§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Robert G. Hughes.]
§ [Relevant documents: The Third Report from the Defence Committee on Options for Change: Army-Review of the White Paper, Britain's Army for the 90s, Cm. 1595 HC 45 of Session 1991–92, the First Special Report containing the Government's Reply thereto, HC 175 of Session 1992–93, and the Second Report on Britain's Army for the 90s: Commitments and Resources, HC 306 of Session 1992–93.]
§ Madam Speaker
Before I call the Minister I must point out that I am not minded to put a 10-minute limit on speeches today although a number of hon. Members are seeking to be called. I simply make a plea for short speeches.
§ The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton)
I welcome this opportunity to debate the Army, which is deployed in many parts of the world, protecting British interests and keeping peace on behalf of the United Nations. I will dwell, if I may, on the two operational commitments of the Army in Northern Ireland and our recent responsibilities in the former Republic of Yugoslavia.
So first to Northern Ireland, our largest and most important continuing peacetime commitment. The Government's highest priority is the protection of the United Kingdom and the lives and liberties of its citizens. In Northern Ireland it is not possible for that day-to-day protection to be provided by the police alone, as in the rest of the United Kingdom. Both my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary regard the assistance of the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force as essential, so that progress can be made in achieving normality throughout the Province To this end, the armed forces carry out tasks which the RUC requires them to perform, and to which their military skills are best suited. The position is absolutely clear: the armed forces act in support of the RUC, within the law. That is the proper way to deal with terrorist crime in the United Kingdom.
It is of course the continuing vile attacks of terrorists which create the need for the Army to operate in support of the RUC. In the past year, terrorists from both sides of the community have continued to show themselves ready to murder members of the community as they go about their lawful everyday business. Two incidents clearly illustrate the barbarous nature of terrorism in Northern Ireland. In January last year, republican terrorists murdered eight workmen at Teebane in County Tyrone. The following month, so-called "loyalist" terrorists murdered five people at random in a betting shop in Belfast.
Neither side has furthered its political or other aims to the slightest degree by these or other atrocities which it has committed. Nor will the two sides do so by any further terrorist acts. All they achieve is to strengthen the resolve of all civilised people that terrorism will never succeed, while they merely postpone the day when soldiers will no longer be needed to support the police on the streets of Northern Ireland.
890 At present we have about 19,000 service men and women deployed in Northern Ireland. They include some 250 Royal Navy, and 1,100 Royal Air Force personnel, who make a vital contribution in operations on sea and in the air. But the main bulk of our forces is provided by the Army, with over 17,500 men and women. The core of the Army's strength is 18 major units of battalion size in the infantry role. These comprise six units on accompanied tours of around two years; six units of unaccompanied tours of six months; and six home service battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment which are permanently deployed on operations in Northern Ireland. Force levels in Northern Ireland are kept continually under review in the light of changing circumstances, and will continue to be adjusted as and when appropriate.
A major development in the last year was the formation on 1 July 1992—Somme day—of the Royal Irish Regiment, with the merger of the Royal Irish Rangers arid the Ulster Defence Regiment. The merger has been extremely successful, and the new regiment combines the best traditions of its forebears. I am confident that the regiment will continue to go from strength to strength. I remind the House that the home service element of the Royal Irish Regiment has now been on continuous operations in Northern Ireland for nearly 23 years—a unique record in the history of the British Army, and a mark of the bravery and dedication which the men and women of the regiment have repeatedly demonstrated. Soldiers of the regiment continue to face the threat of terrorist attack every day, whether they are on or off duty.
All our soldiers share this threat. In total, six soldiers were murdered in terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland in 1992, and two have been murdered so far in 1993. Three hundred and twenty soldiers were wounded or injured in 1992; the figure for 1993 to date is twenty-six.
Despite the continual risks they face, soldiers in Northern Ireland have continued to go about their duty bravely and resolutely, and with single-minded dedication. Their patience and hard work have led to many successes in the fight against terrorism. Many lives have been saved because the Army's operations in support of the RUC have deterred terrorist attacks.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way with his characteristic courtesy. What advice is given to the relatives and next of kin of service men and women who are injured or killed in civilian accidents such as road accidents? Are they given any advice about the possibility of taking court action against the people deemed to be guilty of causing such accidents?
§ Mr. Hamilton
Notifying the next of kin is done through the chain of command. There is a well-oiled machine to deal with it, and everyone accepts that it is done very well. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about the question of notifying relatives whether they can sue, because I would not want to misinform him about the information that is given to them. It is possible that they are told that they can take action, but I shall have to look into it.
During 1992, 404 people were arrested and charged with terrorist offences, 243 weapons were recovered, and 29,131 rounds of ammunition. The Army's explosive ordnance disposal teams were called out on 1,544 occasions. They neutralised 149 terrorist explosive devices, 891 containing more than 6 tonnes of explosive. I am pleased to tell the House that our soldiers' valiant efforts do not go unrecognised. In 1992, our service men and women in Northern Ireland received 356 awards for gallantry and meritorious conduct. I know from my own regular visits and briefings just how richly deserved those awards are.
We all know that the task of providing the military support which the police need in Northern Ireland is enormous. It has continued now for more than 23 years. But I can assure the House that the Army and all the armed forces will continue to provide that support until the day when my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Chief Constable no longer need them, and we will make every effort to make that day sooner rather than later.
I should like now to turn to the former Republic of Yugoslavia. As the House knows, we have had a field ambulance unit of 250 personnel deployed since May last year to provide second line medical support to the United Nations protection force in Croatia, and in November last year we provided an armoured infantry battalion group with a brigade headquarters and Royal Engineer and logistic support totalling 2,500 personnel to help with the expansion of UNPROFOR to provide protective support for humanitarian convoys in Bosnia operating under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or the International Committee of the Red Cross in the case of released detainees.
During the six months of the United Kingdom's presidency of the European Communities in July to December last year we also provided some 40 Army personnel to fill headquarters and support posts in the EC's monitor mission in the former Yugoslavia. Army personnel have in addition served as United Nations military observers, undertaking a variety of tasks in Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia.
Men and women in all three services are performing important and worthwhile tasks in, for example, the airlift to Sarajevo and the current operations in the Adriatic. I am glad to have this opportunity to pay tribute to them all. But it is of course the battalion group in Bosnia which has been most often in the news. Often operating in very severe conditions in central and north-east Bosnia, with its main logistics base at Split and its battalion HQ at Vitez, the battalion group and its Warrior, Scimitar and Scorpion vehicles have had the task of escorting humanitarian convoys, taking supplies from the UNHCR warehouse at Metkovic up country to Vitez and thence to a variety of destinations, including Tuzla and Doboj, Travnik and Zenica. More recently, United Kingdom troops have also escorted convoys from Kiseljak to Sarajevo. Since the operation began in November, the battalion has escorted a total of 279 convoys carrying 20,000 tonnes of aid.
But support to the UNHCR's effort has taken other forms, not just the provision of a close escort for the convoys where necessary, although that is done wherever convoys are operating to hitherto closed areas or close to a front line or with a high degree of danger. Support often takes the form of constant patrolling and negotiation to reduce tension and ease the passage of a convoy, and the provision of general patrolling and better communications.
892 The composition of the battalion group and its support reflects the many different capabilities and skills which the task and its logistic back-up require. In addition to the armoured infantry and armoured reconnaissance capability of the Cheshire Regiment, the Royal Irish Regiment and the 9th-12th Lancers, the Royal Engineers have had a vital role to play in opening up and keeping open the supply routes in mountainous and muddy terrain and in severe weather conditions, as well as providing infrastructure and accommodation. Transport, communications, ordnance and many other specialist personnel have also been involved; and a casualty evacuation capability is provided by four Royal Navy Sea King helicopters. The battalion group will be relieved in May by the Prince of Wales Regiment and units from Germany.
The importance of the task needs no underlining. Hundreds of thousands are being kept alive by the supplies which the international relief effort is getting to a people suffering from the devastating effects of civil conflict. It is a task that is being done in difficult and dangerous conditions, including a shattered infrastructure and the ever-present dangers of the eruption of violence—risks which were brought all too starkly home by the tragic killing of Lance Corporal Edwards on 13 January.
British troops are fulfilling their United Nations mandate to use all possible means to ensure that humanitarian relief reaches those who need it in Bosnia. They are not there to confront the warring fractions. Nor are they there to fight their way through with aid convoys. They are there to provide a military escort to humanitarin aid convoys whose progress has been negotiated with all sides by the United Nations. If negotiations fail, the convoys do not run.
But worthwhile as the humanitarian operation is, it can treat only the symptoms, not the causes of the conflict. We must accept that some of the aid is inevitably feeding those directly involved in the fighting. Indeed, we have reports of warehouses of the combatants stacked to the roof with United Nations food aid. The horrors of ethnic cleansing continue apace—a matter of great concern to our troops who know that they can do nothing to prevent it. We must, therefore, continue to give our full support to the international conference on the former Yugoslavia in its efforts to help the parties reach a lasting political settlement.
It is natural, against the background of the Army's operational deployments in the Balkans and in Northern Ireland, and of its other emergency tour plot commitments to Belize, the Falkland Islands and Cyprus, that our plans for the size of the British Army should once again come under critical examination, but I should like to consider that in the context of our overall defence policy.
We have seen some dramatic changes in the security of western Europe in general and the United Kingdom in particular. The Warsaw pact no longer exists and the Soviet Union has disintegrated. In addition, the rundown of our garrison in Hong Kong further reduces the commitments of the three services, the Army in particular. Our plans parallel those of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies and the countries of the former Warsaw pact. Indeed, some of our allies—Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, for example—are contemplating manpower reductions of the order of 50 per cent. —very much larger than our own.
As the House knows, Britain spends more than the average of our European partners on defence–4 per cent.
893 of GDP compared with a NATO average of 2.9 per cent. —and there are good reasons for that. We have excellently equipped armed forces who are all volunteers and demonstrate a professionalism in their job which is the envy of the world. We remain a nuclear power, and our possession of the nuclear deterrent ultimately underwrites the security of both Britain and our European partners. Having said that, I do not see any reason why the United Kingdom should bear an ever-increasing proportion of the financial burden when other European and north American allies are reducing their levels of defence spending.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
Before the Minister leaves the nuclear issue, will he say a word about nuclear testing? He will have seen a powerful letter to The Times signed by General Beach and other distinguished signatories putting a case against it. Some of us find it a matter of shame that we alone should go on with the so-called necessity of nuclear testing. What is the policy?
§ Mr. Hamilton
As the hon. Gentleman knows, nuclear testing is carried out at the facilities provided by the United States. If it is not prepared to provide us with those facilities, plainly, we cannot nuclear test. We regard it as important for the future and safety of our deterrent that we should be able to continue to test and maintain the deterrent into the future. That has always been our policy.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
It now appears that the United States is demanding far more for our use of that test site. Does the Minister agree that that has considerable implications for our defence estimates? Would it not be far more logical for us to follow the lead given by all the other nuclear powers and give up testing, save the expense, and make sure that the money is used for more conventional forms of defence?
§ Mr. Hamilton
I would take the hon. Gentleman's intervention rather more seriously if he had not been totally against all forms of nuclear weapons for as long as I have been in the House and probably for as long as he has been here. The Labour party is bitterly divided on the whole issue of whether we should have a nuclear deterrent. I never quite know how the numbers compare between those who would have no nuclear deterrent and those members of the Labour party, many of whom, including the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), who is on the Front Bench, were former members of CND and have now become converts and believe that we should have a nuclear deterrent.
§ Dr. David Clark (South Shields)
It is important to remember that we are discussing nuclear testing. As the Minister knows, the Americans, the French and the Russians have agreed to a moratorium on nuclear testing. A great deal of information suggests that there is no need for testing. Why do not the Government follow the other countries and accede to a ban on nuclear testing, because it is quite clearly not necessary? That is the position of the Labour party, if the Minister wants to know.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying Labour's position. The Government regard testing as necessary. If we did not, we would not go ahead with it. As other nuclear systems are developed we have to 894 be able to test them and we must be able to test improvements in safety, and so on. If that is not done, the viability of the deterrent deteriorates.
The Select Committee on Defence recommended that all future amalgamations of infantry regiments should be cancelled. Unfortunately, the Committee did not put a cost on that. I shall do so. The Committee's plans would cost an extra £200 million per annum. The Select Committee also failed to tell us how such cancellations should be paid for. Would it be by additional defence expenditure, increasing the already high public sector borrowing requirement, or by reducing the other two services? I must tell the Committee that there is no such thing as a free lunch. We shall have to look hard at our existing commitments.
§ Mr. Winston Churchill (Davyhulme)
It is significant that cancellation of all remaining amalgamations and suspensions of regiments would cost only £200 million a year. Redundancies, let alone unemployment benefits that would be drawn by redundant soldiers over the next two years, amount to no less than £350 million in each year.
§ Mr. Hamilton
Yes, but my hon. Friend wants to restore the front line of the Army. To do that we would need to continue to recruit heavily, because young men are needed. The current restructuring basically takes into account people who have served rather longer. My hon. Friend should not assume that restoring front-line infantry regiments would cause the redundancies to cease. We are talking not merely about numbers but about a career structure for the Army, and that must be taken into account. Redundancies are a one-off cost, but if we abandoned all the amalgamations that are now planned, we would face a cost of £200 million every year for the indefinite future. That is a considerable cost, and the money would have to be found from the defence budget.
§ Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)
My right hon. Friend will know that my constituency has one of the Army's manning and record offices. It is at South Wigston, but following my right hon. Friend's decision of 13 January, it is to be closed, with a view to all the records being moved to a central personnel centre in Glasgow. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that no firm decision has yet been taken about the location of the office? Can he give any hope to my constituents that Leicestershire will retain its army records office?
Even though the consultation period runs out at the end of the month, is there any chance still of a split site so that the Army manning and records office can be held on two sites linked with computers, as is now possible? As my right hon. Friend will understand, with nearly 200 jobs going in my constituency as a result of this decision, the redundancies will affect not only the military staff but the civilian staff.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I can certainly tell my hon. Friend that this is a proposal. It is the subject of consultation at the moment. It is not possible to extend the consultation period, but we will look at the possibility of a split site. No decision has been taken on this, and the rumour that we have already agreed to buy Tay house in Glasgow is not right because no decision has been taken. The consultation will continue, and we hope to be able to make a decision after the end of this month, once the consultation period is at an end.
§ Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)
Before leaving his comments on the Defence Committee's report and his assessment of the comparative costs, one against the other, will the Minister consider that the costs we ought to bear in mind are not simply the financial ones? Some of the units that we have examined during the rundown, since the end of the cold war, have necessitated service men and women spending 260 nights out of bed in any one year. In terms of whole-time equivalence on a five-day week, 260 nights out of bed is a whole year out of bed in working schedules. When we put young people in positions of stress, where reactions can cause death very suddenly, either their own or that of other people, it is not a subject for facetious reaction but a matter of serious concern. We measure costs not only in millions of pounds but in the security of society.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I do not think it unreasonable that, if the Select Committee asks for some dramatic change in policy, it should put a cost on it; that is all. Change costs money, and the money must come from somewhere. It is not unreasonable to ask the Committee to suggest where it might come from. I totally accept what the hon. Gentleman says, but my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has already recognised that there is stress in the whole business of the emergency tour plot and the pressure that we are putting on our troops. That is one reason why he made his announcement, which I will come to, to add back 3,000 and move another 2,000 from the support area to relieve that problem.
However, the hon. Gentleman will also recognise, because he has been told so in Committee a number of times, that during the amalgamations the emergency tour plot is becoming much shorter than we would want but that once the whole reorganisation has been completed—
§ Mr. Hamilton
I am talking about 1995, which does not seem very long. At that stage we would be in a position to get back to the 24 months' emergency tour plot interval. After the announcement that my right hon. and learned Friend made, it will actually be better than 24 months, on the assumption that we have made about the commitments that we are having to undertake at the moment.
We must recognise that we cannot conceivably afford to enter future commitments on every occasion that a military option presents itself. We need to assess the extent to which our national interest is involved, the likely success of taking military action in the circumstances and the availability of our armed forces. We should not assume that, for example, the increase in United Nations peacekeeping operations over the past year implies a commensurate increase in United Kingdom participation in such operations.
New demands have been placed on our armed forces, but let me put them in perspective. It is simply not true that we are reducing the size of the Army without reducing the tasks that we ask it to undertake. The number of Army personnel based in Germany in peacetime is reducing from more than 50,000 to around 23,000. We shall have to withdraw our three-battalion garrison in Berlin by the end of next year, and our four-battalion garrison in Hong Kong by 1997. We can commit significantly less of our infantry resources to direct defence of the United 896 Kingdom. These commitments have gone or are in the process of going. They far outweigh the increases that we have accepted in their place.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
My right hon. Friend mentioned Germany and the reduction of Army manpower by about half. Does he realise that BAOR still constitutes the third biggest single item of budgetary expenditure under the new management strategy of £1.45 billion, and that at a time when the Russians seem likely to withdraw all their forces from the eastern part of Germany from August next year? Therefore, will he review critically our commitment of Army personnel, and Royal Air Force too, to Germany because it is disproportionate, unbalancing our budget and investing in jobs in Germany rather than in jobs in the British defence industry and British personnel at home?
§ Mr. Hamilton
It is vital that we make a whole-hearted contribution to NATO. Most of the troops in the ace rapid reaction corps are based in Germany and they are our main contribution to NATO. We are extremely keen that the Americans should remain committed to European defence and should keep troops based in Europe. If we were to withdraw our troops from Germany, it would not be a good signal in view of our hope that the United States should stay here and share generally in the defence of Europe. In those circumstances, it is important that we maintain our commitment to NATO.
Nevertheless the Government have always made clear that the size of our forces would be kept under review and there is no doubt that recent increases in the Army's commitments both in Northern Ireland and the former Republic of Yugoslavia, coinciding as they have with a temporary reduction in the availability of major field army units due to amalgamation and drawdown, has served to reduce emergency tour intervals and placed increasing pressure on individual soldiers and their families.
That is why my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State announced on 3 February an increase in the planned strength of the Army in the mid-1990s by 3,000 to 119,000, the redeployment of a further 2,000 personnel, mainly from the support area, to front-line units of the field Army, and the retention of two further infantry battalions above the number previously planned. This represents a small but sensible adjustment to a changing world situation whcih will ensure that the Army has the flexibility and resilience to meet the challenge of the years ahead.
Restructuring is not limited to the Regular Army. In April last year we announced our plans for the future of the Territorial Army, which will continue to play an important role in the Army's structure—not least in support of the rapid reaction corps. The new organisation of the TA is based on smaller units, to provide the basis for future expansion, and upon locations with good recruiting potential. The need to retain the TA as a territorial force, drawing on its links with the local communities for support and understanding, is reflected in the wide territorial spread of units across the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)
Before we leave the Regular Army and battalion strength, and the question of worldwide commitments, can my right hon. Friend tell us what the future holds for the Gurkhas? That is a worthwhile small unit which will be withdrawn from Hong Kong in due course. Currently the Gurkhas are not used 897 in Northern Ireland, although they gave some of my colleagues and myself a very good demonstration recently of how they might play a useful role in Northern Ireland and communicate well with the local community, something which they will be keen to do. Will my right hon. Friend say what future he sees for the Gurkhas, because they are keen to be active rather than to sit in barracks in the south of England?
§ Mr. Hamilton
I accept what my hon. Friend says. We envisage that the Gurkhas will continue with, I think, a number of about 2,500 on a two-battalion basis, with a training element as well. We envisage them having a future based in this country once they have been removed finally from Hong Kong.
Work is in hand to examine the employment of Army reserves, both TA and individual reservists, in future operations. In particular, we are studying the changes necessary in force structures and in legislation which might permit the participation of reserves in a wider range of operations than hitherto.
Now is not the time or place to comment in detail on the Defence Select Committee's report on these matters. I welcome the Committee's interest, but I should make it clear that, while we shall, of course, continue to keep the long-term strength of the Army under close review in the light of changing circumstances, we have no current plans to make further changes to the Army's force structure. To cancel all amalgamations or disbandments of United Kingdom infantry battalions currently planned, as recommended by the Committee, would, as I have said, cost some £200 million per annum and it would also distort the balance between the infantry and other teeth arms of the Army. I do not believe that this would offer a sensible use of defence resources.
Notwithstanding the adjustment to our plans to which I have referred, we cannot achieve the size of the Army that we are aiming for by 1995 by natural wastage alone, since it will be necessary to maintain a balanced structure of ages, ranks and skills. Redundancies are also needed, although wherever possible use will be made of volunteers. As, however, there is a need to ensure the proper balance of age, skills and experience, it is regrettably not possible to rely on volunteers alone. A total of 838 officers and 2,500 soldiers are being made redundant in the financial year ending in March under phase 1, although all but 143 officers were volunteers.
As the House is aware, tomorrow morning, those who have been selected for phase 2 redundancy–1993–94—will be individually informed. Of the 1,308 officers and 5,152 soldiers, all but 628 officers are volunteers. No soldiers are being made compulsorily redundant. All are first-class people and will be a sad loss to the Army. While I am not prepared to discuss the detail of where they may currently be serving, I do want to point out that, while there have been calls in this House for personnel serving in specific operational theatres to be excluded from the redundancy programme, the Army has made it quite clear—and I agree —that we do not want any special cases.
§ Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)
If I can interpret those words, will the Minister now confirm that there is a possibility that, tomorrow, serving officers under fire in Bosnia may be handed a compulsory redundancy notice?
§ Mr. Hamilton
There is a possibility that a small number of serving officers in Bosnia may be made 898 compulsorily redundant. There is also a possibility that serving officers in Northern Ireland will be made compulsorily redundant. But if we were to change the system—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Hamilton
If we were to change the system for announcing redundancies, we would not be telling those people who had volunteered for redundancy and who are extremely anxious to know whether their application for redundancy has been accepted, and in many cases if the decision were delayed they would lose money.
§ Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)
I note carefully what my right hon. Friend has said. Of course, cuts in the services and compulsory redundancies are not new in British history. Is it not new, however, that when we have forces actively engaged in various theatres in the world, soldiers should still receive redundancy notices? There is widespread public concern about that.
§ Mr. Hamilton
We are talking about soldiers both in Northern Ireland—a number of soldiers in Northern Ireland were part of the phase I redundancies—and elsewhere, who are part of the emergency tour programme and who spend six months in a posting. If we exempt certain members of the Army from being told about redundancy, it will be very difficult to plan redundancies in the Army as a whole. As I have emphasised, most of those who have been made redundant have volunteered for redundancy.
§ Mr. Hamilton
No; I must get on.
It is quite wrong not to tell people who have applied voluntarily for redundancy whether they are to be made redundant. It is therefore very difficult to take out of those numbers the relatively small number of compulsory redundancies without snarling up the entire programme. Regrettably, as I have already said, we have a large number of soldiers serving in Northern Ireland. I find it difficult to differentiate between those who are risking their lives in Northern Ireland and those who are risking their lives in Bosnia. If we exempted them, the whole programme would be very difficult to implement.
The next step will be phase 3 of the redundancy programme. Although the precise figures are unlikely to be available for several months, the signs are that the number involved will be similar to that involved in phase 2. All compulsory "redundees" receive one year's notice, and volunteers receive eight months' notice. All those leaving the Army spend their last six months in the Army serving in the United Kingdom, if that is what they wish. The services' redundancy terms provide for an immediate pension for those with 12 years' service or more, together with a capital payment of up to 18 months' tax-free pay in addition to the normal pension benefits. Those with less then 12 years' service receive a similar capital payment and a preserved pension.
Much has been achieved in improving the support that we offer to those leaving. During 1993–94, we are making allowance for each "redundee" to attend special job search and financial briefings. Taken with the briefings available for all service leavers, 70 different types of career, 899 specialist, job-finding and financial briefings will be available. The Tri-Service Resettlement Organisation will be able to process up to 90,000 applications.
At the same time, all those leaving with more than five years' service, and hence all "redundees", are entitled to 28 days of training for resettlement purposes. The service centres at Aldershot, Catterick and Portsmouth will provide training on 72 different courses, giving an annual capacity of 6,800 places. In addition, 105 MoD-sponsored courses will be available at academic civilian training organisations, with an overall throughout of 9,200 places.
