 18 October 1994 vol 558 cc124-6

3.20 p.m.

Lord Molloy asked Her Majesty's Government:

What effect the recent Brussels summit will have on the number and deployment of personnel in the United Kingdom armed forces; and whether they are satisfied that the United Kingdom is able fully to meet its NATO requirements.

Lord Henley

My Lords, the decisions reached at the Brussels summit in January will have no direct impact on the number and deployment of personnel in the United Kingdom armed forces. The decisions will, however, influence the future development of our defence policy and may thus affect the posture of our forces indirectly. I am satisfied that we are able fully to meet our commitment to NATO.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that welcome and satisfying reply. Nevertheless there are still grave suspicions that the British Army in particular is greatly stretched. Some of the decisions made at Brussels could make it extremely difficult for our army to carry out all the responsibilities unfairly imposed upon it.

Is the Minister also aware of the anxiety of our American and Commonwealth allies about the tremendous growth of the German nation, now our allies? Is the Ministry in touch with those countries to discuss that somewhat unattractive element in NATO?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I should remind the noble Lord that the Germans have been our allies for many years. I expect them to continue to be our allies within NATO which, after all, has had over 40 years of success in providing security for this country. I trust that the Germans will continue to be our allies in NATO for many years to come.

As to the noble Lord's first point, I accept that our armed forces are asked to undertake a great many tasks and that sometimes some individual units and servicemen will be sent on unaccompanied tours more frequently than is desirable. However, as to whether our armed forces can meet our commitments and whether there will be sufficient stability, I think it best if I repeat the assurances my right honourable friend gave yesterday to another place. He emphasised that one of the themes for the remainder of this Parliament will be that the Government now offer stability so far as concerns the fighting strength of our armed forces.

Lord Renton

My Lords, as the Government have wisely recognised that our reserves and territorials are a vital part of preparedness for any future emergency—as indeed they were in the past —can my noble friend give an undertaking that in order that they may be effective their equipment and training will be kept up to date?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I thoroughly endorse everything my noble friend says. I had lunch today with representatives of TAVRA who briefed me fully on the needs and requirements of the Territorial Army.

Lord Richard

My Lords, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition says that there is no such thing as a free lunch. However, I listened carefully to everything that they had to say. I can give an assurance that the Territorial Army and the other reserves will have the training and equipment necessary for them to perform their role.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, does the noble Lord anticipate any objections from Belgium to the United Kingdom army being able to obtain ammunition when required? Have the Government made arrangements with our partner Belgium to be able to obtain ammunition in the future should they need it?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I can give an assurance to the noble Lord that the Army will have whatever ammunition it needs on whatever occasion. As regards the tone of the noble Lord's question, I slightly regret the inflection that the noble Lord put on his words about, again, an ally and another member of NATO.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that many of us are a little unhappy about the recent reductions in the strength of the infantry, in particular the elimination of the second battalion in several of the Guards' regiments? Is he really happy that it will be possible for us to curry out our commitments with that reduced provision?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am satisfied, as are other Ministers and Service chiefs in the Ministry of Defence, that we shall be able to meet our commitments in the future. I certainly understand my noble friend's concern. It is a worry that he expressed in the defence debate last summer. I can only repeat the assurance that my right honourable friend the: Secretary of State gave yesterday to another place that we now wish to see stability so far as concerns the fighting strength of our armed forces, and that includes the infantry.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the Minister has responded to a number of questions about overstretch. Indeed, overstretch is a problem that your Lordships have recognised. Perhaps I may refer to the press report of a speech by the Secretary of State for Defence, Mr. Rifkind, to the Royal United Services Institute on 27th September. He stated: Parliament, and in particular the Public Accounts Committee, quite rightly in my view, expect Ministers and officials to take responsibility for, and explain, decisions taken years before. The excuse that this was someone else's responsibility is, quite simply, not acceptable". Does that mark a change in government policy?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I do not believe that it marks any change in government policy. I do not think that I have sought to hide behind the decisions of those who went before me, whether they are members of the party of which I happen to be a member or of the party opposite.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, will the participation by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force in NATO exercises this winter be in any way curtailed due to the demands made on the air transport force by the recent crisis in the Gulf?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I am not aware of any plans to curtail participation in the exercises. However, I prefer to take advice on the matter and I shall write to the noble and gallant Lord.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, will the Minister tell us when there is likely to be a chance of 24 months between unaccompanied tours?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I prefer to give what might be described as an evasive answer and say, shortly. That would be easier than giving a more precise figure.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, will the noble Lord tell the House whether there is likely to be legislation in the next Session which will ensure the flexible use of the Territorial Army in the event of various crises?

Lord Henley

My Lords, obviously I cannot comment in advance on the Queen's Speech at state opening. I can inform my noble friend that units of the Territorial Army of platoon strength are due to serve, or are serving at present, in the Falklands.