The courses cover a range of subjects such as personnel management, how to run a hotel, electrical and engineering and many others. We also arrange courses for people who wish to set up their own businesses. Additionally, we offer people the opportunity—again, on full pay—to spend time with a civilian employer to gain experience of what it is like in a new organisation. Often, that arrangement will lead directly to employment for a soldier, sailor or airman with the company once he has left the services.
Our "redundees", together with others leaving at the end of their engagements, constitute a flexible, highly trained group of personnel who will be an asset to industry. Last year, we took the major initiative in promoting the launch of the corporate marketing campaign to promote the value of service personnel to civilian employers. Our theme has been "access to excellence", and the product "The best-trained work force in Britain". The campaign is being developed through further advertising, and cascading through service channels and business forums throughout the country.
§ Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)
Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work that the Royal British Legion is doing in Liverpool—and is about to do in Tidworth—in setting up resettlement bases for training not only demobilised service personnel but their families? That work is effective because it is linked with the local training and enterprise councils. Perhaps TECs elsewhere in the country could co-operate with local MoD establishments in setting up similar courses.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I echo my hon. Friend's sentiments, and compliment him on the role that he has played in helping the process. A number of service men's wives are being given secretarial courses and other instruction, which has also proved extremely valuable.
In addition, the job-matching activities of the three services have now been reorganised into a single streamlined organisation, the services employment network, which is free to employers.
In short, we are very optimistic about the effectiveness of what we are doing to prepare the personnel who leave us every year to move to civilian life. It is our belief that their excellent personal qualities, combined with the experience and training that the armed forces have given them, will always be in demand. Time and again, we find that ex-service men and women obtain good jobs in civilian life. That has been our experience in phase I: we understand that over 70 per cent. of those who left on redundancy have now found jobs or have moved overseas.
900 A few tangible examples will illustrate that success. A former lieutenant colonel is now an information technology consultant in a leading European IT management consultancy; a former major is a manager of a water company; an ex-colour sergeant has a carpet and curtain cleaning franchise; two ex-staff sergeants are working as assistant supermarket managers; and a former corporal is a financial services consultant. I could go on, but those examples serve to show the House that our service men are leaving with relevant skills that are well recognised and appreciated by employers.
In conclusion, I wish to pay tribute to all those who serve in our regular and reserve forces, and particularly today to those who serve in the various arms and services of the Army. They are dedicated, loyal and unselfish men and women, and I have the utmost admiration for the professionalism that they display in going about their duties. Indeed, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State announced this afternoon that Her Majesty the Queen has graciously approved the award of battle honours to ships, regiments and squadrons of the three services that took part in the campaign to liberate Kuwait. For the Army, this entails the theatre honour "Gulf 1991" and the battle honours "Wadi Al Batin" and "Western Iraq".
These days, one can hardly move without seeing one opinion poll or another reporting that things are not what they were and that the British public do not hold some of our institutions in as high esteem as they used to. This is not true, however, of our armed forces, who are still held in great respect and who are a source of great pride for the British people—and rightly so.
§ Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)
The right of the Queen's Own Highlanders to have the battle honours of the Gulf on their flags and emblems will be greatly appreciated. The regiment may have time to put them on just before it is disbanded.
I welcome today's debate. For obvious reasons, it has taken a long time to come. However, having obtained it, we may have some prospect of debating the defence estimates for last year before next year's estimates are issued in six weeks' time. The delay is an indication of the Government's reluctance to discuss the issues, although, of course, they welcome our point of view and the reports of the Select Committee.
I begin where the Minister ended—by paying tribute to the women and men of the British Army, who, since the last Army debate, in July 1991, have taken on new and demanding tasks and, as the Minister has said, have carried them out in a dedicated and thoroughly professional manner. I have had an opportunity to meet many of them since the last debate and I do not need to tell the House that, night after night in the streets of the Province of Northern Ireland, and day after day in the cauldron that is Bosnia, they carry out their task in a manner that has become a tradition of the British Army. On behalf of the Opposition, I acknowledge the debt that we owe to those who have given their lives in the service of their country. In discussing defence, we should always remain aware of the human cost.
The Minister dealt with two operational areas—Northern Ireland and Bosnia. I shall not refer to them in detail. I shall say only that of course we support the 901 Government's position in respect of the Army presence in both places—in Northern Ireland, as a necessary but insufficient condition for the resolution of the problems of that Province; in Bosnia, for the specific, limited and clearly defined mandate of the protection of humanitarian convoys. I was glad to hear the Minister say that the objectives remain the same. Despite the diplomatic moves and the events that are taking place on the military front elsewhere, our objectives remain limited and unchanged.
Perhaps, in the spirit of unity that normally pervades these debates, I should start by congratulating the Minister and his colleagues. In the past year and a half, they have achieved what all of us thought was impossible: they have brought together all three services, the Opposition parties, the Select Committee, their own Back Benchers, academic specialists, the press and almost anyone else who has cared to examine the defence issue over the past two years. The fact that the Government have reconciled the seemingly irreconcilable is testimony to the genius with which they have approached presiding over our defence. The fact that the reason for this unprecedented meeting of minds has been universal condemnation of their own policies does not in any way detract from the enormity of their achievement in this field.
§ Mr. Rod Richards (Clwyd, North-West)
What, in the hon. Gentleman's view, what would be the effect of cuts in the defence budget along the lines recommended by the Labour party conference of, I understand, about £6 billion, specifically on the Army and the current missions and tasks of the armed forces?
§ Dr. Reid
The hon. Gentleman approaches the subject with the freshness and vigour of a new boy. He will be glad to know that I intend to deal with that precise point at some considerable length. The cut demanded by the Labour party conference, to which members of the Labour Front Bench always pay attention, was about 29 per cent. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman holds that figure in his head as I elaborate at greater length. Having mentioned the ingenuity shown by the Government on the question of "Options for Change"—[Interruption.] I assure hon. Members that I shall deal with it fully, and they will find some surprising facts in what I have to say.
The Secretary of State's statement about the regiments on 3 February was only the latest, but not the anal, instalment in one of the most bizarre policy-making exercises that the House and the country have ever seen. Let us recall the events that led up to it, so that we can elucidate exactly where the Government think that they are going.
In February 1990, the then Secretary of State for Defence, who graces us with his presence today, told the House that a reassessment of British defence policy was being conducted under the curious title "Options for Change". I say "curious" because at no time have right hon. and hon. Members been offered any options on the future of the country's security or, indeed, choices of any description. Nevertheless, the Secretary of State for Defence proceeded in February 1990.
Four months later, in July, following what must have been the fastest defence policy re-evaluation of any country in history, the Government announced the main conclusions of that process by stating that our armed 902 forces would be reduced to about 255,000 regular personnel. No indication was given of the strategic thinking behind that proposal.
A year later, presumably following an exhaustive mental effort, the then Secretary of State made almost exactly the same announcement again. This time, the armed forces were to be reduced to 246,000 regular personnel, so the combined impact of the events of the previous 12 months—the collapse of the Warsaw pact, the break-up of the Soviet Union, the disintegration of Leninism, the unification of Germany, the treaty on conventional forces in Europe, and the Gulf war—was apparently equal to 9,000 soldiers.
The Government had worked that out after a year. Still nothing was said about Britain's place in the post-cold war world, about the threats that we would face or the new missions and roles that our armed forces would be asked to perform, despite the fact that two and a half to three years ago, the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, without several hundred thousand civil servants, were clearly identifying the type of new risks that would replace the old threat from the Soviet Union and redefining the type of threat that we would face. We argued that the new threats should be the basis for the structuring of our forces, but the Government apparently found it difficult to do that. Instead of a coherent strategic assessment, we were offered bland generalisations about how the world was less threatening but more unpredictable.
In November 1991, four months after the Secretary of State's announcement, the NATO Heads of State agreed the alliance's new strategic concept. Apparently by some happy coincidence, the Government had got it just right and the United Kingdom force structures, announced four months before the NATO strategic document was outlined, fitted exactly into the new NATO strategy. No changes were needed, although NATO had changed its strategy.
Having seen the intellectual and incoherent mess that his predecessor had bequeathed him, the new Secretary of State attempted in July 1992 to paper over the credibility gaps by redefining Britain's defence roles: out go direct defence of the United Kingdom, a commitment to the European mainland, protection of the eastern Atlantic and the maintenance of a nuclear deterrent, and in come the protection of United Kingdom independent territories, insurance against external threats and the promotion of international peace and stability.
The Secretary of State seemed to operate according to some inverse logic. Whereas conventional wisdom would have us believe that the armed forces should be structured according to the requirements of strategy, we had a new doctrine from the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Apparently he believed that the strategy should be formulated according to the requirements of the existing force structure, which had been decided in advance. What else could possibly explain the chronology of events, other than a decision to base strategy on existing force structures, which, in turn, were being shaped purely by the Treasury? The other way about is the normal way of doing things when operating the relationship between strategy, tactics and structures.
But even that attempt at strategic justification of the Government's policy does not suffice, because, after all, the new roles defined in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1992" are only a new way of saying the old thing. For two and a half years, my hon. Friends and 903 almost every defence expert in Britain have been asking the Government to conduct a full defence review. Match resources to commitments, but do not continue to cut resources while extending commitments. But there is still no indication that the Government are prepared to undertake the sort of qualitative review of Britain's military role that we desperately need.
Instead, the armed forces of the decade ahead will be exactly the same as those of the decades of the past, only smaller. It has been shown by the autumn statement that the new Secretary of State intends to follow his predecessor's example of dancing to the Treasury tune and making the rest up as he goes along.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman because he is often shoulder to shoulder with me whenever jobs are being lost throughout the country in the Royal Navy and the Army, but he will know that many of the cuts will take perhaps five years to implement. He and his party may be in power in five years' time. He is clearly demonstrating his resistance to being forced by the Treasury into taking action.
Will the hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the Labour party is committed to applying the full resources necessary—whatever the Foreign Secretary says may be necessary for the requirements of defence in the world—that they would not be Treasury-driven and that Labour would maintain the spend to which the current Secretary of State for Defence is committed?
§ Dr. Reid
Before answering the hon. Gentleman's question, I will explain why Ministers are exclusively Treasury-driven. I am not saying that the Treasury never has an effect on any Department—[Interruption.] We know that it does; none of us lives in an unreal world, with the exception of some Ministers. They are exclusively Treasury-driven for the simple reason that present Ministers have no strategic analysis to combat Treasury pressure. If they had conducted, as a Labour Government will, a full defence review, they would be in a position to act when the bargaining starts.
If I have any responsibility at that stage, I hope that the Ministers presiding over defence in the then Labour Government would be in a position to argue against Treasury pressure if it affected the security interests of the nation. But if there has not been an analysis in the first place, when the man from the Treasury arrives and puts a gun at one's head, there is nothing one can say. Conservative Back Benchers know that what I say is correct. Indeed, the ex-Minister, who has now left the House, the redundant armed forces Minister who has now become something of a statesman and an arms dealer, also knew that.
§ Mr. Richards
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he would argue the case for defence expenditure as against health service expenditure?
§ Dr. Reid
I shall deal—[Interruption.] I assure the House that I will answer that question to the hon. Gentleman's satisfaction. I shall also deal with the question of resources. I can answer in a nutshell by saying that nobody in Britain, and certainly none of my hon. Friends, is saying that we should increase defence expenditure—[Interruption.] Conservative Members will 904 have all revealed to them. They are apparently incapable of understanding, although I have explained the position several times.
We are saying that when defence expenditure is being cut—as it has been, is being and will be—it is more vital than ever to make sure that the distribution of resources goes to shape forces that meet the modern threat. But nobody can do that unless they have analysed the risks and the threats—and that cannot be achieved without a full defence review. That is why the whole Government process has been flawed from the start. I shall elaborate shortly on the implications of that for internal distribution and in relation to the figures for which the Secretary of State has been asked.
"Options for Change" was flawed in its conception and the climbdown announced by the Secretary of State on 3 February, though welcome, does nothing to tackle the underlying problems inherent in the Government's approach. The reprieving of four regiments was a necessary step, but, as the Select Committee reported earlier this month, it will not resolve the mounting problems of overstretch in the British Army. There is a mismatch between resources and commitment. Since "Options for Change" was originally announced, the Government have added three extra tours to the British Army's emergency tour plot, two more in Northern Ireland and one in Bosnia. Sadly, there seems little prospect of those commitments disappearing in the near future, especially Bosnia, where the number of troops may even increase.
According to the Select Committee, five battalions are needed to cover each tour plot to achieve the Government's intended interval of 24 months. That means that the Government have increased the British Army's tasks by the equivalent of 15 battalions, while increasing the planned number of battalions by only two. Those are the stark figures from which Ministers cannot escape. They have increased the tasks by the equivalent of 15 battalions and have increased the number of battalions by two.
In view of that simple equation, it is clear that we are further away than ever from realising the goal of a 24-month interval for battalions carrying out emergency tours. The result will be continued overstretch, an increasing burden on the Army and the demoralisation of the soldiers. There will be an increased drop-out rate as a consequence and, therefore, increased cost.
In discussing the issue of overstretch, it is vital to recognise the human as well as the strategic consequences of the policies being implemented by the Government. The soldiers who serve in the British Army risk their lives on our behalf. We owe them, and we continually say that we owe them, a great debt of gratitude. So there is an obligation on us to ensure that their conditions of service are acceptable. Overstretch is not a theoretical or just a strategic problem. It imposes an intolerable strain on our soldiers and their families, it disrupts their lives and it saps their morale.
I fear that in the scramble for savings, the human element has been lost. When a soldier has shorter intervals between tours to Northern Ireland, when he does not have time for training or adventure training and when he has guard duty imposed on him continually—the activity which most normal soldiers hate—the morale of the Army is disrupted, and morale is the foundation on which fighting capability is based.
905 The Government's U-turn was inadequate because it was prompted by a sense of political embarrassment rather than by a coherent vision of the security challenges facing the country and the appropriate responses required. It was a process, as it were, of salami slicing in reverse—the alter ego of "Options for Change". It failed the credibility test because it was a sticking plaster when radical surgery was needed.
There is in the Government an unwillingness to face realities and make hard decisions. That has been the hallmark of their defence policies, a tendency accompanied by mounting crises in the defence budget. "Options for Change" was only the ultimate manifestation of that tragedy. By cutting resources without any corresponding structural reprioritisation of commitments, the Government ducked their responsibility to our soldiers and their responsibility to provide firm leadership. By seeking to maintain existing force structures while maintaining incremental savings across the board, the Government have ended up with an unhappy compromise that is the worst of all possible worlds. So far, the Conservatives have proved themselves adept at the old Goebbels principle that people are more likely to believe a bigger than a smaller one.
§ Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley)
I admire the hon. Gentleman's skill in making it difficult for us to attack his argument. The logical corollary of what he is saying is that either we should reduce our commitments or increase our spending on the armed services. Of which is he in favour?
§ Dr. Reid
That is partly a corollary of what I am saying. A full defence review would ensure, first, that our resources met our commitments and, secondly, that the structure of our forces met the perceived risk.
I must explain to the hon. Gentleman that the threat used to be defined as having two parts—intention and capability. When the Soviet Union existed it was easy to define the threat. The Soviet Union certainly had the capability and people assumed that the motivation was there, too. That was a big cumbersome threat, which was easy to assess.
The Government were not prepared to listen two and a half to three years ago, when some of us said that that big threat was giving way to what were called smaller risks —flashpoints around the world, such as ethnic tensions and rivalries, border disputes and the birth of new nations. The type of force structure needed to deal with such risks is different from what was needed to deal with the big Soviet threat.
The problem is that the Government embarked on the cuts without a full defence review to analyse the changes, so they ended up by making incremental cuts. I hope that I have given a full answer to the hon. Gentleman's question.
§ Dr. Reid
I shall give way in a while. I know that there is a group of vigorous new Members there, and they have already asked me to answer two questions, which I have yet to reach. Once I have reached those answers I promise that I shall give way again.
I was talking about the big lie. We know about the lies that we have heard before, such as that the Conservative 906 party is the party of low taxation—that one sticks in the mind. Until recently, another of the big lies was that the Conservative party was the party of sound financial management—we all remember that one. Another two were the claims that the Conservative party was the party of law and order, and that the Conservative party did not devalue. We could spend all day on those big lies, but the one on which I shall concentrate today is the idea that the Conservative party is the party of strong defence.
Let us look at the statistics for which Conservative Members have asked me. We must remember that the important statistic that I mentioned was that the Labour party conference had asked for a cut of about 29 to 30 per cent. Conservative Members must keep that figure in mind, and I shall deal with it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Six billion pounds."] No, there is no absolute figure of £6 billion. That may be Conservative Members' interpretation, but if they want to attack us they should use the figure that I am giving them. Keep it in mind.
Let us look at defence expenditure under the Conservatives.
§ Dr. Reid
No, I shall not give way, because I am courteous enough to try to reply to the questions that I have already been asked before replying to subsequent questions. I shall now deal with the very figures that the Conservatives have been demanding for two years.
Between 1979–80 and 1984–85—the first five years of the Conservative Government—defence expenditure did increase by 22 per cent. in real terms. That is why Baroness Thatcher used to glory in being called the iron lady. That sustained increase during the first half of the 1980s is constantly used as the basis of the Conservatives' claim to be the party of strong defence. Unfortunately for them, they cannot rewrite history. In reality, that increase of 22 per cent.—[Interruption.] Let me tell the young hon. Gentlemen, because I know that they are keen to learn.
The 22 per cent. increase was nothing to do with the resolute nature of the Conservative Government or their leader. The real source of the increase was the commitment given to NATO by James Callaghan and the Labour Government in 1977 to increase our commitment by 3 per cent. per annum in real terms. That commitment was honoured and was approved by the House before the Tory Government were elected in 1979. That was the source of the 1980–85 figure, and the 22 per cent. increase.
§ Dr. Reid
There is more, I am afraid. I am giving a full answer to the question, and then I shall give way.
Let us examine defence expenditure since 1985. That is the expenditure of which the Conservatives can genuinely claim authorship, and it will take us from 1985 until about 1997 or even 2000—the Conservatives keep telling us that they will still be in government then. Under current plans, by 1995–96 defence expenditure will have dropped by 20 per cent. in real terms over the preceding decade—a 20 per cent. cut since the Labour increase stopped.
Revealing though that figure is, if we project that trend forward into the second half of the 1990s—given the Government's intentions and their appalling fiscal ineptitude, that is a modest assumption—the defence budget will have been cut by a further 9 per cent. by the 907 year 2000. I have said 20 per cent., now I am going to tax the intellectuals on the Conservative Benches by asking them to add together 20 per cent. and 9 per cent.—[Interruption.] I can hear their minds working; I can hear them stirring.
§ Dr. Reid
I should prefer the hon. Members who asked me the question to answer mine; there would be a certain satisfaction in that. I believe that when they have thrown some pieces of paper into the basket, and have got the abacus out, they will discover that the figure for the Government's cuts in defence from 1985 to the end of the century will be 29 per cent. in real terms—exactly the figure asked for by the Labour party conference. Although we were not in power, the Conservatives were good enough to carry out the Labour party conferences resolution, and I congratulate them.
§ Mr. Archie Hamilton
Does the hon. Gentleman not admit that we are talking not about 1984–85 but about a Labour party conference decision made last year? It is no good the hon. Gentleman talking about reductions in defence expenditure since 1984–85, because the resolution said that defence expenditure should be reduced to the European average from last year—a cut of 27.5 per cent. from the present level. So we are still talking about a dramatic cut of £6 billion to £8 billion in the defence budget.
§ Dr. Reid
It really takes the biscuit for a Tory Minister to complain that the Labour party was five years too late in calling for the defence cuts that the Conservatives had started five years earlier.
I have dealt in some detail with the figures. We criticise not the fact that there has been a reduction in defence expenditure but the sheer hypocrisy of a Government who cut defence in practice while accusing other parties of wishing to cut defence in theory.
§ Dr. Reid
I have already given way several times, and I shall allow the hon. Gentleman to return to the subject.
As I have already proved, under the Conservative Government defence expenditure has been cut, is being cut and will continue to be cut. Only the political posturing of a Government who have come to believe their own propaganda prevents them from admitting it openly. The three Ministers sit there—the three wise ministerial monkeys: "See no cuts, hear no cuts, speak no cuts." They have talked themselves into believing the propaganda that they have pushed out.
No one denies that it was valid to expect a significant redistribution of resources following the end of the cold war, even if the rosy assumptions of 1990 look distinctly tarnished in 1993. The search for savings was necessary and the Opposition would readily have welcomed it were it not for the following facts.
First, on black Wednesday whatever peace dividend there may have been was frittered away in a matter of hours in a display of the most breathtaking financial incompetence. Secondly, the Government's policies lamentably failed to take account of the fact that, when 908 resources are dwindling, it is more important than ever to prioritise commitments and target spending where it is most needed.
That is why the Opposition are prepared to support programmes such as Challenger 2 or the add-back of the infantry. Those programmes enhance the mobility and flexibility of our armed forces in dealing with the security threats that this country is likely to face. But—this refers to the second question which I have still to answer—we shall not support spending up to £3,000 million on a new sub-strategic, tactical air-to-surface nuclear weapon for which there is no clear military need and which serves no useful purpose. It is a disgrace and a disservice to our soldiers that we are spending £3,000 million on a new nuclear weapon which is not needed—while we are putting them on the dole, giving them compulsory redundancy and disbanding infantry regiments which are needed to deal with the very threats that we now face.
§ Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we need a flexible response? Does he accept that, with the defeat of the Soviet Union —it surely has been defeated—the nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union are still in place in Russia, Byelorussia, Uzbekistan and other parts of the former USSR? Does he further accept that there is an increasingly strong relationship between Iran and the southern states of the former Soviet Union, that there is the gravest danger that nuclear weapons will spread out of the Commonwealth of Independent States and that we need to keep not only Trident—to which the hon. Gentleman has not yet referred—but a flexible response to counter—
§ Dr. Reid
I am trying to think of something courteous to say. I admire the sincerity with which the hon. Gentleman puts his view.
We make our position plain. We believe that it is a criminal disservice to our soldiers who have been sacked to spend £3,000 million on a new nuclear weapon for which there is no military need. We cannot put it more simply.
§ Mr. Nigel Evans
I am rather perplexed by what the hon. Gentleman has had to say to the House. Are we listening to a rescinding of the Labour party manifesto commitment of 1992? The Labour party went into that campaign saying that it would cut defence expenditure in Britain to the average of the other European countries. In my constituency I have many thousands of people working at British Aerospace on the European fighter aircraft and the Tornado. Is the hon. Gentleman telling them that their jobs would go if a Labour Government were re-elected?
§ Dr. Reid
The only thing that was wrong with the hon. Gentleman's question was that its premise was false. I assure him that there was no such statement in Labour's manifesto. I will accompany him to the Library after my speech and get the manifesto. He will find that it contains two commitments on defence. One is to conduct a full defence review. The other is to pay whatever is necessary to defend Britain. He must not believe the propaganda that he was sent from Conservative central office during the election campaign. If the hon. Gentleman can find the phrase that he used or a pledge of cuts anywhere in Labour's manifesto, I will treat him to a dinner in the House.
§ Dr. Reid
I am sorry, but I want other hon. Members to be able to speak. I have given way liberally.
In refusing to make the choices that I have described, the Government are producing not a redistribution of resources but a maldistribution of reduced resources.
I was giving the reasons why we cannot take "Options for Change" seriously. The third reason is that the reductions have not been carried out in any coherent or systematic fashion. The House does not have to take my word for it. The Tory-dominated Defence Select Committee said:
'Options for Change' regrettably fails to … provide a coherent strategic overview.It takes an ingenuity beyond belief on the part of Ministers in a Tory Government to unite the whole Defence Select Committee against them. In an unprecedented move, the Committee has tabled an early-day motion which criticises the Government's cuts under "Options for Change". So Conservative Members need not believe me if they do not wish to, but they should at least have some respect for some of the points which have been made by their honourable colleagues in the Conservative party.
Fourthly, in some cases it is by no means certain that the proposed changes will save money or increase efficiency. I merely give one example of that. As hon. Members will know, until now recruits have done preliminary training over 21 weeks. There has been a high drop-out rate. The Government have decided to split the period of training into 11 weeks and 10 weeks at different bases. I predict now that there will be an even higher drop-out rate. The reason is one of personnel rather than theory.
Most of the drop-out among young recruits who enter the Army is a result of the shell shock of suddenly being told by some large, well-trained sergeant-major that he is their mother now. It is only with some difficulty that many young people attune themselves to that. Previously, once they had attuned themselves, they had the same sergeant-major or corporal for 21 weeks. Now, after 11 weeks they will meet an even burlier sergeant-major who will deny the earlier parentage and demand that they accept that he is their mother for the next 10 weeks.
I predict to Ministers that the scheme, presumably thought up by cosy civil servants sitting in Whitehall who have not been on a parade ground for years, will result in further and greater dropping out. It will result not in efficiency and cost saving but in further expenditure.
The Government are putting through a massive reduction in Army resources, but they are constantly adding to its tasks. First, the British Army has been charged with leading the new NATO rapid reaction corps, which came into existence in the autumn. Secondly, several of the regular battalions assigned to the rapid reaction corps will be expected simultaneously to carry out an increased number of roulement tours in Northern Ireland. That was never mentioned when we bid for the leadership of the rapid reaction corps in central Europe. Did we tell the Germans that our soldiers would be in Northern Ireland? Did we tell them that the relief of central Europe would be launched from the Falls road? I am sure that the Germans did not understand that. Ministers told us only after they had bid for the rapid reaction corps.
Thirdly, the Secretary of State pledged in May that Britain would assign additional units to carry out missions 910 on behalf of an enhanced Western European Union. Fourthly, in October, not to be outdone—there is a certain rivalry between Defence and Foreign Affairs—the Foreign Secretary went one better in a game of "Anything you can stretch I can stretch further." He promised greater British participation and involvement in United Nations peacekeeping operations.
So, not content with double-hatting or even triple-hatting the British Army, the Government want to quadruple-hat them. The British Army is the only army in the world in which recruits are expected to have four heads. It is not possible to operate an army on that basis. Our service men and women deserve better. They are at the sharp end. They cannot and should not be asked to take the strain of increasing demands imposed upon them.
If the treatment of Army personnel who are to be made redundant, which was mentioned earlier, is any indication of the Government's approach, all of us in the House have a problem, but our service men and women have an even greater problem. The Minister apparently thinks that 28 days training is sufficient for someone who has served the country and risked his life and is then told that he is being made redundant. Is it not an irony that, if an officer is battered over the head by a soldier, the soldier is sent to Colchester and receives a dishonourable discharge but, while he is there, he receives three months training in a trade; but if a soldier acts in an honourable fashion and conducts himself properly throughout his service career, he receives one month's training and a redundancy slip and is sent down the road?
Has no one in the Ministry of Defence thought that there is an anomaly there? A person who is given a dishonourable discharge receives three times more training than a person who has been made compulsorily redundant but has conducted himself in an admirable fashion before discharge.
"Options for Change" revealed that at the heart of the Government's policy is a deep insensitivity to, and ignorance of, the needs of ordinary service personnel. But what else could we expect? They are the Government who, in response to calls for compensation on behalf of nuclear test veterans, said last week that it was no concern of theirs because—I quote the Minister—people who get older are more likely to contract cancer—[Official Report, 9 February 1993; Vol. 218, c. 817.]
That was a breathtakingly complacent and deeply insulting remark.
The Government reject the death penalty for terrorists, but went to the trouble of coming back to the Floor of the House to reinstate the death penalty for British soldiers. So the terrorists who attack the soldiers suffer no execution, but the soldier who, under threat of losing his life, perhaps cracks for a minute, could face the death penalty. They are the Government who axe entire regiments while arrogantly refusing to justify their decision. They then reprieve some of them and refuse to apologise for getting it wrong. They are the Government who, to save money, cut short the careers of soldiers who are desperately needed, while being prepared to waste up to £3 billion on such a militarily useless project as the tactical air-to-surface nuclear missile.
If anything was needed to illustrate the Government's insensitivity, it came in their comments this afternoon on redundancies. Tomorrow, the Government will notify the soldiers who are to be made compulsorily redundant under "Options for Change". That is regrettable. What makes it 911 disgusting is the fact that Ministers have refused to give an assurance that no soldier will receive a redundancy notice while on active service and under fire in Bosnia or in Northern Ireland.
This is not a partisan point. All hon. Members should protest vigorously to the Government. The prospect of a soldier in Bosnia or a soldier in Northern Ireland dying with a redundancy notice in his hand is not a prospect which any decent Member should contemplate.
§ The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)
The hon. Gentleman is making a serious charge. Does he not appreciate that the Army believes that it would be grossly invidious for the choice of soldiers for redundancy to depend on whether a soldier happened to be serving in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, in the United Kingdom or elsewhere? Does the hon. Gentleman not also realise that soldiers are constantly moving from one theatre to another? There would be enormous resentment throughout the armed forces if it was believed that the choice of redundancy depended not on personal merit or record, but on whether a soldier happened at a given moment to be in one part of the world rather than another?
§ Dr. Reid
I am glad that the Secretary of State intervened rather than sitting sneering as he did earlier. How many soldiers has he asked? When he talks about the Army, he means the brass hats who are sitting in Whitehall. The Secretary of State should ask a soldier in 'Bosnia or Northern Ireland how he would feel if he was made compulsorily redundant while he was there.
Irrespective of what the brass hats say, in this country politicians run defence. We make moral decisions and the instruments of those decisions are the boys and girls whom we put on to the streets, into the valleys or into the cauldron of Bosnia. It is our obligation, not the obligation of any serving soldier, however high ranking, to ensure that we meet those obligations to our soldiers.
There will be horror among the public at the prospect that people who are risking their lives for us could be made compulsorily redundant while on active service. The Secretary of State may shake his head. Time will tell whether this is another insensitive bloomer.
§ Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, like me, was astounded to hear the Secretary of State suggest that those who were being made redundant were being made redundant on the ground of merit. Are we telling those soldiers' future employers that we are getting rid of second-rate soldiers? That would be a disgraceful innuendo by the Secretary of State in the circumstances.
§ Dr. Reid
The hon. Gentleman has put the point as well as I could have done.
We have become heated because this is an important issue. It is also a disgraceful issue. I do not regard it as a partisan point, but as a matter of honour for all hon. Members. It is also a matter of honour that we who make the political decisions that may send soldiers to their deaths have an obligation to ensure that they have the numbers, the resources and the morale to undertake the tasks assigned to them. That is an obligation which the Government have, once again, signally failed to undertake.
§ Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)
It is a pretty severe test of parliamentary courtesy to have to sit and listen to the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) lecturing Conservative Members on hypocrisy when his own party manifesto, which he took some pleasure in trying to develop, said as little about defence as possible. The hon. Gentleman was right carefully to avoid the conference pledge passed by an overwhelming two-thirds majority of his party. I imagine that he was there when the conference pledged a cut of 28 per cent. The hon. Gentleman then attempted to insult the intelligence of Conservative Members with the closest thing to a parliamentary three-card trick that I have ever seen. He tried to fake the date from which the reductions were being made.
I normally enjoy the hon. Gentleman's speeches, but I profoundly disagreed with his last comments. There is a difficult challenge. The gravamen of what my right hon. Friend the Minister said is that the issue of redundancy is difficult and sad. I entirely support what my right hon. Friend said because I am in no doubt that that is the advice of the Army. It is no good talking about brass hats. They are people who have the responsibility of commanding men. If advice were asked throughout the Army, we would be told that we should be concerned not only about the people who are in Bosnia.
What about the chap who finds that he is now re-eligible because he has just come back from Bosnia? What about the chap who has been serving in Northern Ireland and who thinks that he is exempt, but who comes back, perhaps injured, and finds that he is now eligible again? In such difficult circumstances, I do not believe in political intervention. I believe profoundly—I am sure that this was the Army's advice—that the matter should be dealt with as my right hon. and learned Friend has suggested.
Another nauseous point about the speech by the hon. Member for Motherwell, North was that I had to listen, while best containing my annoyance, to his comment that he and his hon. Friends were the only people who understood what was happening in the world some time back. It is lucky that I have brought with me the introduction that I wrote for "Britain's Army for the 90s" in July 1991, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. He said that Labour understood that, although the cold war was ending, there were likely to be other risks in the future.
We said:with the end of rigid 'cold war' structures, risks may arise from nationalist tensions and local conflicts which could spill over and engage other countries.We also said:our forces were previously structured primarily to cope with the threat of a massive surprise attack in Europe. Now they need to be designed to respond to a wider spread of risks".Was not that precisely the point of which the hon. Gentleman sought to claim ownership? Was not that the point of which, he claimed, we were totally ignorant?
I care very much about the responsibility that I held at a difficult time in terms of the unhappy and unpleasant decisions that had to be taken in the "Options for Change" review. I shall deal straight away with the canard that the hon. Member for Motherwell, North tried to deploy. He said that the decisions were the result of no proper strategic analysis. That is a gross insult to the Chief of the Defence Staff and to all those involved in the most detailed analysis, which was built on the most thorough initial 913 analysis of intelligence assessments. A huge mass of work was done to try to assess the information fully as we went through the review.
The hon. Gentleman had the decency to mention the endless work done in the NATO strategic concept. That was the base work that sought to prepare us for what we thought was the sensible level of the "Options for Change" review. I am proud of the work that was done, of its thoroughness and of the way in which it has stood the test of time.
When the hon. Member for Motherwell, North talked about "Options for Change", he dealt entirely with the issue of infantry regiments. He knows perfectly well that "Options for Change" covered the whole range of our armed forces, the whole range of our civilian establishments and the whole range of the structure of the defence estate. It set up the reorganisation of our armed services and the need to make them relevant to the future and to ensure that they were appropriate for the defence needs of our country.
§ Mr. King
No, because I want to be brief.
The one thing about which I cared passionately was that if there was to be change that would affect many people who had been prepared to commit themselves to the service of their country, those people had to have the best possible arrangements thereafter if they were made redundant.
I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. I know the very personal interest that they are taking in carrying through the programme. I trust that my next comment will not be challenged. I am proud to say that the arrangements made for resettlement, for retraining, for redundancy pay, for notice, for housing and for help with future careers are the best that have ever been put in place in this country.
Those arrangements have invited real admiration and respect and I should be surprised if they were matched by any other NATO country having to face these challenges. I hope that I take my hon. Friends with me when I say that money spent in this way is money well spent. We owe it to our service men who have been prepared to serve our country and who, for reasons beyond their control, are no longer necessary.
§ Mr. King
The hon. Gentleman has already intervened once and I wish to be brief.
This debate takes place in the midst of the reorganisation. The fact that that reorganisation is going so well is a tribute to the Army and the Ministry of Defence—whose personnel the hon. Member for Motherwell, North described as just some civil servants in Whitehall. Those civil servants are carrying through this massive reorganisation with, in the main, remarkably little outside comment.
It is not just a question of infantry regiments; it involves the combat arms, the support services, engineering services, the Army estate, its training organisation—arid of the grouping into two main support corps. There is also the Adjutant General corps. The reorganisation also involves setting up new headquarters and structures in this 914 country and the massive withdrawal from Germany, where numbers will fall from 55,000 to 25,000. Bases are to be closed—it is a massive undertaking, and I commend the way in which it is being done. It will continue for several years.
That change is not taking place in an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity. While it goes on, to their great credit, our service men and civil servants are carrying out their tasks with their traditional and admirable courage and dedication in Northern Ireland. I have reason to know that as well as anyone. Now there are new commitments in Bosnia, too.
§ Mr. McWilliam
Does the right hon. Gentleman still think it a good idea that an artillery man should be away from his gun, not having fired it for two years; or that a cavalry man should be away from his tank, not having been in it for a year—just to pad out the emergency tour plot in Northern Ireland, which is still to be reduced to 15 months?
§ Mr. King
I shall deal with that later. First, I wish to put this debate in context.
My right hon. Friend focused on the task facing the Army, which it is fulfilling with great courage, in Northern Ireland and Bosnia. The hon. Member for Motherwell, North dwelt on one particular but important part of the options programme, a part which also attracted the attention of the Select Committee. But I want to draw attention to everything the Army is facing and to the impact on its procurement programme.
In its earlier report the Select Committee was kind enough to say that whatever one thought about manpower numbers, the plans that we had made on the procurement side would ensure that we had an outstandingly well-equipped Army. I hope that those plans will be maintained, covering as they do the Challenger tank, the Warrior armoured personnel carrier, the AS90, the multiple-launch rocket system and the light attack support helicopter. All those components will be needed for the Army of the future.
What we put in place was a fully costed programme for fully manned units. That is the end towards which the "Options for Change" programme has been working. It is a clear programme and it allows for adaptation, change and integration, running through to 1995–97. In that respect, I strongly supported my right hon. Friends, and when I have spoken on this subject, I have always said that we would keep it under review. Despite that, the only significant change in a programme involving a decline in numbers from 320,000 to 250,000 ended up as a matter of some 3,000 men at the margins of the infantry—a sensible move.
What has changed since the original programme was announced? There have of course been more deployments, with considerable consequences for the units that have to undergo training, recuperation thereafter and reasonable tour intervals between visits to Northern Ireland. There are to be two extra battalions for Northern Ireland besides the major unit for Bosnia. Under the latest public expenditure survey round, defence will receive £1 billion less over three years than we had thought would be available when we announced the programme. We need to examine what impact that will have.
I have already said that I support the idea of the additional infantry regiments. My right hon. Friend spoke 915 of £80 million a year as the cost of those two regiments —money that will have to come from the existing budget. Receiving £1 billion less will have implications not only for the Army but for the Navy and the RAF, too. I am glad to learn from its Chairman that the Select Committee is to look into "Options for Change" for the Navy and Air Force.
Despite the difficulties of Bosnia, I wish to talk about Northern Ireland today. It is the cause of "stretch" for our forces. We have 12 battalions in Northern Ireland, six permanent and accompanied and six unaccompanied. It is the unaccompanied tours that cause the "stretch" for the Army as it carries out its tasks also in Bosnia, Belize and the Falklands. The unaccompanied tours interval represents the real challenge.
As part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland must have its security needs met—the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to no less—but at this stage we need to examine carefully how that security can be achieved. Infantry are not the only means of achieving it. The hills of South Armagh are not friendly territory for members of the RUC, with their tradition of policing, but alternatives might be possible in other areas, where highly skilled infantry should not necessarily be deployed and where it may be possible to make better use of manpower.
All this will involve arguments between Departments and about PES allocations. For the RUC and the Royal Irish Regiment, it will raise issues that could affect both the home battalions and the regular and the reserve members of the RUC. Unless we deal with these issues sensibly, the pressures will grow. Members of the Select Committee will know what I mean when I say that the pressures will grown because of the "stretch" involved in our Northern Ireland commitment. Flexibility in these matters is what needs to be studied by the Departments concerned.
There is common agreement that the world has changed. The threat has fractured, but not disappeared. We need a clear plan to work to; we need to ensure that it keeps pace with our new requirements in changing circumstances, including financial circumstances. We should not try to patch and mend as we go along. We must ensure that fully manned, fully costed and properly structured units are established. I hope that I have the support of the whole House when I say that I take the same stand as I took in the foreword that I wrote to "Britain's Army for the 90s":Our commitment remains clear; an Army for the 90s and beyond, smaller and better-equipped and supported, fuly manned and well able both to meet its commitments at home and abroad, and to provide for our security in the future as it has done so well in the past.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)
As the debate has demonstrated, no one in the House can escape the irony of the date on which it takes place. As we have heard, notification of redundancies will go out tomorrow, and to some of the men whom members of the Defence Select Committee, including myself, met last week in Split and Zagreb.
It is fair to say that Ministers' approach to the issue may well have reason on its side, but there are occasions when decency, humanity and other considerations ought to overrule reason. I do not find it particularly compelling 916 to suggest that there could not be some scheme which allowed those who were volunteering for redundancy to take it, while preventing, as far as possible, those forces serving in Northern Ireland or in the former Yugoslavia from receiving redundancy notices at times when their lives are undoubtedly in danger.
In the light of recent events, it is inevitable that the debate so far has concentrated on the role of the infantry. Government insouciance over recent decisions can hardly be properly justified, because for many months Ministers claimed, both in the House and elsewhere, that there was no need to alter the proposals for our infantry batallions contained in "Options for Change". Now they would have us believe that a reconsideration was taking place all the time.
Contemporary evidence is often more revealing and compelling than that which is by way of ex-post facto justification. I direct the attention of hon. Members to the evidence given to the Select Committee on Defence, which they will find repays careful re-examination. I can say without equivocation that no one told us an untruth, but I am left with the unshakeable conviction that we were subject to deception by omission and concealment. The next time that some of the people who gave evidence appear before us, we shall certainly make a point of counting the spoons after they leave the Committee Room.
The Secretary of State's reversal had an air of inevitability about it. In spite of the campaigns fought on behalf of certain regiments, it was not an emotional argument about tradition and history, but an argument in which the cold logic of numbers was ultimately bound to prevail. In my judgment, that logic is unaffected by the Secretary of State's decision. The conclusions of the Select Committee report were not in any sense affected either.
I do not intend to dwell on the terms of the report because I observe that the distinguished Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) is seeking to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the order of things, I fancy that he has a reasonable chance to do so and will no doubt take the opportunity to detail on behalf of the Committee those issues that seem to him to be appropriate.
The theme so far has been the obligation to match tasks with resources. After the end of the cold war there was a public perception that defence expenditure could safely be reduced. However, one can rationally reduce expenditure only by reducing commitments, and one can sensibly reduce those only when one has determined what are essential and what may be discarded. There is no particular intellectual challenge involved in any of that —it constitutes a defence review—nor is there any shame or admission of weakness on the part of a Government who set themselves that task.
The right hon. Member for Bridgewater (Mr. King) argued that precisely such an analysis had taken place, citing the authority of the Chief of the Defence Staff and others. If such an analysis has taken place, neither he nor his distinguished successor have been able to persuade successive Defence Select Committees that a proper rational basis existed for their decisions and proposals.
§ Mr. Gyles Brandreth (City of Chester)
Does the hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that it was his party's view that a 50 per cent. reduction in defence expenditure was called for before the end of the century? That would have meant about 73,000 service men in the Army, as opposed 917 to 119,000. So he is being a bit holier-than-thou—or perhaps he will explain that the 50 per cent. reduction was not his policy.
§ Mr. Campbell
When it comes to being holier-than-thou in the House I think that I could learn a few lessons from the hon. Gentleman. I had a small bet on which Conservative Member would be the first to mention that, and although the hon. Gentleman's name was not in the top three, it was certainly in the top 10.
§ Mr. Campbell
If the hon. Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth) had been in the House as long as some other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who is making a somewhat noisy intervention from a sedentary position, he would know that I have never argued in the House in favour of a mandatory reduction in defence expenditure and nor has my party.
In the aftermath of the cold war, my party suggested that it might be possible to achieve a reduction of as much as 50 per cent. in defence expenditure by the end of the century, subject to two important considerations: first, that there should be a full-scale defence review; secondly, that there should be far greater integration between the defence policies of European Community countries. I hope to return to that topic and to advance the cause for a degree of specialisation, which has not so far been obvious in the nature of the defence provision made by those countries.
§ Mr. Campbell
I must give way to the hon. Member for Canterbury, lest I should cause him to suffer some apoplectic convulsion by not doing so.
§ Mr. Brazier
I am only trying to shout through my cold. The hon. and learned Gentleman and the Opposition spokesman set out the case for overstretch. Surely he must realise that he cannot argue consistently that there is overstretch and that his party would like something to be done about it, unless he is willing to turn his back on his party's commitment to cut defence spending, or to say which commitments he would be in favour of removing.
§ Mr. Campbell
If the hon. Gentleman had been in the House a fortnight ago he would have heard the Chief Secretary to the Treasury upbraid Opposition Members who were unwilling to think the unthinkable. If we were supposed to think the unthinkable of the great Departments of State, such as the Home and Foreign Offices, why should the Ministry of Defence be exempt from such critical analysis?
We should re-examine several of our overseas commitments. I do not shrink from saying that our continuing commitment in the Falklands should be re-examined, and that we should ask ourselves whether it is in our interests to have forces in Belize. Is it still in our interests to continue to contribute towards the United Nations efforts in Cyprus? We still meet a range of obligations which deserve intellectually rigorous analysis so that we can decide whether they are in the interests of the United Kingdom and I am prepared to embark on that.
What I find so surprising is that the hon. Member for Canterbury is not prepared to allow that that might be a 918 way to bridge the difficult gap between the public perception that less needs to be spent on defence and the public perception which urges us to try to meet what is possibly an increasing number of commitments, under the aegis of the United Nations.
§ Mr. McWilliam
Does the hon. and learned Gentleman recall that, only a couple of weeks ago, we were given evidence that there are British forces in 50 locations around the world at present?
§ Mr. Campbell
I certainly do recall that evidence. Those who have studied the report of the Select Committee on Defence will doubtless have formed their own conclusions about it.
The intervention of the hon. Member for Canterbury allows me to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid). The Government still argue the case for a replacement for the WE177 free-fall bomb. Despite the guarded responses given at Defence Question Time about a week ago, that replacement still includes the possibility of tactical air-to-surface missiles.
The notion of TASM, and its requirement, comes from those days when flexible response was the central thesis of the nuclear doctrine of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Since then, flexible response has been replaced by minimum deterrence and, now, by a doctrine of use in the last resort. The purpose of a tactical air-to-surface missile was to break up the massed tank formations of the Warsaw pact countries as they streamed across the central German border. That threat is no longer before us.
Therefore, what is the rationale for the tactical air-to-surface missile, especially when, if we wanted to have a sub-strategic capability, we could put a single warhead on a single missile on Trident? There is absolutely no justification for spending up to £3 billion on a weapon conceived in circumstances that have long since been overtaken by events, in respect of which we can have a capability as part of existing expenditure.
§ Mr. Brazier
At present, we have a variety of independent sources, not least Jane's Defence Weekly, that suggest that nuclear technology—and possibly even nuclear weaponry—are proliferating around the middle east and a number of other countries. Without such a visible sub-strategic capability that can sit on the edge of a radar screen, we could, before the turn of the century, face a threat to our homeland with which we could not cope.
§ Mr. Campbell
The hon. Gentleman seems to be operating in a vacuum in which Great Britain has to provide for its own defence at every level and in respect of every capability. Hon. Members have been debating NATO, and hardly anyone has not subscribed to NATO's objectives.
§ Mr. Campbell
No, I shall not give way.
Everyone accepts that there is a need for NATO to change its role and that the concept of crisis management should be part of the raison d'etre of NATO in the period after the cold war. Why does the United Kingdom have to possess a specific nuclear capability at every level? Is it being suggested that all NATO's nuclear capability—both 919 strategic and sub-strategic—will be inadequate and insufficient to protect us against the threat of nuclear proliferation in the middle east? One has only to put the proposition in those terms to see how absurd it is.
§ Mr. Campbell
The Cossacks were a little before my time. The hon. Gentleman may know more about them than I do.
It is self-evident that if one maintains the widest range of capabilities against a decreasing budget, everything will eventually be performed inadequately. Flexibility may be achieved only at the expense of expertise. If we have to send gunners to Northern Ireland to perform infantry duties, their value in their primary role will inevitably be degraded.
The Maastricht treaty—with which I believe you have more than a passing acquaintance, Mr. Deputy Speaker —envisages a much more integrated defence policy among European Community members. Why are the Government giving no thought to specialisation in specific sectors? Surely, in that way, NATO or the European Community could maintain a range of capabilities within the financial constraints created by the public's post-cold war perceptions.
Yesterday's debate about United Nations peacekeeping inevitably provides a context for today's debate. The Official Report shows that no one argued that we should avoid or abandon United Nations peacekeeping obligations. The Foreign Secretary said that we should try to adopt a position somewhere between the saloon bar and Mr. Gladstone. If reports of Mr. Gladstone's nocturnal activities were correct, the position between the saloon bar and Mr. Gladstone might not be too salubrious.
During the debate there was an implicit acceptance of the fact that, as a permanent member of the Security Council, we shall continue to have obligations to provide troops to meet United Nations commitments. There is an additional reason beyond our permanent membership of the Security Council: our forces are good at such tasks. They are professional, well trained and well led and, compared to some of those from other countries—of which we heard when we visited Croatia last week—they are extremely well equipped. The Secretary of State's announcement, welcome though it is, would effectively be nullified if we received a request from the United Nations to expand our existing force in Bosnia to brigade size, as that would necessarily involve the commitment of two more battalions.
The effectiveness of our contribution to United Nations peacekeeping will depend on the quality not only of the forces that we deploy, but of the equipment with which we send them to do the task. Some of the contingents in Croatia—for example, the contingent from Nigeria, which has to rely on the United Nations to provide all its vehicles —have been less effective than other contingents such as ours and that from Canada. The Canadian contingent brought vehicles in excess of the number requested by the United Nations.
We have a moral obligation not to place our forces, on behalf of the United Nations, in circumstances where they are liable to be outgunned or their equipment 920 outperformed. One of the benefits of specialisation may be to reduce the range of equipment that we have to procure. It may not always be necessary to provide state of the art equipment, but it must surely be right that those whom we ask to perform difficult and dangerous tasks should be well equipped to do the task for which they are deployed.
We should also recognise that, while peacekeeping may well require different skills from those asked of the average infantry man, it may also require different equipment. Therefore, embarking on a commitment towards peacekeeping has a series of implications and possible consequences to which serious regard must be given.
The right hon. Member for Bridgwater mentioned Northern Ireland, and I associate myself with some of the sentiments he expressed. I hope that the recent formation of the Royal Irish Regiment is proceeding successfully, and that the hopes and aspirations that accompanied our debates in the House are being realised. Many hon. Members clearly found the notion of a regiment drawing from both traditions in the community of Northern Ireland an attractive one.
However, we must never forget that the battalions are there to support the civil power. As soon as it is feasible to transfer responsibility away from the military power to the civil power, surely it will be right to do that. Therefore, I hope that the Government will take careful heed of what the right hon. Member for Bridgwater said and will keep under proper and consistent review the extent to which the transfer of function back from the military to the civilian power can be achieved.
Croatia was one of the places that the Select Committee on Defence visited last week. As some hon. Members may be aware, British forces operating in Croatia do so under the command and control system of the United Nations, whereas those in Bosnia operate differently. As the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) said yesterday, some of us were astonished to be told by a senior commander in the British force that his interpretation of the rules of engagement was that if, in order to avoid bloodshed, it was necessary for someone to hand over his own equipment or personal weapon, such action was required.
That came as something of a surprise, and I suspect that it has not been generally discussed or understood in the House. I refer to that so that hon. Members can appreciate that when, not lightly but perhaps without necessarily thinking of all the consequences, we assign British forces to the United Nations, we may be putting them in a situation in which, for example, the rules of engagement are rather less robust than those that we would regard as essential in other circumstances.
Nuclear testing has featured briefly in the debate. I cannot understand why the Government do not take the political opportunity offered by the moratorium, because the practicality is that we cannot test at Nevada, as the Americans are engaged in a moratorium. The United States, France and Russia all believe that their nuclear capabilities are not being eroded by a moratorium. Why do the British Government not accept that they have a practical moratorium and seek to gain for themselves the political advantage that arises from being associated with a gesture? I freely accept that it is a gesture, but it is an important one in our efforts to try to persuade other countries, especially in the middle east, that they should not seek to acquire and deploy nuclear weapons.
§ Mr. Dalyell
Does the hon. and learned Gentleman accept that, at least according to Lord Zuckerman's article in "Nature", the Americans now think that on technical grounds there is no need for testing? Even if the hon. and learned Gentleman gives me or other hon. Members who have intervened a frivolous answer, can he explain how Sir Hugh Beach, a distinguished general, could sign a letter to The Times suggesting that? We need an answer from the Ministry of Defence.
§ Mr. Campbell
I know better than to give the lion. Gentleman a frivolous answer to any intervention, and especially the one that he has just made. Not only the distinguished scientist to whom the hon. Gentleman referred but the former head of the Los Altos laboratory is on record as saying that it is not necessary to engage in a regular programme of testing to be satisfied that nuclear weapons are functioning.
It is customary on these occasions to pay tribute to the courage and professionalism of our armed forces and, in this debate, to the courage and professionalism of the Army. I do so with conviction borne of recent experience. During the visit by the Select Committee on Defence to Split and Zagreb it became abundantly clear that everyone in the House and in the country could be proud of the remarkable contribution in extremely difficult circumstances of our armed forces in the two United Nations efforts.
I found some resentment because there was a sense that the public perception in Britain was that the British effort as part of the UN effort rested only on the activities of the Cheshires. There is a great deal of pride in the activities of the Cheshires, but some people were anxious to point out that the logistical, engineering, transport and medical support was extremely high. The conditions in which that support was being given were frequently difficult and made substantial demands on those who provided it.
To those of us who visited Zagreb it seemed that the calm, almost matter of fact way in which substantial responsibility was being accepted and discharged could only be regarded as being in the finest traditions of British forces. It is conventional on these occasions to say how much we value them, but 24 hours a day, in Northern Ireland and especially in the former Yugoslavia, the qualities that we admire are being put to the test. It is right and proper for the House to acknowledge that.
§ Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)
I am pleased to take part in the debate, and I am rather surprised at being called at this time. My interest is primarily a constituency one and my comments may be a little more parochial than those of some of my hon. Friends, because the heart of my constituency contains Catterick garrison, one of the largest Army bases in the country. It also has other military installations. It is a great tribute to those who serve or who have served in Catterick that their presence is viewed positively by the population of Richmond and the surrounding areas. We have a particularly strong and proud association with the Green Howards.
A succession of garrison commanders has built up an impressive track record of good community relations. Even more important is the obvious professionalism and dedication of locally stationed units to their training and other tasks. Two weeks ago, I visited 521 company of the Explosive Ordnance Division, effectively the bomb 922 disposal team for the north of England. It is stationed at Catterick and I cannot speak too highly of the commitment and excellence of its men.
"Options for Change" means an upheaval for Catterick garrison as much as for the rest of the Army. The long-established presence for the training regiment and other units of the Royal Corps of Signals is to end and that is viewed locally with some sadness. I was pleased to hear from the Minister that infantry recruit training is to be concentrated at Catterick and that the 19th mechanised brigade and other units yet to be determined are to move in. I think that that will mean an increase of about 2,000 in the number of military personnel and their dependants associated with the garrison.
The Army has gone to some lengths to keep local civic leaders and planners fully informed of the changes, and the continued use and further expansion of the garrison has been strongly welcomed. I add to that welcome, having long believed that more of the Army should be stationed in the north of England in any case. Much of the Army is recruited there and it makes sense to concentrate infantry recruit training at Catterick.
I should like to make two points about the huge movements of people and material in and out of Catterick. First, a decision has yet to be announced about the use that the Army will make of the facilities currently occupied by the Royal Air Force Regiment a short distance from the garrison. The future of that base has major implications for local education provision and possibly for the design of roads giving access to the A1. The sooner a decision can be announced on this matter, the better.
Secondly, the reorganisation of Catterick camp will involve the departure of thousands of people and the arrival of thousands more with accompanying vehicles, tanks and so on. Much of it will require the redevelopment of areas of the camp, and it adds to an investment of over £100 million. It is a vast management undertaking. The commander of the garrison and his chief of staff and their assistants are able people who have provided an intricate master plan for how the whole exercise will be managed.
My concern is that the personnel in these positions seem to change so frequently that continuity of management and decision taking become extremely difficult to maintain. We are considering a four or five-year project, operating on a huge scale with rigorous management of infrastructure development, housing stock and all the movement itself required. A bit of stability is called for in the team of people given the task of carrying it all out.
Catterick garrison will continue to be a welcome feature of north Yorkshire, and the local civilian population look forward to continuing to have the Army as neighbours. We shall all work together to ensure that the garrison is an attractive, well ordered and peaceful place for a large, and now a larger, part of our Army to live. I make no apology for speaking at length about Catterick, which is the largest centre of population in my constituency. I shall now deal with the crucial role of many of the Army's support services which are also stationed at Catterick garrison.
About 1,200 civilian jobs at the garrison are to be market tested. I strongly support the principle of market testing across as wide a range as possible of the Government's activities. It is a valuable spur to greater efficiency and can give well deserved opportunities to the private sector.
I notice from the Secretary of State's statement earlier this month that it is believed that the savings flowing from 923 the market-testing process in the Ministry of Defence will fund up to 2,000 additional places in front-line units of the field Army. That alone is sufficient justification for the process. However, my constituents who work at the garrison would welcome assurances that the market testing process will be open and fair and will give the opportunity for efficient in-house bids to succeed.
A few weeks ago, I visited the REME workshops at Catterick. The excellence of the work carried out there to keep Army units functioning and on the road is beyond dispute. Many of the 180 people who work there have been there all their working lives and started there as apprentices. They know every piece of Army equipment inside out, and they have often been called upon to work round the clock to prepare units to move—most notably in recent weeks with the preparation of vehicles to go to Bosnia. In my view, an in-house bid put together by these people would take some beating, but a categoric assurance from the Minister that they will have every chance to make such a bid successful would do much to dispel what I believe are unjustified fears in the vicinity of the garrison.
The House will have gathered from what I have said that my constituents show a keen interest in the future of the Army and that many have a direct stake in it. Like me, most of them believe that the overall reduction in the size of the Army is a painful necessity rather than something to be welcomed. The end of the cold war justifies a reduction in our military effort and expenditure. On the other hand, it makes it more difficult to know just what sort of Army we should have.
The speed and complexity of modern warfare suggests that our forces should, in the main, be highly mobile and heavily equipped, yet the most frequent demands on them are to serve in Northern Ireland or in roles such as we see in Bosnia, where they are required to perform a more conventional infantry function. Such contrasting duties make flexibility very important, and mean that a decent interval between emergency tours, as identified in the Select Committee report, is essential for training and retraining. The decision a few weeks ago to retain an additional two regiments will undoubtedly help.
With that modification, I believe that Ministers have made the right judgment about the overall size of the Army that Britain should sustain. If the Army, at its new size and in its new configuration, becomes overstretched, we must be more careful about taking on commitments rather than think that we must have a larger Army or go back to one of the size that we had during the cold war. I would not like to see further adjustments to "Options for Change" which would be at the expense of the Navy and Air Force, which it is all too easy to forget when unexpected demands are made on our armed forces in Northern Ireland and Bosnia, are in the absolute front line of our national defence.
Here I must refer to some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid), who spoke for the Opposition. He seemed to hold various contradictory positions about total defence expenditure and about the resources given to the Army. He attacked the possible overstretch of the Army and we listened with care to what he said about that, but he also said that a Labour Government would not have any greater defence expenditure than we have at the moment. The question 924 whether expenditure would be lower or different in some way was left open, but if there is no commitment to greater expenditure and if the Army is overstretched, I think that what he wanted to say was that he would like to have a larger Army at the expense of some other parts of the armed forces, and that may be a perfectly coherent and respectable argument.
§ Mr. McWilliam
Perhaps it would have been easier if we had had a statement on defence estimates debate last year, but we did not have one. This is an Army debate, and that is what we are dealing with. I caution the hon. Gentleman to read the Select Committee report very carefully. The Green Howards, who are doing their stint in Northern Ireland, and are doing it extremely well, are one of the units that we were referring to which spent excessive nights out of bed and suffered from serious overstretch.
§ Mr. Hague
I entirely accept the point made by the hon. Gentleman. I have read the Select Committee report. I am talking at the moment about the remarks of the hon. Member for Motherwell, North. The announcement that the 29 per cent. reduction in defence expenditure voted for by the Labour party conference was partly retrospective and was to be backdated to 1984–85 was a startling revelation. I hope that the hon. Member will be going to the Labour party conference this year to explain that the huge reduction that it voted for has mainly taken place already and that it need not vote for such proposals in the future.
The hon. Member attacked the Government for an "unwillingness to face hard decisions", but I thought that he rather ran away from some hard decisions too, particularly on the question of the redundancies to be announced tomorrow. It is easy to whip up an emotional argument about redundancy notices being sent to officers who are serving and who may be under fire in Bosnia or Northern Ireland now, but would it be any fairer to say that a redundancy notice can be served on someone who is about to go to Bosnia or who has just come back from Bosnia? It would be a ludicrous way to decide who should be made redundant from the Army. So before the Opposition accuse the Government of being unwilling to make hard decisions, they need to reconsider how they have run away from hard decisions themselves today.
I support the stance and the policies of the Government, but I ask them to bear in mind the points that I have made about the future of Catterick garrison.
§ 6.6 pm
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
I want to deal with five areas, and I will try to be as brief as possible, but I should like to press the Minister a little on nuclear tests. I realise that it is almost impossible for the Government to make a statement in the House today if the Prime Minister is negotiating in Washington at this very moment on this matter, but I hope that we can at least have an assurance that, when the Prime Minister returns, we will have a clear statement of the position.
As I understand it, the Americans have now made it clear that they do not consider that a regular testing programme is essential to maintain the credibility of their deterrent. It is very unlikely that they will be willing for Britain to go on testing in Nevada without paying very much larger sums of money to do the testing and, if they decide to give up, they will probably be totally unwilling to 925 allow us to carry out tests. So I hope that, when the Prime Minister comes back, he will make a statement to the House making clear what new arrangements we have made with the Americans about testing.
I would argue that, if we want to press for non-proliferation in the world, we must give up testing when it is quite clear that many experts are now satisfied that even if we wish to maintain a nuclear deterrent we do not need to test anyway. I would also argue that we must try to reduce our nuclear capacity again if we want to have any credibility in pressing for non-proliferation. It is absolutely outrageous to me, therefore, that we should consider the expenditure on tactical air-to-surface missiles when it would be an escalation of our nuclear capability. It would be difficult to persuade others that it was perfectly all right for Britain to expand its nuclear capacity but that they should not do so.
I therefore hope that we shall have a speedy review of the whole of this area and will build up a credible case from this country for non-proliferation.
Turning to the Cheshires, I was pressed very hard by many of my constituents when the decision to merge was announced, and I made it clear to them that it would have been totally illogical for me to plead with Ministers for a change in Government policy when I have always argued in favour of defence cuts; so I did not do that and some of my constituents were not too pleased. On their behalf, however, I must say that they are very pleased that the Government have announced the reprieve of the Cheshires. I also pay tribute to the service which they are performing in the former Yugoslavia.
Some of their relatives have told me that they find it difficult to understand that their sons are out there trying to prevent people from dying of starvation but are not trying to prevent those same people from dying from bullets. They find that difficult to cope with when, throughout history, warfare has always involved attempts to starve populations, sieges and so on. I make a strong plea that it is not enough to have troops there providing humanitarian aid. We should use all possible power to establish peace and persuade people to live peacefully together. It is difficult to go on providing humanitarian aid in the current circumstances.
Conservative Members do not seem to understand the sensitivity surrounding redundancy notices. Recently, in an engineering firm in my constituency, the personnel officer made people redundant. He called them into the office, told them about the redundancies and sent them home immediately. I suggested that that was insensitive because they might want the opportunity to discuss with other workers what action they might take. He justified sending them home on two grounds: first, when a person's world was almost coming to an end because of redundancy, that person wanted the opportunity immediately to discuss it with his family; secondly, when people had that shock, their efficiency was not as good, and it was easy for accidents to occur.
Although it may be important in the management of the whole Army to inform people at the same time about redundancy, it does not ensure the most efficient action of individual soldiers for them to be told when they are on active service. When it involves the safety not simply of the individual soldier but of other soldiers serving with him, it is insensitive to serve the redundancy notice on him at that time. It will be difficult for the soldier to discuss the redundancy with his family; therefore, it will increase his 926 anxiety. In addition, when a person who believed that his future within the Army was secure receives the shock of redundancy, it may affect his military capability, however well trained he is.
On a totally different issue, the Army pay office is to be moved. The Minister will be aware that part of the pay office is in Ashton. Although it is in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), many of the people who work there live in my constituency, and it is a substantial employer in Tameside. There is much concern at the decision to move the pay office from Ashton, probably to Glasgow, although the Minister said that a final decision had not been made. There is great disappointment in Tameside that the Government did not think of it as a site. I still hope that they will reconsider it.
At Ashton there is the pay office and the audit section which has been civilianised over the last three years, with the recruitment of new staff. Many were attracted to work for the Army in the audit office in the belief that they would have long-term job security. Now they will not have that security because, if the pay office moves to Glasgow, policy has been agreed that the last in will be the first out. Therefore, there is a danger that many of the people who were recruited to work in the audit section in Ashton will be made redundant and people working in the pay office will move to the audit section.
That is not efficient. In addition, it is grossly unfair to people who in some cases gave up reasonably secure jobs, perhaps not as well paid. I hope that the Minister will examine the position and will consider the unfairness of making redundant people who were recruited to the audit section within the past three years.
I am disappointed that, in their development of "Options for Change", the Government have not taken account of the whole picture in regard to defence lands. If they wanted to improve the efficiency of the Army and the other services, they should have examined more carefully the use of defence lands. The position on defence lands has been a mess almost since the first world war. Most were acquired during the first and second world wars. There was very little logic about acquisition. It was done in the emergency of war, and lands were taken over on the basis of the quickest and easiest solution at the time.
The Ministry of Defence has been reluctant to give up defence lands. Great pressure built up in the House and outside in the 1960s for the release of substantial areas because they were no longer required. Eventually, the Government were persuaded to set up the Nugent committee, in 1969, I think. The committee was packed with people sympathetic to the Ministry of Defence. Even so, four years later—the establishment of the committee having been a delaying tactic in itself—the committee recommended that the Ministry should release substantial amounts of land because they were not being used for manoeuvres to the extent that the Ministry had claimed.
Sadly, very few of the recommendations of the Nugent committee were implemented. Some access was gained at Lulworth cove and other places. Around barracks in urban areas, some land was sold for housing, but on the whole the Ministry of Defence held on to most of the land. Throughout the 1970s and the early 1980s the message from the Ministry was that eventually land would be released. For some reason, in the mid-1980s the Ministry started to change its tune and argued that it needed extra land.
§ Mr. Robathan
There is certain illogicality in what the hon. Gentleman is saying. The hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) talked about keeping more troops, which I applaud. As we know, we must bring troops back from Germany. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that defence lands are under severe pressure for training. Indeed, territorial and regular units cannot get on training areas because they are so busy.
§ Mr. Bennett
I understand that argument. I am aware that certain defence lands are used almost to the optimum, but other areas are not used to anything like the same extent. All I am arguing for is a thorough review. In "Options for Change" the Government did not examine the implications of the use of defence lands. They have not been prepared to answer questions in the House about a review. There are areas which the Government should consider.
The Nugent report made it clear that there were unexploded bombs and other ammunition in substantial areas, particularly in northern Northumberland, which had been used for military exercises during the Second World War. There was a programme to try to clear those areas to bring them back into recreational use or other military use. Because of the Falklands war, the bomb disposal activities were suspended. Although activities resumed after the Falklands war, with the conflict in the middle east the bomb disposal experts were again taken away. I would certainly argue that much more of that land could be made safe and used for essential military exercises or released for use by the general public.
We need a proper review. The Minster says that there is a review, but in its report just over a year ago the Audit Commission was extremely critical about the fact that there seemed to be no proper strategy for the use of Ministry of Defence land. There seemed to be considerable pressure for exercises to take place on some sites, but other sites seem hardly to be used at all. If we develop an increased peacekeeping role in the world, the exercises and training manouvres are likely to change and it may be possible to carry out those exercises where people are involved in other activities rather than in totally secluded areas. We need a proper review before there is another haphazard Government attempt to acquire fresh land.
The Minister will be aware that there was a public inquiry into claims by the Ministry of Defence that it needed more land in Kent. There was then the question whether the Ministry should take over more land at Holcombe moor. There was a great deal of upset around Bury about the prospect of part of the moor being taken over for military exercises. The Government told the public inquiry that the land was absolutely essential for military exercises and the inquiry found in favour of the Government. Then, perhaps for political reasons, the Government suddently changed their mind and announced that they had decided not to continue with their proposals.
Last autumn, the Government proposed to take over the Cnewr estate in south Wales. Again the proposal was not based on any rational plan. The Government really need to carry out a proper review. There needs to be a proper debate in the House about how much land the military needs for its exclusive use, how much land it needs for exercises but which also could be used by the general 928 public at other times and how much it all costs. So far, there has been no effective response from the Government to the criticisms of the Audit Commission.
My final point concerns arms sales. I do not consider that it is very graceful for Britain to be selling arms around the world, but I understand the argument that, if we do not do it, other people will and that, allegedly, we are extremely choosy about those to whom we sell arms and that we try to choose people who are not likely to use those arms against us or our soldiers. However, some of the messages that I have been getting from the former Yugoslavia suggest that some of the arms used by various factions there have come from some very odd places.
If we are to sell arms, we must work hard to ensure that, when we supply people with new arms, we do not set in motion a chain of second-hand arms sales which ultimately lead to some of those weapons ending up in the most obnoxious places in the world.
§ Mr. Bennett
Cascading, as my hon. Friend says.
The Government should consider the possibility that, when arms are sold, attempts should be made to persuade those who are modernising their weapon systems that, as part of the deal, we should buy back the old weapons so that they can be destroyed and taken out of the arms circuit. It is appalling to see the consequences of the cascade of arms throughout the world, particularly in some parts of Africa and in the former Yugoslavia. It seems stupid for us to encourage the arms trade and then to be asked to provide peacekeeping forces to separate people who are using weapons that we have not supplied directly but have allowed to cascade down to the combatants in those areas.
§ Mr. Robathan
Which particular peacekeeping operations does the hon. Gentleman have in mind that involve British troops who are likely to be under attack from British arms?
§ Mr. Bennett
I very much hope that our troops do not become targets in the former Yugoslavia, but we are on a knife-edge in that country, and the situation could escalate.
I am told that some of the weapons finding their way into the former Yugoslavia were manufactured in Britain. I have not been there, so I speak not from experience but from the messages that I receive from my constituents who have members of their families serving there. The Gulf war is another example.
§ Mr. McWilliam
I got back from Bosnia last week. The only weapon we saw that was not of indigenous Yugoslav or former Warsaw pact manufacture was an old American tank in Croatia.
§ Mr. Bennett
It is clear that arms are percolating through the world and increasing tension. If we continue selling arms, we must look at the ways in which we can reduce the use of second-hand weapons to create areas of tension in which we are then asked to perform a peacekeeping role. It will be far better for people not to have the weapons for the conflict than for our soldiers to attempt to maintain peace between warring factions.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster)
Before I reach the main purpose of my speech about the two reports before the House, I should say a word or two about the Defence Committee's visit to Bosnia. It was covered quite extensively yesterday in speeches by my colleagues on that Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), and the hon. Members for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), for Walsall, South (Mr. George) and for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson). I strongly recommend that hon. Members read those speeches, all of which I whole-heartedly endorse.
However, I should like briefly to make one or two new points. First, I extend the thanks of all members of the Select Committee to those members of the armed forces and in the Ministry who organised and hosted the trip. In the extremely dangerous circumstances in which our soldiers operate, it is not always easy, necessary or welcome to receive a delegation of parliamentarians. However, we were given a very warm welcome and I understood from those who greeted us that they appreciated the fact that we went to see what was happening. I certainly have a very much better understanding of the appalling tragedy being enacted in that country.
I make three brief points arising from the visit itself. First, as the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) said, there is some resentment that there seems to be a perception in Britain that only the Cheshires are serving. The Cheshires are doing a magnificent job, and it is wonderful news that my right hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench have decided to reprieve them. However, there are also other units there doing a great job. I single out in particular the Royal Engineers, who have carved roads through virgin territory to enable United Nations aid to get through. Those roads can accommodate heavy-track vehicles two abreast through mountain passes and forests. The quality and calibre of their work is breathtakingly good.
I join the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East in paying tribute to them and to all our soldiers serving in the former Yugoslavia who are facing much greater danger than one might perceive from the limited casualties that we have suffered so far. The death of Lance Corporal Edwards was tragic and extremely unfortunate. He was most unlucky in that he was struck although he was in an armoured vehicle and quite heavily protected. A young officer was also wounded. We have suffered no other casualties as yet, and I pray that whatever casualties we may face will be limited.
However, our troops face increasing danger and I do not believe that the Bosnian situation can be sustained for very long at its present level. It seems to me that the danger is increasing daily, given the increase in the number of direct attacks on our troops. The officers to whom we spoke were gravely concerned about that, although the men faced it with their usual courage and equanimity: their morale was extremely high.
There is a limit to our ability to continue to provide the service that we currently provide and to sustain the limitations on our involvement. I do not believe that, if we try to continue for many more months, we shall escape more direct attacks, or escape being drawn into much more direct commitment to the conflict that we want. I must tell my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of 930 State that, in my view, unless we move forward—which will mean the fastest possible promotion of the Owen-Vance peace plan, or something very like it—we shall have to decide either to send in more troops to sustain our support, or to withdraw our troops. The current level has only a limited life.
Let me now deal with the reports. Although publicity has been given principally to the concentration on numbers and tasks which is evident in our report, the equipment side should not be forgotten. I am glad to see that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement is present. We await news on the Challenger I upgrade and on the degree to which we may order more Challenger II or upgrade more Challenger I; the Army needs to know the details as soon as possible, in order to plan for the future.
We also await news on the MLRS III—the updated multiple-launch rocket system—and its air-launched equivalent, the 1238. I hope that the Government will be able to make an announcement in the near future; I believe that the MOD has carried out an operational search to assess the possible need and has concluded that both systems are indeed required. I hope that both will be supplied and that we shall not be forced to choose between the two.
I pay tribute to my predecessor as Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), who is now Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, with responsibility for security. He chaired the Committee for at least eight years and performed a splendid task. His report, produced a year ago, foretold the current problems of infantry overstretch long before my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) acknowledged the existence of any such problems. I am sorry that my right hon. Friend is not present to hear me say that.
The Select Committee report was greeted with some scorn by the MOD. In its reply—produced, I believe, in July—the Ministry stated that it saw no reason to review "Options for Change" at that time and hoped that the matter was now closed: I remember that phrase. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater is now present; I do not know whether he heard what I said, so I shall repeat it. The current Select Committee's predecessor criticised "Options for Change" and suggested that there were problems earlier than was suggested today by my right hon. Friend. I cannot accept that "Options for Change" was right and that only subsequent events have altered that.
§ Mr. King
I apologise to my hon. Friend for not being present earlier; when his name appeared on the annunciator, I was on the telephone.
We always made it clear that "Options for Change" must provide a plan to which people could work. We owe no less than that to the armed forces, whose personnel needed to know where they stood. We set out our plan clearly and, at the same time, made it clear that it might be necessary to review that plan. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces nods. If my hon. Friend studies the document from which I quoted, he will find the statement to which I refer. We said the same throughout the process and what we forecast is precisely what happened. My right hon. Friend the Minister has honoured the pledge that I gave then.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
I did not come here to pick a squabble with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater, but I have said that there are points that I wish to pursue with him. I have also said that, in its reply to the Select Committee report in July—my right hon. Friend had given up his job by then and I do not attribute this to him—the MOD said that, at that time, there was no need to review "Options for Change" and that it hoped that the matter was closed. I was going on to say that the matter was not closed and that our report—which followed from the report produced by the predecessor Committee—made several recommendations, which I have no doubt that hon. Members have read.
The Committee reached four main conclusions. First, it concluded that additional emergency tours—particularly the two in Northern Ireland and the one in Bosnia—had led to additional unacceptable contraction in the emergency tour interval for infantry units and, prospectively, for the armoured artillery and engineer units, which also do emergency tour plots. The average was supposed to be 24 months; now it is down to 16 or 17. Unfortunately, the welcome additions to infantry strength will not alter the ETP interval, either in 1993–94 or in 1994–95or so we have been told by the Ministry. I regret that, because it means that we shall be left with a wholly unacceptable level of ETP commitment during that period, which is not covered.
Secondly, the report emphasised that, although the situation had been exacerbated by the non-availability of battalions undergoing amalgamation, the mismatch of commitments and resources looked set to continue after 1995 as new commitments arose. I heard what my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said; I must tell him that I have seen no evidence that we are likely to be able to achieve a minimum 24-month gap between ETPs after 1995. If such evidence exists, I should be grateful if my Committee could see it. It strikes us as far more likely—given that more peacekeeping commitments are likely to occur in the next few years—that we shall continue to be unable to meet the 24-month minimum. It is common ground between the MOD and the Select Committee that that should be the interval between ETPs.
It was for that reason, and others set out in the report, that the Committee concluded, first, that a review of armoured reconnaissance strength was needed: the initial peacekeeping role that we are being asked to play calls for additional reconnaissance strength. I agree with the report of the predecessor Committee that we have cut armoured reconnaisance too much.
The report's main conclusion was that the remaining United Kingdom infantry amalgamations and disbandments should be cancelled. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces made great play of the costs of implementing the report's recommendations: he has named a figure of some £200 million. That exactly matches the Committee's assessment; although we did not include it in our report, I shall not quibble with my right hon. Friend. I suspect that the gross cost of reprieving the units involved would be in that region.
However, I do not think that my right hon. Friend dealt fairly with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill). I do not accept that reprieving another seven battalions would mean that all the existing redundancies in those battalions stood and 932 that the men concerned would be replaced entirely by new recruits. I am sure that, on reflection, my right hon. Friend will not persist in that view.
§ Mr. Archie Hamilton
My point was that the front-line battalions that might be reprieved were, by nature, made up of young men who need to be recruited. Those whom we are making redundant are, on the whole, people who have served some time: most have served for more than 12 years. Obviously, some redundancies would be saved, but not very many.
§ Sir Nicholas Bonsor
I take issue with that. I do not think that my right hon. Friend has thought the matter through. I do not believe that, if seven full battalions were reprieved, my right hon. Friend would replace 75 per cent. of the personnel involved: I use that figure for the sake of argument. Were he to save, say, 50 per cent. of those personnel, on his figures, some £175 million a year would be saved for the next two or three years from the redundancy costs. Futhermore, there are ancillary costs to the Treasury.
That brings me to one of my hobby horses, but I shall resist the temptation to ride it too far. The Treasury will have to meet the additional costs of housing allowance, social security and other welfare payments. They will not affect the budget of the Ministry of Defence, but they will have to be met by the country. I believe that keeping these battalions in being would not cost the country a penny over the next two or three years.
I accept that we are proposing what amounts to a long-term reprieve, not something that would end in 1995. In that regard, I should like to make two points. First, I hope that the present economic plight of this country will not be eternal. When the economy recovers, it should be easier to fund a proper Ministry of Defence budget. Secondly, in 1995 or 1996, if various other things change, we may properly be able to make cuts such as are being put forward as being correct now. If nothing else, that would save us two years in which the emergency tour plot would remain at 17 months. People are expected to spend far too much time away from their families and their homes and it is regrettable that they will be asked to do so in the next two years.
On the question of the emergency tour plot, I do not want to go over old ground or to spell out eternally the point that I have just made. I should like, however, to refer the House to an answer, which I received on 17 February, concerning units due to replace those currently in Bosnia. When it goes to Bosnia, the 1st Prince of Wales Own will have had barely 12 months since its last emergency tour. Even more disturbing is the fact that those elements—and I believe them to be substantial—of 21 Engineer Regiment that will take over from 35 Engineer Regiment in a couple of months' time did an emergency tour in Northern Ireland last September.
A gap of that kind between emergency tour plots—especially ones such as Northern Ireland and Bosnia, which are high-risk operations—is not sufficient. At present, we are putting far too great a strain on our soldiers by asking them to undertake such commitments with such frequency.
I should like to have clarification of one or two of the points that have been made about the extra 5,000 troops to be put into the front line. We have been told that about 1,300 of the 3,000 additional men will go to the two 933 restored battalions, and that the other 1,700 will be added to armoured regiments, the logistics corps and public-duty infantry battalions.to reduce the need for augmentation from other units for operational tours".The Select Committee will look further at this question. I should be grateful for an assurance that the 300-strong public duties increment, which has always been planned, is not included in this number and that it is additional to the 5,000 to whom we are referring. With regard to the 5,000, I shall be watching with some interest to see whether any misuse is made of mirrors in moving the 2,000 personnel from one part of our armed forces to another.
While I am on the subject of reprieve, I cannot resist saying that during my trip to Bosnia I was astounded to be told by the Cheshires that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, who had been in Bosnia the previous week, had told the Cheshires that he personally had reprieved them. [Laughter.] That is how it was put to me. It is a version of events slightly different from what I had understood to be the case. Anyway, I look forward very much to my right hon. Friend's being able to claim the reprieve of the other seven battalions which I hope will in due course be added to our strength.
I should like to take up another point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater made. I am glad to say that on this occasion I wholeheartedly agree with my right hon. Friend. I refer to the review of our use of troops in Northern Ireland. It seems that the only alternative to having additional forces is to find a way in which, without in any way reducing the cover for Northern Ireland and without increasing the risk in the Province, the troops who are involved can be used more efficiently.
We have heard some very good points about the areas in which we may be able to replace soldiers with members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. I feel strongly that we should be able to find a way of achieving a reduction from the very high number of soldiers–19,000—we now have in the Province. I think that I am right in saying that, when the noble Lord Bramall was Chief of the General Staff, we had only 9,000 soldiers in Northern Ireland. That is not so very long ago, and the risk at that time was probably perceived to be as great as it is now.
We should look very closely for ways in which a greater part of the peacekeeping and policing role in Northern Ireland could be transferred back to Northern Ireland itself, with the emphasis obviously on the Royal Ulster Constabulary. I very much hope that we shall be able to find a way of doing something along those lines.
The Select Committee has been criticised for not looking in greater detail at proposals concerning means of reviewing commitments. I do not see how we could reduce other commitments. I do not agree with some of my hon. Friends who asked whether it was desirable to keep our forces in, for example, Belize, where we provide a very useful service and have the advantage of being able to train our men in jungle warfare. Nor do I see any immediate prospect of our being able to withdraw from the Falklands. With the sole exception of a close look at Northern Ireland, it would be very difficult properly to reduce our commitments.
We are on much more difficult ground when we talk about potential new commitments. There is no doubt—I do not think that this will be disputed—that the world is a very different place. The peace dividend for which we looked two years ago has disappeared. We cannot now 934 look forward with any hope to a world in which we can afford to lower our guard as a result of the break-up of the Soviet Union.
My right hon. Friend, in opening the debate, talked about putting this whole question in a global context. I happily do so. I fear that the former Soviet Union increases rather than lessens the likelihood of war. With the stand-off between the old Soviet Union and the western alliance, we had the mutual nuclear deterrent, which had kept peace in the world for many years and looked likely to continue to do so. The Soviet Union has broken up, but there remains a collection of extremely powerful countries. The Ukraine still has 650,000 men under arms and 178 nuclear missiles—quite enough to blow the whole of Europe out of the water. Were those resources to be misused—were there even a threat of their being misused—we should need armed forces and a deterrent of the kind that was required when we were facing the Soviet Union.
Russia itself, currently in good and trustworthy hands, may not remain so. President Yeltsin is not secure, and the reforms are by no means safe. There is a very real danger —a danger of which the Russian leadership itself is acutely aware—that Russia will again fall into bad hands, the hands of ideological, militaristic communists. Were that to happen, the west, including this country, would need to deploy weapons not very different from those that have been needed for the past four decades.
My hon. Friend was right to say that the Americans are cutting their defence, as are most of our European allies. I do not suggest that we should not cut ours; I say that we have cut too much and that our allies are cutting too much. The fact that our allies are cutting back is no excuse for our doing so. I note with some amusement that, in the debate in another place on 10 February, Lord Orr-Ewing, who was a Defence Minister 30 years ago, pointed out that at that time he had looked at the 20 years preceding his term of office. He had found 54 operations in which British forces had taken part. None of them had been anticipated by the Ministry of Defence and none had been allowed for in the forward planning of the day. I take some comfort from the fact that nothing has changed, but it is slightly cold comfort.
Finally, the Army needs leeway for the reason that I have just mentioned. We cannot plan accurately for or know precisely what we shall be called on to meet in the next 10 to 20 years. We now have a high-tech Army with immensely expensive equipment. We cannot make it and unmake it according the peaks and corresponding dips in our economy. We must take the long view—that view is expensive, but we must not shirk from it.
With due deference to my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme, I shall quote his grandfather, Winston Churchill, who wrote, on 17 December 1904:The Army is not like a limited liability company to be reconstructed, remodelled, liquidated and refloated from week to week as the money market fluctuates.It is not an inanimate thing, like a house to be pulled down, or structurally altered at the caprice of the owner; it is a living thing.If it is bullied, it sulks; if it is unhappy, it pines; if it is harried, it gets feverish; if it is sufficiently disturbed, it will wither and dwindle and almost die; and when it comes to this last serious condition, it is only revived by lots of time and lots of money".This country made the error of cutting back too hard on its defences in the late 18th century and again in the late 19th century and before the first and second world wars. 935 We have not yet reached the stage where the Army has withered and died; it is strong and healthy, but it is too small. We must ensure for the future that we learn the lessons of the past and that we maintain and nurture the Army at a level that will match the needs of the years to come.
§ Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)
Despite the helpful, constructive and informative contribution from the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), I find the debate depressing. My morale must be nearly as low as that of the soldiers who will face redundancy when the announcement is made tomorrow. Morale is low because every soldier, like most hon. Members, know that this decision, like too many others taken by the Government, has been made mainly, although not exclusively, on the basis of financial considerations.
The terms of the redundancies have not been planned as one might have expected. A further search by the Treasury for more financial savings next year and the following year will squeeze resources for the military even further. I do not take the same degree of satisfaction that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces took from the fact that there are many volunteers for redundancy. My experience is that the officers and other men in the Army are wholly professional. They joined the Army for a career and to do a specific job. The fact that there are volunteers for redundancy suggests the depth to which the morale of the services has fallen.
§ Mr. Archie Hamilton
Most of the non-commissioned ranks do not serve for more than 22 years. The hon. Gentleman talks about a career in the Army, but it is, by its nature, only a first career. Many will inevitably leave at about the age of 40 and have a second career until they retire. Therefore, the people volunteering for redundancy will often be leaving only a few years before they usually would, and they receive a substantial capital payment when they do so.
§ Mr. Maginnis
The Minister's response is peculiar. When 3 million people are unemployed, I cannot understand why anyone would wish to volunteer to leave the Army. If the Minister is implying that the soldiers who are volunteering for redundancy signed up for 22 years but are leaving after 17 or 18 years, he is admitting that the Army is losing its most experienced soldiers when a reorganisation is taking place; that cannot be good. He said that the vast majority of officers who were to be made redundant had also volunteered, and that cannot be good, either.
I have two questions for the Minister. First, why is the Army feeling much more strain under "Options for Change" than the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force? I am not advocating that we should lean more heavily on the two latter arms of the services, but I cannot understand why the infantry is feeling more strain. Has the sharing of the pain been unequally distributed? Will the likely future commitments exacerbate the pressures on the Army, specifically the infantry, more than those on the other two services?
936 I ask my second question reluctantly. Should such vast amounts of the defence budget for the Army be devoted to the allied rapid reaction corps? Does Britain's contribution of a single armoured division justify its disproportionate cost, especially when future commitments appear to be of low intensity?
Many hon. Members have said that the unprecedented reduction in the number of infantry battalions was far too severe and badly thought out. Recent minor adjustments, which reprieved two battalions, are of course welcome, but I am aware that a certain sleight of hand is being employed. I refer specifically to the enforced amalgamation of four Royal Irish battalions into two battalions, which occurred without adequate consideration of operational needs in Northern Ireland. I shall deal with Northern Ireland later.
Another issue that needs to be examined especially carefully is the extent to which the remaining battalions are undermanned and whether they are likely to achieve their establishment. Mention has been made today of the Cheshires in Bosnia and their need to be reinforced with 150 members of the Royal Irish Regiment. I noticed that every other regiment serving in Bosnia was mentioned, and I take some pride in drawing attention to the fact that 150 members of the Royal Irish Regiment are there: perhaps it is because they are so professional and have integrated so well under the command of the Cheshires that nobody has noticed the difference. Someone who was in Bosnia last week told me that they are playing their full part and have integrated very well, to the extent that, on the Cheshires' special day, they joined them in wearing the oak leaf.
If we continue to overstretch the remaining battalions, it seems inevitable that the problem of overstretch will increase. As the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) pointed out, young soldiers currently serving three, six, or nine years will come under increasing pressure from their young wives and families not to continue, simply because of the increased periods of separation. The result is that fewer will continue in the forces after their initial period of service. That vicious circle must be addressed urgently.
The Minister will recall that, with some reluctance, my party supported the amalgamation of the Ulster Defence Regiment with the Royal Irish Rangers. We did so because we believed that it would be in the best interests of the new Royal Irish Regiment. We recalled, of course, that the Royal Irish Rangers had derived from the Royal Ulster Rifles, the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Once, the part of the United Kingdom from which I come contributed three line regiments. With amalgamation, we were left with one line regiment—the Royal Irish Rangers—and the Ulster Defence Regiment, which, despite repeated promises, was, sad to say, always treated as the poor relation, although the soldiers of the UDR must operate under pressures which no other regiment has to endure.
We wanted to retain our regiment of the line, so what was proposed seemed to make reasonable sense. Certain promises were made at the time. For example, we were told that, once the amalgamation had taken place, there would be a period of consolidation and that no changes would be enforced for at least a year. Instead, because we require two additional battalions to be sent to Northern Ireland —six-month roulement battalions, it should be remembered—they are given their own TAORs—tactical areas of 937 operational responsibility—at the expense of Royal Irish battalions which are there permanently and are commanded by officers on a two-year attachment.
That does not make sense. A roulement battalion coming in for six months has a learning curve of up to three months with, at the end, a rundown period of two, three or four weeks. To remove from the command of TAORs the resident Royal Irish battalions and to replace them with roulement battalions is arrant nonsense.
Many fail to understand the basis on which amalgamations have taken place. For example—I shall use the old UDR terms–11 UDR was amalgamated at one stage with 2 UDR to become 6 UDR. If hon. Members find that confusing, I assure them that I am equally confused, because we now have the amalgamation of the old 3 UDR with the old 11 UDR, forming 3 Royal Irish. One need only look at the amount of territory that that battalion must cover, and remember that one half has its own TAOR while the other half is placed under command of a roulement battalion, to understand how difficult it is for any commanding officer to maintain, under the most difficult circumstances, any sort of cohesion and morale.
The same happened to my old battalion, 8 UDR. It was amalgamated with 2 UDR to form 8 Royal Irish, one half of which comes under the command of a six-month roulement battalion and the other half of which has a TAOR of its own. Those changes were made selfishly—as it were, for political reasons in the military sense—and gave little thought to the real needs of the people of Northern Ireland and those serving in that difficult theatre.
I do not want to be told that that happened because six-month roulement battalions are capable of performing duties for much longer periods than are the members of the Royal Irish. The position is changing because of the pressure on battalions to return to operational duties within a shorter time scale. The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) spoke of the great stress under which soldiers operate. Can the Minister justify full-time members of the Royal Irish Regiment having to be on duty, week after week, for between 70 and 80 hours? Does he have any concept of how that affects the entire families of those soldiers—their wives, children, mothers and fathers? The strain is enormous working under such stressful conditions, remembering that Royal Irish soldiers are never off duty. They are on duty, whether literally or at home with their families.
I fear that such stress is forcing young men to leave the regiment after serving their initial three or six years. The human resource in Northern Ireland is finite. We do not have scope to work our soldiers to the extent that is now required of them. They should not be treated as cheap labour, putting it bluntly. Nor should they be an alternative to the RUC. I listened carefully to the comments of the hon. Member for Upminster about the RUC accepting more responsibility in less dangerous areas, if it is possible to find such areas in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman will be aware how easy it is for the IRA and other paramilitary organisations, which are mobile, to move into previously quiet areas.
If those areas exist and can be identified, of course it is fine to say that the RUC should assume the duty of policing them on its own. However, I hate to disillusion hon. Members about what seems a logical suggestion, but until we have a political dedication that matches the dedication of the police and the military, that will not be possible.
938 Over the past 20 years politicians have dedicated far too much time and effort in Northern Ireland to trying to placate those who refuse to be placated. The upturn in violence is a direct result of that. Everyone in my party, and everyone in the House, deplores the upsurge in loyalist violence—but that upsurge is a direct result of some nonsensical political decisions that have been made over the years.
It is no slight on the RUC to say that the situation today is less conducive to their policing on their own than it was three, four or five years ago. I know that hon. Members will be disappointed to hear that.
There is something else that I want to say, but it is futile for me to mention it, because I do not think that my making a proposal will have the wished-for result. None the less, it is especially disappointing that, when adjustments were made to the number of battalions, no one thought of trying to retain two general service battalions for the Royal Irish Regiment. I believe that that would have been worth while partly because, with six home defence regiments, we need to bring on young officers who will eventually take over as commanding officers of the home battalions. Furthermore, great benefit could be achieved by giving NCOs, including senior NCOs, scope to move away from the home battalions for periods of service with general service battalions.
My main criticism of "Options for Change" is that, when the proposals were made, they did not properly assess the needs of our Army and of the United Kingdom.
I shall allude briefly to Bosnia. There was much truth in what the hon. Member for Upminster said about the position in which we shall find ourselves there. I have never believed that we should be in Bosnia with such an open-ended and ill-defined commitment. It is folly to commit any of our ground troops without some artillery and air support. The problem will be exacerbated if the Americans, with their high-level drops, come into the equation. The frustrated combatants in the area will find that our troops are the only people on whom they can vent their anger.
I finish by congratulating all our forces who carry out their many and varied duties throughout the world—not least in my part of the United Kingdom—with such dedication and discipline—a discipline which I do not believe that any other army in the world could match.
§ Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)
I am not sure whether I should declare a pecuniary interest in the debate. To be safe rather than sorry, I should tell the House that I am in receipt of a very small military pension.
I wholeheartedly endorse the congratulations that the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) offered our armed forces, who do a splendid job. In a society that has increasingly little regard or respect for its institutions, the Army is generally respected and retains the affection and support of the vast majority of the British population—as, indeed, do the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. The Minister of State said much the same. Deservedly, the Army remains a respected profession at all levels of society. Today's troops are serving all over the world and doing a fine job in support of our national interests, earning continuing respect.
The Army remains above politics such as we see in this place, because its allegiance is to the Crown and it remains 939 motivated by traditional values that most people respect, such as loyalty and service. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) talked about the finest traditions of the British Army. I was delighted to hear those words coming from the Opposition, because those traditions and values are respected, and are enhanced by the excellent regimental system, which I should not like to see harmed in any way.
It is my intention not to denigrate that fine institution but to suggest means by which it may be improved for the 21st century. The Minister knows that I, like many others who have spoken in the debate, am unhappy about "Options for Change" and the especially severe reduction in our infantry manpower. I agree with almost every word that my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) said.
The Minister may disagree, but I am told by many people in the Army that there is now severe overstretch in our forces. The Foreign Secretary has said as much. Furthermore, the overstretch and the planned reductions have led to a worrying situation with regard to morale and spirit. The hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) —sadly, he is not now in the Chamber—said the same. This is one of very few occasions on which I agree with him.
The implementation of the redundancy programme, in the present climate, is leading many excellent officers to apply for redundancy. Those are the dynamic people who are capable of finding civilian jobs even in the recession. The programme is encouraging first-class expertise to wither away. It would have been better by far to have made a more objective assessment of the soldiers and officers that we require for the future. Many excellent officers and soldiers of all ranks wish to remain in the Army, but it is at officer level in particular that valuable expertise is being lost. As the Minister said, long careers involving people over the age of 40 are largely restricted to officers.
Instead of cutting manpower and overstretched regiments, Ministers might have considered a thorough reappraisal of the command structure. In my opinion, it is grossly top-heavy. There are to many chiefs and not enough Indians. That was illustrated when, as part of "Options for Change", the chiefs decided to cut the Indians but, as I understand it—my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces may correct me —they have not yet decided how many of themselves to cut. By considering the serious savings to be made in the higher echelons of the armed forces, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State might find that he has greater scope for saving more battalions of infantry.
It is not for cost purposes that I make remarks on the command structure: it is because I believe that a much better service could be provided with less bureaucracy. At present we have a top-heavy bureaucracy which strangles initiative. In any conflict it is seen immediately to be largely irrelevant. Few people would disagree that lean command structures in organisations, in business and industry, as well as the armed forces, are more efficient. They make decisions more quickly. They can find solutions to problems more easily.
I fear that the Ministry of Defence and the Army are swamped by huge staff structures, both civilians and 940 military. That is not to criticise the people in those staff structures, because they work extremely hard, whether soldiers or civilians, and for good motives. However, that is not to say that the work could not be reorganised more efficiently.
I have seen able, hard-working and intelligent individuals beavering away at paperwork which is entirely unnecessary. Their efforts are wasted. The work is nugatory. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster mentioned 55 contingency plans, none of which was ever used. That is the sort of work which is not necessary.
A senior person at the top of a department—in the Army, a senior general—requires work to justify his existence. Therefore, there is an enormous amount of work. Of course, all the generals need to visit military establishments. Therefore, everyone is required to work hard to ensure that the visit is a success and not the disruption which everyone can often see that it might be.
Depending on rank, a general requires back-up officers. That is not unreasonable, and I support it. So one major general will probably require at least one brigadier, a brace of colonels and a few lieutenant colonels and majors to keep him and his department working. All those important people in the structure, not surprisingly, interfere where they should not do so.
The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone spoke about Northern Ireland. I recall that in the Province, every activity of the guardsman on the street would be monitored not only by the corporal in charge of his patrol, the platoon commander in charge of his platoon and the company commander in charge of his company, who all had reasonable input into his operational needs, but by the commanding officer, who had some good interest in what he was doing. Then there was a brigadier who was fascinated with the activities of the guardsman and interfered in operations which could not possibly be within the scope of his knowledge. There was a major general, and there is still, the commander of land forces, who was equally fascinated by what was happening on the streets.
On top of it all, there was a general officer commanding. They were all excellent men. The general officer commanding also had his input into what was going on. The minutiae and detail of operations do not require everyone at every level from lieutenant general downwards to involve themselves in the activities of private soldiers. Nevertheless, I fear that this culture has been inculcated into the ethos of peacetime command.
Of course, reductions are planned in the number of senior officers in proportion to the overall reductions in the size of the armed forces, including the Army. I am not sure that we know yet what reductions are planned. But we should take a more radical look at the structure. The figures that I have are for 1992. In that year, there were eight full generals to 10 lieutenant generals in the Army. That must amount essentially to a one-on-one command structure, which I was always taught was not a good idea.
There were 54 major generals—as many as there are battalions of infantry. Yet in a war, a major general is expected to command about 12 battalions or regiments. To turn to the Ministry of Defence, let us take as an example the quartermaster general's department. The quartermaster general has a director-general of logistic policy, a director-general of transport and movement, a 941 director-general of ordnance services and a director-general of equipment support, all of whom are major generals and, I am sure, excellent, hard-working people.
The director-general of equipment support has five directors of equipment support under him—another five brigadiers, I assume. All those people deal with important matters, but one must ask whether they are working to best effect and whether more junior, less exalted people could do the job better with fewer staff and less bureaucracy. Could it not be streamlined?
In equipment procurement, I remember the "great success" of the Nimrod programme and the even worse success of the SP70—the self-propelled gun 1970. After about 18 years of work on the SP70, it was scrapped. I do not know how many millions of pounds went down the tube with it.
Let us examine the other armed forces. In 1992 there were the same number of air chief marshals—six—as there were in 1950 and 69 per cent. of the number of air marshals and air vice marshals—a total of 52 in 1992 compared with 75 in 1950. Yet the total number of personnel had fallen from 183,000 to 83,000. As I understand it, in the Air Force a flight lieutenant normally commands an aeroplane. A squadron leader commands a flight. A wing commander commands a squadron. A group captain commands a wing. In the Navy, the number of admirals to ships does not bear examination.
One of the difficulties of the structure of the Army is that young men and women join the Army at 17 or 18 at all levels for reasons about which one reads on recruiting posters. They join for camaraderie, mates, excitement, adventure, travel and a trade. You name it, you will see it. However, the scope for adventure and excitement rapidly diminishes after the age of 30, 35 or 40. But people stay in the forces for reasons of security and career structure.
Therefore, in order to have good senior officers, one must offer a decent career structure. But essentially the armed forces, and the Army in particular, should be for the younger men and women because the nature of service life requires agile,, fit, quick people and similarly agile quick, fit minds. I recall that John Hackett was a brigadier who parachuted into Arnhem at the age of 33. When I joined the armed forces in 1970, he was still a general almost 30 years later.
If we wish to attract able people into the Army, as we do at present, we must provide an attractive, long-term future for able people, but not a career to 55 for all who want it. We need many junior officers but only a few senior officers. So we should encourage most people to leave at the age of 30, 35, or 40. Unfortunately, in a sad catch-22, it becomes increasingly difficult to find a job in civilian life as one gets older. Indeed, some of us have to come into Parliament because we cannot find a decent job elsewhere.
The people who are accepted into the armed forces generally go through a difficult selection process. They are generally vigorous spirits with good minds and they have rigorous training. I believe that the Ministry of Defence could do more to encourage business men and industrialists to give former soldiers and service personnel a chance at later ages to enter their businesses. Surely British industry would benefit from some of the dynamism and high standards which are recognised by all sections of the House to be an attribute of many forces personnel.
Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Minister mentioned new measures, including in particular the Services Employment Network. I welcome it and hope that it will 942 operate along the lines that I have described. There have been many initiatives for work placement schemes. My right hon. Friend said that they would be increased. It would be for the benefit of companies because they could see whether ex-officers would be dynamic, capable and flexible employers and managers. Dynamism, capabilities and flexibility are required in the armed forces.
If we can achieve a much leaner command structure, the Army could be more outward looking and less introspective for the next century. It could turn to a security policy to co-ordinate national strategy instead of the narrow MoD strategy, which is adopted all too often today.
Looking further forward, we need to reappraise our defence and security needs, but it is difficult to do so with top-heavy organisations. Our future defence policy may need to be more closely linked with foreign policy and Home Office policy in counter-terrorism matters, for national security. Clausewitz said that war was an extension of diplomacy by other means. Perhaps we should simply say that all defence is an extension of diplomacy by other means. The 21st century will need flexibility in reaction to events. The present structure is notoriously inflexible, with too much evidence of entrenched interests.
I do not intend to be negative, and I hope that I have made positive comments on the future of the Army. If the Army is to continue as a respected institution, there is need for a review of its structure. We need fewer staff officers, civilian and military, we need less bureaucracy and we need far fewer senior officers with all that they bring with them so that the front line can concentrate on the proper training and operations, about which we have heard today, which are the proper job of the Army.
I value tradition, and I value the old regiments. I value the paraphernalia of bands, of uniforms and of mascots. We have one of the best armies—if not the best army—in the world with all that paraphernalia. Let us not concentrate on that and suggest that everything should be rationalised. Our Army is the envy of most of our allies and of most of our enemies. I am not sure that we are allowed to talk about our enemies any more, if they exist.
I know that, in the Ministry of Defence, Parkinson's law has had a field day, as it has had in the rest of Whitehall. There are too many bureaucrats who exist purely to write letters to each other. I urge my right hon. Friend to change the peacetime culture, and to make the Army and the Ministry of Defence better for the 21st century. We should encourage young officers to join for a short while and we should then encourage industry to assist in resettling them into civilian life. That would make for a leaner, more effective and cheaper command and organisational structure throughout the Army. Let us have fewer chiefs and more Indians. That may help to keep our excellent Army and the rest of the armed forces respected both at home and throughout the world.
§ Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East)
I am not sure whether the hon. Member (Mr. Robathan) should ever be employed by the armed forces recruitment office. He gave a very depressing picture of the Army chasing its own bureaucratic tail. That is not my impression of its operation, or of the requirements that society places on the armed forces.
943 The hon. Member asked whether the Army could be streamlined. The answer must be yes, although it depends on what we are streamlining. We ask the armed forces to walk the paradox of democracy. We expect them to be trained in the arts of war, although in the hope that they are never employed. When we ask them to go into action on our behalf, we expect and demand the highest standards of quality of end product. Thankfully, we have never yet been disappointed by what the armed forces have produced in extreme crises.
The Government still have not got the regimental amalgamation and conventional defence policy correct. They are wrong in their approach. I welcome the cancellation of the amalgamation of the Royal Scots with the King's Own Scottish Borderers, but I continue to press for the cancellation of the merger between the Gordon Highlanders and the Queen's Own Highlanders. Having got their corrections half right, I encourage the Government to get it absolutely right and to retain the Queen's Own Highlanders and the Gordon Highlanders.
The present altered programme produced by the Ministry of Defence represents a quick fix which does not address the problem of overstretch in the infantry because it merely scratches the surface of the problem. I could employ arguments against the remaining amalgamation of Scottish regiments based on economic and social grounds, such as the impact of new unemployment in areas of high unemployment, especially during a recession. There are also the effects on local authorities because there are extra demands on scarce housing and on other resources. A compelling case against amalgamation could be made on those factors.
Instead, I shall concentrate my opposition to the regimental amalgamations on military and defence grounds. I hope that even the Ministry of Defence will recognise those arguments. The Government have not taken on the overstretch argument. The situation facing the world is far worse than the Ministry of Defence will yet admit. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), the Secretary of State said last month:I am satisfied that at present we can meet all our obligations without undue overstretch."—[Official Report, 12 January 1993; Vol. 216, c. 750.]Those words may come back to haunt the Secretary of State. His certainty is not shared.
It may be that, yet again, the Government are overtaken by events. In a series of spheres of operation, the Government are prone to being overtaken by events. They are dragged into policy decisions by outside forces and events rather than taking policy decisions themselves. It seems that defence is included in the list.
There have been significant changes in the strategic environment since 1990 which could not have been foreseen when "Options for Change" was produced. Those changes include the violent break-up of Yugoslavia, growing instability in the middle east and the growing military commitment to the United Nations. Other events loom on the horizon. If the Owen-Vance peace proposals are accepted or if another peace proposal is eventually implemented in Bosnia, there may be significant implications. I have not yet heard the Government address those potential problems.
944 Despite those problems, the Secretary of State, in evidence to the Select Committee, referred to
a combination of developments, none of which, we believe, in any fundamental sense changes the assumptions that were made at the time of Options.The Committee replied in its report:We find this barely credible.The Committee is not alone in finding the Government's response less than credible.
The Select Committee slated the amalgamation in its report. It states:everything in the past three years leads us to the bleak conclusion that the proposed rundown goes too far, and that …even minor contingencies are imposing an unacceptable strain on the Army.The report makes it clear that the developments of the past three yearspoint to a greater rather than a lesser demand for armed forces capable of interventions over a wide spectrum of activity.The number of infantry battalions envisaged is simply too few to meet all peacetime tasks. The Ministry's own target of 24 months between operational tasks is not being met. Even a slight change in commitments will make it absolutely impossible. Since 1991, three extra units have been deployed on six-month unaccompanied tours. Even without taking that duty into account, deployments filled by the infantry should be backed by 10 extra battalions if the two-year period between tours is to be maintained. The add-back given by the Government of two battalions that were scheduled to be lost by amalgamation still leaves a deficit of eight battalions. The Ministry has unilaterally decided that the two-year interval is essential if operational efficiency and morale are to be maintained, yet the current tour interval is 15 months.
I draw to the Minister's attention words in a letter sent to all Scottish Members by Lieutenant-General Sir John MacMillanThe reprieve of two units does not mean that the interval will increase. It merely means that it will not decrease quite so far … By the MOD's own criteria the infantry is going to be overstretched unless or until unit deployments are reduced.I have not heard the Government addressing the overstretch issue this evening. I should like to hear the Minister meet the points made on an all-party basis by the Select Committee and by the military.
The Select Committee clearly agrees with the argument on overstretch. It states:In the light of the chronic overstretch being experienced by the Army, which shows no sign of abating, we recommend that the Government cancel all amalgamations or disbandments of UK infantry battalions currently planned.Again, there is clear disagreement between an all-party Committee and the Government. I look to the Government to refute the arguments being put. If they cannot, they should agree with what is being said to them and they should reconsider overstretch and the requirements that we place on the military.
If the Government do not reconsider, the inability to meet the 24 months between operational tasks will have a number of serious consequences. Army units are unable to train for high-level warfare. Only one unit instead of seven is presently being trained in the Army's top-level training unit. If troops were required to go back to the Gulf, for example, they would find it more difficult to adapt to the situation quickly because of the training constraints. The lack of a 24-month interval will place intolerable strains on 945 the family lives and marriages of soldiers serving in the Army and it will be much more difficult to retain staff long-term the longer these conditions are maintained.
The Army has traditionally made up in quality what it has lacked in quantity. What certainty can there be that that will continue if it cannot maintain the two-year interval which the Ministry of Defence has said is essential? The Government should never forget that every European country, with the exception of Eire, has conscription and can therefore quickly mobilise in an emergency. The United Kingdom strategy has always relied on full-time professional forces maintained at the highest readiness. Training is thus essential, and the Government must look again at the strains that their policy is imposing on the armed forces.
The Ministry of Defence based its decisions on which units should be amalgamated on simple projections of the numbers of young men in given recruiting areas, irrespective of whether they had proved to be good recruitment areas in the past. The policy failed to recognise that Scotland has always sent more men to the forces than the United Kingdom average. At present, 12 per cent. of the Army comes from 9.8 per cent. of the United Kingdom population. That is in no small part due to the close links between regiments and their recruiting base. The amalgamations will break the tie on which recruitment has depended. Experience of previous amalgamations has been that when new regiments cover larger geographical areas local ties are broken or weakened.
We are about to sacrifice an intangible asset; we do so at our peril and long-term cost.
Defence requirements are being distorted by the Government's obsession with Trident nuclear weapons. Defence expenditure has declined from 5 per cent. of GDP in 1985–86 to 3.8 per cent. in 1992–93 and is projected to decline even further to 3.4 per cent. in 1994–95, so it is clear that something must give. That something should not be our conventional forces and certainly not our Scottish regiments.
In its first report on the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1992", the Select Committee said:Either sufficient resources must be found or the Government must acknowledge its inability to meet all the commitments and take the political decision to reduce or abandon some of them.I agree wholeheartedly. The one commitment that the Government must abandon on defence and cost grounds is the Trident programme—not to mention the other nuclear missiles which they are buying and cannot possibly use—and the one commitment that the Government must make up their mind to honour is the one to all Scottish regiments and battalions.
§ Mr. George Kynoch (Kincardine and Deeside)
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could explain that to the people of Rosyth. I believe that he is also arguing that it should get the Trident nuclear contract.
§ Mr. Welsh
The people of Rosyth know what the Government are doing to them and how insecure employment is under this Government. If there were a move towards more spending on conventional forces, there would be jobs at and a future for Rosyth. The Government cannot guarantee the workers that.
I repeat my plea to the Government that they should rescind their decision and retain the Queen's Own Scottish Highlanders and the Gordon Highlanders, whose record 946 of valour, expertise and service merits their retention. The logic of our strategic needs demands their continuing and independent contributions. I hope that the Government will listen and take action on this plea.
§ Mr. Winston Churchill (Davyhulme)
The hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) would not expect me to agree with him about Trident, but I endorse his tribute to the role of the Scottish regiments in the British Army and the disproportionate contribution of recruiting in Scotland, which is severely threatened by the "Options for Change" cuts. I also echo the tribute paid by the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) to all our forces serving in Northern Ireland—in particular to the men and women of the Royal Irish Regiment, who serve there 365 days a year. We owe them a great debt. On a personal note, I commend the hon. Gentleman for the gallantry that he has shown for so many years serving in what was the Ulster Defence Regiment.
When the cynically named "Options for Change" was announced in July 1990, no options were brought before the House of Commons or before the nation: all options were foreclosed by the Treasury. At that time, the world was a different place. In the wake of the dramatic transformation of the Soviet Union, the tearing down of the Berlin wall and the overthrow of the Ceausescu dictatorship, hopes were high that we might be moving into an era of "peace in our time". Sad to say, and as before, such expectations proved illusory.
This complacency was abruptly shattered within a week of the publication of "Options" when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and we found outselves having to fight a war in the Gulf which stretched even our pre-options armed forces to the absolute limit.
Since then, with the fall of Gorbachev and the spread of civil war and instability across vast areas of the former Soviet Union and the Balkans, the optimism that characterised "Options for Change" cuts has been shown to be utterly misplaced. Moreover, "Options" failed to take account of the already tiny size of Britain's armed forces. The Government seemed utterly oblivious of that when they embarked on reorganisation. The fully mobilised strength of Britain's Army at the time stood at 424,000 men and women. Post "Options", by the turn of the century it is likely to be no more than 300,000. That compares with the Swiss army of 600,000 the Swedish army of 750,000 and the army of tiny Finland, which is 700,000 strong.
Of course, ours is a professional, full-time Army. That fact is continually reinforced when we visit the forces of the Crown. The Defence Select Committee was privileged only in the past week to visit British forces in Bosnia; that brought home to us the fact that ours is, without exception, the finest Army in the world.
Ultimately, however, it is not only calibre that counts —important though it is. There comes a point when numbers count, too. The numbers have already been cut far too much. Already our commitments in Bosnia and Ireland are straining our Army to the limit. Having recently returned from Bosnia, I join my colleagues on the Select Committee in paying tribute to the wonderful job that our forces are doing there. Some of the United Nations forces arrived in theatre with trainer shoes and little sports bags—that was the extent of the back-up they 947 had. I am pleased to say—this is by way of tribute to our Ministers—that our forces arrived in theatre wanting for nothing in terms of their equipment and their capability to do the limited job of humanitarian assistance assigned to them.
There are almost as many Royal Engineers in this theatre as there are members of the Cheshires—the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and many other units are involved. The back-up is fantastic and it is the envy of all the other nations involved in the United Nations peacekeeping force in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia.
The Government have acknowledged that three extra battalions are required on account of unaccompanied tours which were not foreseen at the time of the "Options for Change" statement; two in Northern Ireland and a third, reinforced, unit in Bosnia. The Government's objective of a 24-month gap between tours means a requirement for an extra 15 battalions.
While the House welcomes the Secretary of State's reprieve for two battalions, that represents but one seventh of what is required to bring the emergency tour plot up to a 24-month interval. On the Government's calculations of the figures involved, we are still 13 battalions light and that is before any response to an outbreak of peace in the former Yugoslavia, which might require the deployment of a reinforced British brigade as part of a United Nations force. The reprieve of 3,000 men, out of the 40,000 to be cut from the Army, goes nowhere near meeting the urgency of the situation.
Neither the Ministers, the mandarins nor the Ministry of Defence's army of desk-bound warriors will pay the price for the overstretch of the British Army. It is the Tommy at the sharp end who will pay the price, as has been brought home time and time again to those members of the Defence Select Committee who have had the opportunity to visit the Army in their operational bases.
For instance, in Northern Ireland we found units that had spent 269 nights out of bed in a single year. Just before Christmas I visited the 2nd battalion of the Light Infantry at Tidworth barracks on Salisbury plain, which had been deployed to Northern Ireland four times in two years. My right hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench cannot treat men and their families in that fashion. Those members of the armed forces who depend on us deserve better than that.
If the Vance-Owen plan succeeds—we must all hope that it does—and there is a high-level political agreement, a United Nations force will be required to translate that into peace on the ground and it is variously estimated at anything between 50,000 and 100,000 men. We shall be invited to contribute about 7,500 men, which is a reinforced brigade and represents an additional 5,000 British troops in the region. At that point, "Options for Change" will go by the board, because, given the already overstretched state of the Army, there is no way that such an addition can be accommodated.
The time has come for an urgent reappraisal of commitments and resources. Meanwhile, there should be an immediate halt to all regimental amalgamations and suspensions of armoured and infantry units, as unanimously recommended by the Defence Select Committee. Ten regiments should be reprieved from amalgamation—adding back five—and Army manpower 948 should not be allowed to fall below an absolute minimum of 125,000, which would require the adding back of about 6,000 men according to present plans.
In opening the debate, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces helpfully costed the Defence Select Committee's recommendations at £200 million per annum. He paraded that as an enormous potential burden on the taxpayer, when it is but a tiny fraction of the defence budget let alone of Government expenditure. It has to be set in its proper context, against Government plans to spend £350 million during each of the next two years to make those men redundant.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, made clear, that is not the end of the cost of the redundancies but merely the beginning. We must also consider the loss of income tax and national insurance contributions, the cost of housing allowances and the unemployment and social security benefits that they will draw. All told, it is unlikely that the cost to the taxpayer of going ahead with "Options for Change" during the next two years would be less than £1,500 million, which effectively doubles the redundancy costs that the Government have acknowledged and published.
I submit to the Secretary of State that, for the same cost, every one of the remaining threatened regiments could be funded until the year 2000. He and his colleague, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, should deal with that problem. The time has come for the Secretary of State and his ministerial team to go into battle for the British Army against the depradations of the Treasury. They owe it to the famous regiments that are facing extinction, many of which have a glorious history of gallantry and sacrifice going back 300 years, as well as to the soldiers, and especially the non-commissioned officers and middle-ranking officers who are in the middle of their careers.
Furthermore, I appeal to the Prime Minister to get a grip on the Government's tunnel vision of viewing everything departmentally without taking the overall cost into account. We are told that every Government Department is strapped for cash and I can believe it. That is all except one—the Treasury. For example, if the Secretary of State for Defence comes up with a plan for getting rid of 58,000 service men—I acknowledge that it was not the present Secretary of State but his predecessor —or the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has a plan for getting rid of 80,000 workers in the mines and related industries, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will instantly reach deep into the taxpayers' pocket to get out a cheque book and write a cheque with many noughts on the end. In the case of the Army, it will be £1.5 billion, and £3 billion in the case of the mines. That cannot be a sensible or a cost-effective use of taxpayers' resources and must be questioned by the House and by Ministers.
There is an urgent need to give the men and women of the armed forces, who are the finest of their generation, the future and the quality of life that they deserve. They do not have a union to represent them, nor do they ask for one. They rely on Ministers and on the House to treat them fairly. They are not only the finest in the world, but the envy of the world, as has been said, so let us give them the backing that they deserve.
§ Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)
This will be something of an historic occasion, as I confess agreement with almost every syllable uttered by the hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill). However, the House should not be too surprised at that, as the hon. Gentleman and I, together with our colleagues on the Select Committee on Defence, have sat through the same inquiries, and the same question and answer sessions, and have made the same visits.
When something is so rational that it hits us between the eyes with the strength of a thunderbolt, we must take notice. I understand that the Minister of State for Defence Procurement—who may respond on behalf of the Government if he is fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker—is a rational person. I have also noticed that he has been paying careful attention and taking note of everything that has been said.
I commend to the Minister the rationale that has been displayed and discovered today by a number of hon. Members, not only the hon. Member for Davyhulme. The hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), who has the privilege of being Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence—a post which he fulfils with great distinction—gave the House the benefit of a well-measured resume of the Committee's findings. He laced it effectively with brilliant observation.
I also commend the speech of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) who, while offering an entertaining piece for our consideration, presented a thesis with many serious ideas. I also commend the contribution of my colleague from the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh), and that of the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis), who offered us plenty of serious matters to consider.
I associate myself with the well-presented reques.ts of my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid), particularly his demand—dare I call it that—for a full-scale review. I shall dare to call it that as, in October 1988, I made the same plea. That was the only time in my political career to date that I have ever been able to address the House from the Dispatch Box. At the time, Conservative Members tried to laugh me out of court. The chickens are now coming home to roost with a vengeance, and I shall not apologise to the House for gloating a little.
I associate myself with the issues raised by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), who referred to comments that I made last night about the strange rules of engagement controlling the United Kingdom contingent to the first United Nations Protections Force, which provides the medical and hygiene facilities for battalions engaged in the Krajina region. It is clearly understood that the standards of conduct are such that, if members of the United Kingdom force are required to relinguish their small arms and side arms to Serbs or Croats, those members are instructed to do so. Our forces can shoot to protect their lives, but cannot shoot to retain their weapons, which is a contradiction.
Therefore, my first question is: did the Ministry of Defence and Her Majesty's Government know of that instruction? My second question relates to intelligence gathering. It was our understanding that United Nations rules forbade any exercise intended to gather intelligence of a political, social or military nature. We train our 950 service men and women to operate in an area that they try to control through hearts and minds, as well as gun and bayonet.
The roads up to Vitez and Tuzla are partly controlled by obtaining such information and maintaining forms of dialogue with the opposing forces that straddle the area. The Spanish on the Mostar road use a different technique. Spanish is not spoken there anyway and the forces simply dash to and from point A to point Z at a rate of knots. That does not do them too much damage, other than mechanical damage. It seems strange that, in having to maintain a relationship, our men have to break the United Nations rule that does not allow intelligence gathering. Did the Government know about that? My third question is easy—most of my questions are easy, but I am sure that the Government will not want to answer them. If the Government knew of the rules, are they doing anything about trying to change them, as they seem preposterous?
My fourth question is predictable and relates to the overseas living allowance of service men—an evergreen issue. The problem emerged during the Falkland islands incident and it now applies to UNPROFOR 2. When those forces are moved from Germany to Bosnia-Herzegovina, where they do not go out as there are no nightclubs or cinemas, their overseas living allowance is removed.
There is an additional source of resentment as UNPROFOR 1—which provides the medical and hygiene units for all the battalions in the Krajina region—is paid for by the United Nations. The Government receive an income for the presence of UNPROFOR 1 in that region. But UNPROFOR 2 does not derive that income. I understand that to be the case and I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong. UNPROFOR 1 service personnel resent the fact that their force is being paid for by the United Nations and they are losing their overseas living allowance by virtue of their presence in Krajina.
I shall now comment on "Options for Change". We have sought and gained a leading role and are responsible for the management structure and future operation—please God—of the Allied Command Europe rapid reaction corps. Participation in the rapid reaction corps is so sought after that it is 250 per cent. over-subscribed—everyone wants a place on it.
A rapid reaction corps requires rapid reaction training, rapid reaction equipment and rapid reaction discipline. However, that in itself is not sufficient; it also requires rapid reaction planning, rapid reaction procurement arid rapid reaction preparation. We may have complete or partial provision in those sectors, but we fall down badly in the most critical sector of all: rapid reaction politicians.
For a period of at least two years we have been flagging the fact that overstretch, particularly of the infantry, has been going disastrously wrong. The fact that it took the Government so long to react is proof positive that we lack rapid reaction politicians, at least in the positions that count.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce
We should not be too critical about politicians being slow. One of my constituents was told when he first started work at Horton Heath laboratories that they would close in a year or so. He has now retired, having had a full career there. I would not press Ministers to close things too quickly.
§ Mr. Cook
That intervention may have been enlightening for some people, but I am merely a simple man. I do not know whether to say that the intervention has beggared my understanding or buggered my understanding.
It has taken the Government so long to take on board even a portion of the argument that has been made plain time and time again. Anyone who could believe that the cunning plot hatched by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) would come right at the end of the day must believe in Enid Blyton. It is quite preposterous. The hon. Member for Upminster told the House that in July we were told that there would be no further arguments about the issue.
The House should take note of the lack of rapid reaction by Ministers. So far all my questions have been easy to answer, but my next one is easier still. What exactly prompted the statement on 3 February? After all the delay, denial and refusals, what on earth happened to make the Government change their mind on that day when 10 days before nothing that they said even approached what they said then? I wonder whether I will get answers to any of my questions.
§ Dr. Charles Goodson-Wickes (Wimbledon)
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook). He is a distinguished member of the Select Committee on Defence whose unanimous report is well worth reading.
In declaring my interest as a Regular Army reserve officer I approach the debate with the same misgivings which last year made it impossible for me to support the Government in the Lobby on the logic and mathematics of "Options for Change". My misgivings are offset only by delight that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence recently not only followed my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in admitting the existence of overstretch, a concept which had hitherto been denied, but did something about it, to the relief of our ever adaptable and tolerant soldiers and, not least, their families.
I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Defence and to the Chairman and members of the Select Committee who have exposed so many fallacies in Ministry of Defence arguments. I still believe that the statistical basis for "Options for Change" is fatally flawed. How is it that arguments produced on pre-Gulf war situations are still considered basically valid? After all, the Gulf campaign was sustainable only because of the collapse of the Warsaw pact, when we were able to cannibalise equipment in Germany to enable our forces to use it.
Until the Secretary of State is able to convince many hon. Members in all parts of the House—I shall not embarrass the many Opposition Members who are profoundly sound on defence matters—that our arithmetic is not up to the standards demanded by the Secretary of State for Education, we shall continue to press the point.
When "Options for Change" was first conceived it was rightly calculated that, owing to the reduction of commitments in BAOR and Berlin, there was no further need for 19 major units. That is fair enough, but "Options for Change" earmarked for cutting no fewer than 31 major units. It took the deployment of British troops to Bosnia and the overdue reinforcement of our commitment to 952 Northern Ireland to bring matters to a head. My right hon. and learned Friend responded about a fortnight ago with a modification involving 3,000 men.
The saving of two infantry regiments—it is the infantry which has been hardest hit—reduces the apparent shortfall to 10 major units. I appreciate that in debating such issues it is dangerous to use round numbers. Matching units to manpower is not an exact science, but I still believe that we have got it wrong for our existing commitments, let alone any other commitments. The Minister may tell us of future reductions in our commitment to Cyprus, Belize and even the Falklands, but I remind the House that Bosnia came out of the blue and we had to turn down any commitment to Somalia.
Although we cannot be everywhere, yesterday's debate on international peacekeeping pointed to further developments when British troops would fulfil the role of United Nations peacekeepers. I emphasise "peacekeepers", because there was no mention of peacemaking. I shall keep it at that lower level. It is entirely appropriate for us, as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, to be willing to give a lead, given our special expertise, in an international peacekeeping role throughout the world.
We have never achieved the aspiration of a 24-month interval between tours in Northern Ireland. Several hon. Members have spoken about that. If my mathematics is right that leads to three possible options. First, we can abandon the unrealistic policy of a 24-month tour interval; secondly, we can stick to that policy and cut commitments, let alone undertake what are quaintly described as "discretionary commitments", which seems a somewhat odd combination of words; thirdly—this is the course that I recommend—we can look at the whole options exercise again and examine it much more rigorously than it has been examined previously.
We are about 6,000 men short, which means that the threshold is wrong by about 6,000 men. That recommendation is not lightly made. There have been profound arguments about costs and counter costs and what can be set against this, that or the other. However, if we are to match our tasks to resources, that is what we need. Only in that way can we get rid of existing problems and confidently look our allies in the face and say that we are fulfilling our roles properly throughout the world.
To argue about whether "Options for Change" was Treasury-driven is sterile. We have gone far beyond that, and have to look at the problem as it is. Of course it would be naive not to recognise the economic pressures. I should like to suggest to the Minister one or two areas where he could make savings which would enable our fighting soldiers properly to fulfil their role.
First, why has "Options for Change" produced an organisation which seems to have very much the same shape but is smaller and has a top-heavy command structure? My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) will get himself into much trouble with his senior Army friends. I would not want to enter the exercise of working out how many other ranks could be financed for the cost of a general's salary. There were one or two enlightening statistics in yesterday's debate, such as the fact that one ambassador was cheaper than one battalion. We shall have to examine such sums much more critically.
Secondly, civilian manpower has not been adequately addressed. I specifically exclude those civilians who release soldiers to do the job for which those soldiers are trained.
953 Why has the remaining civilian manpower been less rigorously examined than the armed services? Finally, why has the knotty legal problem of the deployment of reservists and, thus, the proper use of the reserve forces and the TA in the future not been thought through? We have not yet reached a sensible conclusion.
There are other, narrower points which I continue to find disturbing. I should like to use them today simply as an illustration of policies which I think have been inadequately thought through. There are two infantry points and two Royal Armoured Corps points.
First, on the infantry, the fact that our NATO allies have tolerated one or two battalions missing at any one time from I Division and from 3 Division not only prejudices the specialist roles of those forces being used in Northern Ireland, but puts at risk the leadership of the Allied Command Europe rapid reaction corps, which was so hard won and is likely to come under diplomatic challenge sooner rather than later.
Secondly—I declare an interest as a former member of the Household Division–1 am deeply disturbed that the Foot Guards have had to take a higher cut than the infantry as a whole. I say that in view of their ceremonial and fighting roles, which are unique, and also because of the standards that they set, which go through the whole of the rest of the Army. It smacks of the ghastly phenomenon of levelling down, and levelling down is the sort of philosophy which Conservative Members and many Opposition Members feel should be roundly rejected.
With regard to the Royal Armoured Corps, my first point concerns our armoured reconnaissance units. We have heard many wise words from hon. Members who have seen the situation in former Yugoslavia, and there are many others who believe that the armoured reconnaissance regiments are uniquely well equipped to fulfil the sort of role needed in Bosnia. I refer the House to a speech made in another place on 10 February by the noble Lord Vivian, who speaks with special authority, having recently retired as a brigadier. His speech is well worth reading by hon. Members.
My second point is the extraordinary fact that, in the ACE rapid reaction corps, the recce element is provided by a Territorial Army unit. However expert that TA unit is, I believe it to be a contradiction in terms that the recce element of a rapid reaction corps should be drawn from people who follow civilian occupations and are, I believe, drawn mainly from the north-east of England.
§ Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)
Will my hon. Friend accept that the recce element of the rapid reaction force could best be provided by reversing the enforced union of the two regiments of the Household Cavalry?
§ Dr. Goodson-Wickes
My hon. Friend and I share an interest in that very matter and I wholeheartedly endorse what he says. It is a matter that I drew to the House's attention in an Adjournment debate in November. I believe in the philosophy that, if one presents problems, one must come up with solutions. We have too few recce regiments and we have this ridiculous system of a union in the Household Cavalry whereby one service regiment will have to provide the same ceremonial duties as two service regiments have provided in the past. It is unsustainable. I have given the solution to my right hon. and learned Friend, and I very much hope that he accepts it soon.
954 Finally, I should like to make a point which is slightly different but which has deep significance for all of us who have the welfare of our forces at heart. I am informed that this year's Sandhurst intake is down by about 150 people out of 800—and that at a time of very high unemployment. It is a sign of the trouble that we are storing up for the future. If we cannot attract the right men and women into our armed forces at a time of high unemployment, we will see the effect not now but at the time when those people are leading our Army in the future.
In conflict, as in politics, the unexpected always happens. Military planners in the past few decades could hardly have foreseen an 8,000-mile supply line to a conflict in an island dependency, or western involvement in a tank battle east of Suez—an emotive phrase—in the 1990s. I must caution the House that, because we scraped by—I I use the phrase advisedly—in those two conflicts, for reasons that we all know, we must not now be lulled into complacency that everything in future will turn out all right, that we can cut here and cut there but that it will all turn out right in the end. One day it will not.
I should like to offer another constructive thought to my right hon. and learned Friend. One certainly that we have amid the uncertainties is that in 1997 we shall quit Hong Kong. May I leave my right hon. and learned Friend with a suggestion which I believe to be sensible both militarily and politically and one which to me is mere common sense? Rather than adopting the view of the Select Committee, whose views I respect, I believe that there is a practical solution to the complex problems that lie before us. It would be sensible to slow down the implementation of "Options for Change" until 1997; in other words, to slow down the whole timetable. That would satisfy all the problems that I have posed to the House this evening, or at least a large part of them.
If my recommendations were taken up, it would then be sensible to take up the Opposition's suggestion of a full defence review, but I suggest that such a review should take place in 1997 so that our armed forces will then be properly equipped for the tasks which none of us can identify at the moment but which lie ahead of us into the next century.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
There are other hon. Members who wish to speak and, even though they be on the opposite Benches, I think we should all restrain ourselves. My speech will therefore be truncated.As former government servants who assisted successive British governments with their aim of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, we urge the Government to declare now an indefinite suspension of British testing. We are convinced that it would be in Britain's best interest to do so.That was a letter in The Independent of 18 February. Who signed it? Sir John Thomson, Sir Michael Palliser, Sir Anthony Parsons and Sir John Edmonds, the ambassador to the comprehensive test ban treaty from 1978 to 1980. For reasons of time I will not pursue that letter, but it must be well known to the Ministry of Defence.
But hon. Members may care to listen to this:We believe this—that is, the call for a nuclear test ban—is one of the most pressing foreign policy issues facing Britain. As the Americans, French and Russians have now realised, they have to restrain their own nuclear programmes to have any chance of avoiding global nuclear proliferation. Without a test ban as part of a strong non-proliferation regime, what case do we have for persuading countries on the 955 brink of developing nuclear weapons not to do so? …It is not too late for Britain to play again an influential disarmament role, in this and many other areas. But if disarmament does not set the agenda now, proliferation very shortly will. By banning nuclear testing, we can take an important step back from the proliferation abyss.Who signed that? Those well known left-wingers, Lord Callaghan and Lord Healey. Having spent the past 30 years listening to them on defence, I really think that, when they say it, the Government ought to give a more serious answer, and a more serious answer also to General Sir Hugh Beach and to Frank Blackaby.
I read carefully Lord Zuckerman's article in Nature. Having had many ups and down with Solly Zuckerman for over 30 years, I know that, when he makes a plea like this, it is an extra reason for taking it seriously.
I want to ask two questions on it. In a report, Sidney Drell, John Foster, the director of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, one of the most distinguished in the United States, and Charles Townes, a Nobel prize winner in physics, gave it as their opinion that there is no need to test. When Russians and Americans think that there is no need to test, why do the British Government take a different view? At least there should be an explanation for that.
I quote from Zuckerman in Nature:In subsequent testimony before a panel of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee (31 March 1992), Drell gave as his firm view that the additional and marginal gain in safety that could be derived from continued testing was less important than 'the political value, real or perceived, of a CTBT for strengthening or even preserving a non-proliferation regime'Do the British Government disagree with that? We are entitled to be told.
On the second issue, I should have liked the Secretary of State for Defence to be here, because it is personal to him. It concerns public interest immunity certificates. The Defence Secretary testified in a second certificate that, as far as his Department's paper mountain was concerned:I have read all these documents and am satisfied that they are of the nature described.This relates to the documents in regard to the exports from Matrix Churchill and the Defence Secretary's locus in it.
The Defence Secretary, a Scottish QC himself, was content, like a policeman in court backing up the contents of a colleague's notebook, to agree with everything that the right hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) had said. He said:I have formed the opinion that for the reasons described in the hon. Gentleman the Member for Watford's certificate, with which I agree and whose arguments I adopt, that production of such documents would be injurious to the public interest.That is what the Defence Secretary went on record as saying.
In the House he later attempted to defend himself against accusations that he was among Ministers who had signed certificates to allow innocent men—that is, the directors of Matrix Churchill—to go to prison. He described the accusation asdeeply offensive, deeply insulting and entirely without foundation.I watched him as he said that. I was taken aback when he went on:There is no way that a Cabinet Minister who has no idea what the defence in a criminal trial might be can come to any 956 judgment as to whether the papers before him are likely to be helpful or harmful to the defence or the prosecution."—[Official Report, 23 November 1992; Vol. 214, c. 706–07.]That seems naive in any Minister of the Crown, but the Defence Secretary is not exactly any Minister of the Crown. He is a Queen's Counsel, he is an experienced lawyer, and he is used to reading documents. As a senior lawyer, he must have known that it was the defence team who were trying to prise the papers out of Whitehall, and Customs who were going about obtaining PII certificates to stop them. What did the Defence Secretary think that the defendants were on trial for?
It is difficult for another Minister who is not in the Cabinet to answer in the House tonight, but I should like a letter about it. As with so much else that I have said on the Floor of the House, I shall submit it for his consideration to Lord Justice Scott. Incidentally, I say again that it is scandalous that the Scott committee, contrary to the undertakings given to Parliament when the terms of reference were announced, is expected to cope with answers that should be given by Ministers.
Because other hon. Members wish to speak, I undertook to be brief. I could have continued much longer on the subject.
§ Mr. George Kynoch (Kincardine and Deeside)
It is with pleasure that I take part in the debate. I shall try to cut short my comments, knowing that colleagues wish to speak.
Although I come from a business background, I speak with a family history of several generations in the Army, going back to the origin of the Gordon Highlanders. There I have a link with the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh). However, I was not impressed by his answer on the subject of Trident and Rosyth. I hope that he will explain to the people of Rosyth how getting rid of Trident will bring wealth and prosperity to the area.
§ Mr. Kynoch
If the hon. Gentleman will wait and listen to my comments, he will hear what I have to say on that.
In my constituency, support for the Gordon Highlanders is obviously strong, since it is the local regiment. Many of my constituents have given long service and have a long association with the regiment and feel strongly about its proposed amalgamation. It becomes even more difficult for them to accept the proposed merger with the Queen's Own Highlanders when they hear of the Gordon Highlanders being asked to top up the Prince of Wales Regiment in Bosnia in May because it is under strength, when that regiment is not to suffer merger or disbandment.
However, there is a clear understanding that the world has changed dramatically over the past few years. We lived for so many years in the shadow of the threat of the eastern bloc that we required to equip and man our armed forces accordingly. Thankfully, with all the deterrents which we and our allies have had, that threat was contained and never came to anything.
In 1987, when the Soviet Government, under Mikhail Gorbachev, initiated dramatic changes to the military posture of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact, it was 957 inevitable that our military manning would need to be reassessed. Since then, further dramatic changes have occurred throughout the world, with the unification of Germany, and so on. The proposals in "Options for Change", while not universally popular, recognised the need for change in the light of the changing world, although the planned reduction in Army personnel from 156,000 to 116,000 was highly debatable.
It was also then that the debate intensified and the term "overstretch" became commonplace. I recognise from my past business life that cool, clear decision making is necessary, especially when ground rules change. However, it is important to retain flexibility whenever possible when difficult decisions have to be made. For the latter part of my business career, the concept of over-capacity in relation to demand, and thus overmanning, reluctantly played a prevalent part in much of my decision making, but in business, once the decision has been made and the machinery has been stripped out or the work force reduced, flexibility has changed immeasurably. One has to assume that one has made the best decision for the business.
In international affairs, the variables are much more unpredictable. I welcome very much the recent announcement by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State on Army manpower and the changes thereto. The decision to reverse the planned amalgamation of the Cheshire and Staffordshire Regiments, and that of the Royal Scots and the King's Own Scottish Borderers, was welcome. That decision graphically illustrated the ease with which a reversal of merger could be made at that juncture, but not when we are further down the road. I welcome the flexibility which my right hon. and learned Friend showed. I hope very much that he will use it again in future.
I think it was George Herbert who said:One sword keeps another in the sheath.The responsibilities which international peacekeeping brings are indeed onerous and the Defence Select Committee report, in quoting my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, sums up succinctly the choice which faces us:If boils keep on breaking out on the face of the world, our commitments could well increase—provided, that is, that we wish to maintain our position as a medium-sized power with a developed sense of international responsibility.Hon. Members heard yesterday from my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary about the number of areas in the world where the United Nations is a peacekeeping force today. There are 13 operations with a fourteenth on the way. We are playing our part in this, and playing it well. We heard of the horrific scenes in the former Yugoslavia, a land which until a few years ago we knew as a holiday resort. Who would have thought, while sitting on the beach in Split in the 1980s, of the horrific scenes that would be prevalent there today and the humanitarian aid that is necessary to be provided for those poor people?
Of course we have to play our part in protecting the United Nations effort, and our armed forces are the best, the most courageous and the most efficient in the world.
The situation in the middle east is still not stable; the old eastern bloc countries are in a delicate state of stareteility and problems could erupt any day. At home, we still have a significant defence requirement in Northern Ireland.
958 All in all, our military commitments are still great, although they may be significantly different from before, when the cold war existed. We must determine whether we can fulfil all our commitments, or indeed whether we want to. If we do, we must man accordingly.
There is clearly the argument, particularly within the Select Committee on Defence, about the level of overstretch within the Army. Even with the revised total of 119,000 men announced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, opinion continues to be expressed that the emergency tour interval may not be extended as far as the target 24 months.
I received a letter today from Major General Hopkinson, the Colonel of the Queen's Own Highlanders, which refers to the deferment of the amalgamation from the King's Own Scottish Borderers:This change of heart had been brought about by the inability of the infantry organised as proposed under Options for Change, to fulfil all the requirements expected of them. Even with the two battalion add back proposed the situation will be barely changed, and the reasons for this are clearly outlined in the Defence Committee's Report … The Scottish Division besides always providing battalions of the highest standards has proved that it is also able to maintain its battalions at the required strength.He goes on to justify the Queen's Own Highlanders.
I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's agreement to review manning levels in the light of changing circumstances, but I urge him to keep an ever watchful eye on the level of overstretch within the Army. It is with this concern in mind that I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to ensure that, before the time for each amalgamation, he reassesses the current level of overstretch at the emergency tour interval against his target level in aiming towards that 24-month period. I fully accept that, inevitably, it will be more difficult during amalgamation, but would stress that once an amalgamation has been effected it cannot be reversed. Each of the proud regiments to be amalgamated has a recruitment area and a family source to feed on. Once amalgamation has taken place, that will be all but lost.
It is clear that, on present projections, we can reduce numbers. It is clear that the main assumptions in "Options for Change" are still valid, but it is important to base decisions on facts and not emotions and I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to be absolutely 100 per cent. certain of his requirements before he finally merges regiments such as the Gordon Highlanders and the Queen's Own Highlanders. He has adjusted his figures once already and obviously, with the Gordon Highlanders in mind—
§ Mr. Kynoch
Other hon. Members want to speak and I am very close to completing my speech.
With the Gordon Highlanders in mind, I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will reconfirm that he will do the same again if the requirements demand it.
§ Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)
There is an almost complete consensus in the House about the policy that the Government should apply to the future of the Army. I say that there is almost complete consensus because, sadly, there is one small group of dissent and that tragically, is on the Treasury Bench. I hope against hope 959 that Ministers are listening and that there will be further movement in the light of the debate and the unanimous report of the Select Committee on Defence.
I shall not detain the House for long because I was lucky enough to address it only yesterday on the subject of our peacekeeping role. We had the opportunity to discuss the growing need for peacekeeping operations under the auspices of the United Nations such as I and my colleagues on the Select Committee saw when we visited Bosnia just last week.
There is a desperate need for such operations in an increasingly unstable world, to protect suffering humanity, and no one is better at undertaking that task than the professional and highly equipped British forces, who prove it day in and day out in Bosnia and have done for many years in Northern Ireland.
It is downright irresponsible for any Government and indeed for the House to continue to overload our forces as is happening today. The House should join the Select Committee in insisting that the Government address the critical problem of overstretch in the Army. We should look at the evidence and analyse the task and the risk facing our armed forces. If necessary, in the light of other considerations, we should adjust the commitments that we are undertaking and, having done that, we should provide for sufficient forces to do the job. We should not do what the Government are doing now: burning the Army at both ends.
The Select Committee reached the unanimous conclusion that we need to add back another seven infantry battalions in addition to the two conceded by the Secretary of State for Defence on 3 February. I was delighted that one of the amalgamations that was cancelled on 3 February was that between my two local regiments, the King's Own Scottish Borderers and the Royal Scots. I hope to have the opportunity to celebrate with the Royal Scots in Northern Ireland before too long. I was happy and privileged to join the Cheshire Regiment in their celebrations in Bosnia last week. However, that concession is still not enough. I implore Ministers to look at the evidence.
Opposition Members, Conservative Members who voice the same opinion and all the members of the Select Committee on Defence are not suggesting that there should be an increase in expenditure on the Army. We are suggesting that there should be a 21 per cent. cut instead of a 26 per cent. cut in the size of the Army. We did that on the basis of the evidence that we have been able to glean. Clearly, it would be far better if there were a proper comprehensive defence review, but on the evidence that we have been able to obtain from the Department and elsewhere, there must be a further add-back of seven infantry battalions.
As a Scot I am very grateful for the reprieve of the Royal Scots and the King's Own Scottish Borderers and I am happy to join hon. Members for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) and Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) in putting the case for the retention of the Gordon Highlanders and the Queen's Own Highlanders when those extra seven battalions are added back, as I believe they must be.
I sincerely congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) on his forensic analysis of 960 the history of the Tory Government handling of the Army. He described the entire process of "Options for Change"; options they are not and cannot be as they are framed. He was kind to the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, who had the temerity to suggest there was some logic or continuity in the Government's policy for the Army. If he believes that, he does not know much about what is going on in his own Department, and there is evidence for that as well.
It was only on 12 January, reported in column 758 of Hansard, that the Minister of State said about the size of the Army:I do not think that we are talking about a review of the proposals for the amalgamation of regiments under 'Options for Change'. We still feel that we have the right number of regiments. We do not think that long-term commitments have changed sufficiently to want to change that."—[Official Report, 12 January 1993; Vol. 216, c. 758.]Three short weeks later, the Secretary of State for Defence told the House:I have been considering for a number of months"—not weeks, months—with my military advisers"—but evidently not with the Minister of State—the need to adjust the force levels set out by my right hon. Friend." —[Official Report, 3 February 1993; Vol. 218, c. 319.]
§ Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)
Does my hon. Friend think that the Minister perhaps recognised the inconsistency between paragraphs 326 and 327 of the 1992 statement. Paragraph 326 says:During the process manpower shortages are likely to persistand then leaps on in paragraph 327 to say:manpower reductions will be achieved … by natural wastage.Perhaps the House should be grateful for that.
§ Mr. Home Robertson
There are a number of manifest inconsistencies in the way in which the MOD has dealt with such matters. I hope that the unanimous view expressed in the House may lead the Ministry to think again. Either the Minister of State for the Armed Forces genuinely had not a clue about what was going on, or he was being as economical with the truth as he has been with the Army over the years.
In an eloquent intervention, the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) said that everything that had happened recently—including the add-back of the two battalions—was consistent with his plan. If that was the plan, it was a "cunning plan" worthy of Private Baldrick himself. We have had enough Baldricks in the MOD for the time being; it is time to use some common sense in these affairs. I welcome the fact that the present Secretary of State has begun to move, but he needs to move that little bit further. Those two cancelled amalgamations are not enough; we shall need to add back more and examine the Select Committee's evidence about overstretch.
According to any analysis, overstretch is already a feature of the circumstances in which our Army finds itself. We have heard about the emergency tour interval, nights out of bed, the need for training and, crucially—this was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) and the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes)—our leading role in the NATO ACE rapid reaction corps. This is supposed to be a multinational standing force, trained, equipped and ready to react rapidly. How can it possibly do that if the leading 961 element from the British Army is tied up on the streets of Northern Ireland, or undertaking other duties? It simply does not make sense.
That covers the general aspect, but I wish to raise two specific points. One may be trivial, but the other is very important. I tried to intervene on the Minister of State for the Armed Forces at the beginning of the debate, when he was talking about redundancies in the Army. The subject was raised with me by a number of non-commissioned officers in the Cheshire regiment when I met them last week in Vitez, in Bosnia. I met some people who had volunteered for redundancy. They said that, had they known that their regiment would not be amalgamated, they would not have volunteered for redundancy. They hoped to have an opportunity to withdraw their applications for voluntary redundancy because they wanted to continue to serve with their regiment—and I have no doubt that the same would apply to my people from the King's Own Scottish Borderers and the Royal Scots.
§ Mr. Archie Hamilton
In such circumstances, people can appeal against their redundancies, and their appeals will be considered.
§ Mr. Home Robertson
I am grateful to the Minister. I hope that appeals made in the circumstances that have described will he accepted and looked on favourably. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) is in his place: he has a number of Cheshires in his constituency. No doubt he listened carefully to that intervention.
My other point is one that should have been made at the time of the Crimean war. It concerns problems with Army boots. I was disturbed to hear soldiers in Bosnia say that they had to buy their own boots, because standard-issue Army boots are not insulated against the cold, and leak. That should not be necessary. I suppose that, at the time of the Crimean war, left boots were sent out, and it was possible to have a waterproof left boot and an insulated right boot; but why cannot the Army get it right now? The point may sound trivial, but I think that it deserves an answer.
§ Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)
I welcome the opportunity to speak. First, I shall make a few comments about the Regular Army; I shall then focus on the Territorial Army.
I greatly welcome the personal style that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has brought to the Ministry of Defence; I know that it is much appreciated in the armed forces. Like other speakers, I believe that the armed forces—and, indeed., the Army—are severely overstretched. Although the welcome announcement made a fortnight ago will help, serious overstretch will remain. The proportion of gross domestic product allocated to defence has fallen from just over 5 per cent. in the mid 1980s to a projected 3.3 per cent. in two years' time. The level of commitments that we are trying to face has not fallen commensurately.
Unlike earlier speakers, I recognise that the Treasury has distinct problems with public spending, about which I have spoken in another debate. For that reason, I think that we must recognise where our priorities should lie. I believe that what differentiates the Conservative party 962 from the Opposition parties is not concern about the armed forces, which is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House, or a willingness to become involved in a range of different peacekeeping and other operations in different parts of the world—I believe that our forces are involved with the United Nations in 14 such operations. What differentiates the Conservative party from the others is its absolute commitment to maintaining firm defences for Britain and western Europe, both nuclear and conventional.
At a time when eastern Europe, the ex-Soviet states and the middle east are in turmoil, and when nuclear technology and possibly even nuclear weaponry are spreading into ever more irresponsible hands, we must be quite clear that, if we cannot find more money for our projected defence expenditure—in other words, reduce the level of planned reduction—we must cut the fringe commitments. We must look at our commitments, from Bosnia to Cambodiax2014;those 14 United Nations commitments and our military training missions, and others.
A single figure says it all. The percentage of the defence budget spent on equipment this year will be 37, the lowest level since we took office in 1979. This cannot be commensurate with smaller and better. We cannot, within the existing defence budget, have a higher level of projected manpower for that reason: the commitments must be reduced unless more money can be found.
There is a danger that, within the Army, people will begin to feel either increasingly cynical—the phrase "smaller and bitter" is going around—or, more likely, because I have the greatest admiration for our armed forces, will experience the more workmanlike and everyday but nevertheless equally dangerous feeling that we should get on with the immediate, short-term problems and forget about the longer term. That wearied feeling is more likely.
The danger there is that we shall do a superb job in Bosnia, that we shall do whatever is required by way of RAF supply runs in Somalia, that our 350 people in Cambodia will continue to do excellent work, but that our commitment to the rapid reaction corps, which is so central to the defence of western Europe, and our ability to fund projects that I regard as essential—Opposition Members may not agree—such as the tactical nuclear weapons system TASM, will be diminished or completely eroded.
§ Mr. McWilliam
Will the hon. Gentleman please explain his rationale, given that most of our commitment to the rapid reaction corps at any given time is on duty in Northern Ireland anyway? It cannot be in two places at once.
§ Mr. Brazier
The hon. Gentleman is right to some extent. There is such a level of Army overstretch at the moment that it is not possible for some units to train properly for the rapid reaction corps. If the hon. Gentleman had been listening to my speech, he would have heard me suggest that the solution is to reduce some of those commitments. The large number of commitments that we have to the United Nations are examples. I do not know how many hon. Members knew that we have 350 people in Cambodia until the fact appeared recently in a paper. Our central commitment must be to the defence of Britain and western Europe.
963 On to the Territorial Army, I am sorry to have to deliver more bad news, but I believe that an opportunity was missed in 1991. I, for one, welcome the news from the Ministry of Defence that the Government are planning to look again at the future of the reserve forces. A proper survey should have been done in 1991, and should certainly be done now, to establish how to achieve better value from our reserve forces—in particular, the TA—drawing on lessons from abroad. Alas, two years ago, a team led by regular officers, the leading one of whom had never served in a TA unit, carried out a review. That review was based on theoretical criteria and was then negotiated in detail with the TAVRs, which are obviously very conscious of what is happening on their own patches. It is not good enough for such a review to be based on theoretical considerations rather than practical matters.
The Director General TA and Organisation, to whom I have just referred, in a submission to the Select Committee about the criteria on the basis of which TA units were selected for survival, spoke oftheir links with regular units, the territorial balance in a particular area, recruiting trends, the availability of TA centres, historical factors, regimental factors and local links.At no point in any document that I have seen is the issue of the quality of the units concerned touched on. Amazingly, some of the weakest units in the Territorial Army—I could mention names, but it would be invidious to do so—were retained, although they were down to an effective 30 per cent. of their strength, whereas some of the best units were earmarked for disbandment simply because they did not fit the theoretical, geographical and other criteria that I have mentioned.
As a result, there has been a significant loss of morale in many parts of the TA. There has also been a loss of key personnel and an increase in turnover. We see the beginning of a vicious circle, with an unhealthy reaction between the regular command structure and the TA units concerned. The Regular Army's expectation of the TA has progressively dropped, and in some cases the TA is starting to fulfil the lower expectations. A number of very good units remain, but there are fewer of them.
It must be recognised that we shall never be able to fund everything we want in the Regular forces. The cost of a TA unit is between one fifth and one seventh of the cost of its regular counterpart. Reservists can make very high-quality units. Let me give two examples. In the last war, the most highly decorated company-size unit was a territorial unit; two years ago, the highest-scoring tank battalion in the Gulf was an American marine reservist unit.
We should have asked ourselves two years ago, and we should certainly be asking ourselves now, why large parts of the TA are not performing as well as they could. Why, for example, is TA turnover in Britain 30 per cent. and rising? In Australia, where the resource base for units is much lower—there are fewer permanent staff and an even lower man-training-day allocation—the turnover is 22 per cent. and falling.
I welcome the fresh approach that Ministers are bringing to this question, and I cannot stress sufficiently the fact that I welcome their intention to look again at the Territorial Army. However, I should like to make a point to them and, through them, to the Regular Army and the chiefs of staff. Eighteen months ago, Lord Bramall said 964 that, with the disappearance of the national service generation over the next few years, the Regular Army will be in serious danger of cultural isolation and of finding that there are fewer and fewer people in the world who understand what defence is about and what armed forces are for. It would be very short-sighted and unwise for our extremely high quality but very small professional forces to believe that they can maintain their central position in the esteem and affection of the people of this country in an extended period of peace without the support of the reserve forces whose members go on to become prominent figures in civic life and business and a few of whom even become hack Members of Parliament like myself.
I shall be brief in order to allow other hon. Members to speak who have extended a similar courtesy to me. I shall make four points about what went wrong in the review last time and which my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State should reconsider this time. The first is their mistaken willingness to consider moving good units. Fortunately, most of the moves have not yet taken place. For example, the 73rd Signal Regiment, which has a multi-million pound specially equipped drill hall, is due to be moved from Bexley to Bracknell. That will not only entail the loss of a new expensive facility but will mean losing most of the people because TA personnel cannot move far from their jobs and homes.
Secondly, I was astonished to learn that the document on the reserve forces, which was published a year ago, makes virtually no mention of the importance of leadership in the reserve forces, although that is the central drive of the excellent advertising programme of the National Employer Liaison Committee. We should ask why the TA standard officer training course at Mons lasts two weeks whereas the equivalent course in Australia last seven weeks.
The third point is the duplication in the command structure of the reserve forces between London and Wilton. It is strange that we have a tri-service arrangement in London to look after the reserve forces, which are 90 per cent. Army, and a duplicated single service arrangement to look after that 90 per cent. in Wilton.
That brings me to my fourth observation on the review, which may cause concern in the Ministry of Defence and the Regular Army. However, I believe that my right hon. and learned Friend has the freshness and openness of approach to re-examine the question. It is an extraordinary anomaly that Britain is the only country in the English-speaking world whose director of reserve forces is not a reservist. The last director of the reserves had never even served in a reserve unit. I do not blame him as an individual; it was not his fault.
We now have a great opportunity, and I am delighted that my right hon. and learned Friend is reconsidering the reserve forces. I suggest that a quick way, involving no cost, to give an immediate lift to morale in the reserve forces and to convince them that a new practical approach will be adopted is to recruit someone who has achieved a certain eminence in civilian life and has served a successful period in the reserve forces. Such a person should drive forward the change process and the new blueprint for the TA.
§ 9.8 pm
§ Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)
I do not intend to engage in the wider issues considered by so many hon. Members in the debate. I know that I must be brief, but I am grateful for the opportunity to raise two issues involving my constituency but with wider implications. I hope that they are also of general interest.
It is my privilege to represent the people who work at the Donington depot, which, for more than 50 years, has given outstanding service to the defence services, not only during the second world war but in more recent conflicts in the Falklands and the Gulf and now by supplying equipment to operations in the former Yugoslavia.
Relations between the civilians who work at Donington and the Ministry have always been extremely good. The service provided by the workers there has been outstanding and the depot has been an important source of employment, particularly for engineering apprentices at the 34 base workshops. The workshops have provided an excellent training ground for many years, and in the past morale there has been good.
The obsession of the Conservatives in recent years with contractorisation and privatisation, and the threat to jobs and the confidence of the people resulting from that trend, has been a persistent problem in the Donington depot. There have been all manner of threats, and even the security services there were at one time threatened with contractorisation.
I shall not tonight rehearse all the arguments against contractorisation, which are overwhelming and well known to the House. I urge the Government to acknowledge that constant meddling in affairs locally has a deeply depressing effect on the morale of the work force.
I have written to the Minister of State several times pointing out that if the Government persist with constant changes which involve threats to people's terms and conditions, it is incumbent on them to have the fullest consultation with the workers before changes take place.
A characteristic of the Donington depot has been the strength and skill of the union representation. Conservative Members often indulge in smears about union membership. At Donington, the Transport and General Workers Union and the engineering and white collar unions have always been extremely well represented and closely involved in decision making. They have worked closely with the management and have negotiated successfully on behalf of their members.
While I speak with pride on behalf of those unions, I urge the Government to accept that it is essential, when changes are proposed, that there is adequate consultation with all concerned. I am sure that members of the local management echo that view. We constantly have the feeling that decisions are made in London without reference to the people who live and work locally.
The only other issue I shall raise tonight, because of the shortage of time, may be regarded by the House as somewhat esoteric and might be thought to relate particularly to my constituency. Hon. Members will appreciate how one can, almost by accident, discover something in one's constituency, only later to appreciate that it has wider implications. A couple of years ago I heard from people working at the depot and others in my constituency about plans to close a two-mile rail link from the depot to the main line.
966 I objected to the plan, for all sorts of reasons. It seemed common sense that we should encourage rail transport, being safer, more predictable, more environmentally friendly and because it relieved clutter on the motorways. I objected strongly, but without success. I followed that up with a series of parliamentary questions, for I wondered whether it was a narrow constituency point or was part of a pattern. I asked the Secretary of State for Defencewhat proportion of Ministry of Defence freight is being carried by (a) road and (b) rail".I was given the sort of predictable answer that I expected:A detailed breakdown of the proportions moved by road and rail could not be provided without incurring disproportionate cost".—[Official Report, 15 October 1991; Vol. 196, c. 143.]It is appropriate that the Secretary of State should be present tonight. No one can be better placed, as a former Secretary of State for Transport, to note what I am saying on this issue. After all, we listened with interest to his statements when he was Secretary of State for Transport, when he spoke about the importance of rail transport and the need to move traffic from road to rail. I recently asked the Secretary of State for Defence
what plans he has to encourage the use of rail for freight by Ministry of Defence depots.The reply was:My Department uses the most convenient and cost effective methods to transport freight and has no plans to favour the use of rail over any other method of transport." —[Official Report, 2 June 1992; Vol. 208, c. 527.]It is amazing how Ministers shift Departments and fairly rapidly shift their values.
The most interesting of all the replies was that which I received when I tried to find out what had happened to Ministry of Defence use of the railways since the Government came to office. I asked a couple of simple questions, the first of which was how many diesel locomotives were maintained and operated by the MOD in 1979 and in 1991. The answer was that there were 176 in 1979 and 106 in 1991.
Perhaps the most important question that I asked was how many Ministry of Defence depots had rail links when the Government came to power, and how many had them now. The answer was that, when the Government came to power, 38 depots had rail links but that now only 21 have them. The arithmetic is fairly simple—the number has been almost halved. I also asked for a list of the depots that had lost their rail links, and there was a whole string of them all over the country, including:Regional Depot Aldershot; Ordnance Support Unit Ashford; OSU Burscough; Royal Air Force Carlisle; Central Ordnance Depot Donington"—as I said, that is in my constituency—Royal Naval Stores Depot Eaglecliffe; RD Hereford; OSU Hessay; RAF Quedgeley; Procurement and Experimental Establishment Shoeburyness; RAF Stafford; RD Stirling; RD Thatcham; RD Thursk, RD Warcop; OSU Warminster".—[Official Report, 14 October 1991; Vol. 196, c. 63.]When the Secretary of State for Defence was Secretary of State for Transport, he told us how important it was to use rail rather than road for freight carriage. The Ministry of Defence is the one area in which even this freewheeling, free-market Government have direct control over what means of transport are used to carry large amounts of freight—and the MOD's record is appalling. At the very least, it should maintain the track beds of the rail links that it has closed and encourage their reopening, especially the rail link at Donington in my constituency.
§ Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)
This has been a strange debate. There have been more attacks on the Government from Conservative Members than from Opposition Members. Ministers must think that they have parachuted behind enemy lines. They have been subjected to a series of shots which can only be described as "friendly fire".
Parliament is telling the Ministers that they are wrong and should change their policies. Before I go into detail, I shall put on record the thanks of Labour Front-Bench spokesmen and, I am sure, of the whole House, to the Select Committee not only for its excellent report—although I am not sure whether Ministers will thank the Committee for it—but for the fact that the members of the Committee went to Bosnia. When one is elected a Member of Parliament, one expects that security will become a bit tighter, but to fly into a war zone requires some bravery.
If those hon. Members had not gone to Bosnia, the debate would not have been as informative. It is important that Members of Parliament continue to make such visits and report back to the House what is actually happening on the ground. I am sure that none of those hon. Members has been accused of having gone on a jaunt this time—and that not many of their constituents would have wished to go with them. The next time that they are accused of having holidays in work time, they should invite people to go to Bosnia with them.
I was most impressed by the excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid). The way in which he dissected the Government's arguments will make the people who work and serve in the armed forces and who read his speech wish that he was in government and that Ministers were in opposition. It was an excellent speech. I am sure that it will be read in regiments throughout the land, and that people will say, "That is the way forward. If only we had elected a Labour Government."
There is no argument on the Opposition side about the nuclear test ban treaty. Hon. Members have said that we need to stop testing nuclear weapons. I predict that, within two years, the Government will stop testing and that, if they do not stop it, President Clinton will stop it for them. So let us stop testing nuclear weapons and keep our dignity.
The Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), made a withering attack on the Government. He did it in a nice way, but it was effective. It was even more effective because it came from the Conservative Benches.
§ Mr. Martlew
Modesty has rarely prevented me from saying anything, so I shall continue.
The right hon. Member for Bridgewater (Mr. King) told us that "Options for Change" was all a cunning plan. yes, I am sure that it was devised by that military man Captain Blackadder and his batman. We have seen that "Options for Change" was an option for anything. It was not a defence review but a quick fix, which is coming apart before our very eyes. That has been pointed out by other hon. Members.
My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) expounded Labour party policy on the 968 nuclear test ban treaty, and he was dead right. He was also correct about the scandalous position with regard to defence lands. There is a need to provide access to the countryside, but we seem to be tying up more and more defence land instead of releasing it.
§ Mr. Brazier
Will the hon. Gentleman explain how he squares his party's line on the overstretch of manpower with saying that there should be less defence land for the armed forces? Presumably, if there are to be more armed forces, they need more land on which to train. They are already overstretched.
§ Mr. Martlew
That question is based on the premise that the armed forces do not have too much land now. Many of us would maintain that, ever since the end of the second world war, the armed forces have held on to too much land and should release even more.
The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), who is not in his place, made a courageous speech. I just hope that he is never called back to the colours, because if he is, he will not be promoted, at the very least.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) made a major speech about Bosnia. He is not noted for agreeing with Conservative Members but he agreed with the hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill). That gives more credence to his views. We are united in saying that "Options for Change" is wrong. The only people who say different are on the Government Front Bench.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) made an important point about redundancies. Although the Minister intervened, I was not happy with his explanation. People from the Cheshire Regiment volunteered for redundancy because their regiment was to be amalgamated. Then fortunately, as everyone would agree, the correct decision was made not to amalgamate the regiment. The people who volunteered for redundancy have been told that they can appeal against redundancy. They should be able to withdraw their applications for redundancy, because they applied on the premise that the regiment would disappear.
It turned out, as a result of the Government's incompetence, to be a false premise. I hope that in his reply the Minister will change his view and say that any member of any regiment that has been saved who applied for redundancy will have the opportunity to withdraw the application. That would be only fair. I suspect that the answer will be negative. Perhaps the Minister will surprise me.
§ Mr. Archie Hamilton
I am uncertain about what is unfair about appealing, and having that appeal considered sympathetically.
§ Mr. Martlew
I shall tease the Minister a little more to get something more out of him. Is he giving us a commitment that any member of the armed forces who, having applied for redundancy in the regiments that have now been saved, appeals against that redundancy will have that appeal granted?
§ Mr. Hamilton
I am saying that such people will be able to appeal against redundancy on the ground that the basis on which they applied for redundancy was that their regiment was going to be amalgamated. One cannot say that anything is automatic. The appeal will be considered on the grounds on which it is made.
§ Mr. Martlew
Again, I suspect that there are one or two weasel words there. We shall take the Minister as an honourable man, and we shall monitor the position. We shall come back to the House if we find that people are having their appeals turned down. I am sure that the matter will be viewed with great interest by the regiments concerned.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott), first for mentioning my constituency, which is always a good thing, and secondly for bringing to the attention of the House a different aspect. The civilian side of the Ministry of Defence and of the Army is important, as is the morale of those people. I know of the efforts that they put in, especially during crises. I also know of the hard work of the trade unions at the depots.
We have heard a lot today about what is wrong with the Army. We accept that people who sign up for our armed forces, especially for the Army, are different in many ways from people who join armies in other countries of the Alliance. For the past 25 years, the soldiers of the United Kingdom have unfortunately had to go on active service in Northern Ireland. They may join up because of unemployment or because of a sense of adventure, but they do not join up because it is an easy option. We accept that they are brave people to join up, so we believe that they deserve respect and support, which they get from Opposition Members.
Although we must accept that there has been an end to the cold war, which must mean radical changes, there is a feeling that there is a lack of leadership at the very top. I am not talking about the generals, but about Ministers. What the Government have done has turned the Army into a bad employer. It is getting very much like the cowboy security firms, which give people a fancy uniform but then do not take care of their basic needs.
The Government are cutting soldiers' pay this year—a point to which I shall return. They are introducing compulsory redundancies and evicting former soldiers from their homes. They have failed to make adequate provision for rehousing former soldiers. They have decreased the length of time between dangerous tours of duty. They have failed over overseas allowances. They have failed to define the role of women in the Army. Above all, they have failed to generate a belief that those in charge know what they are doing. I repeat that I am talking not about the generarls, but about the Minister of State, about the Secretary of State and about the Prime Minister.
§ Mr. Colvin
The hon. Gentleman believes—and I agree —that we have problems. Surely there are even greater problems in NATO as a whole. The role of our Army rnust be looked at in terms of its job within NATO. It has been mentioned that other member states in NATO are cutting their defence forces even more than we are. In the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1992", my right hon. and learned Friend showed in table 4 that the cuts in the armed forces across NATO were on average 23 per cent. between 1990 and 1995. In the British Army, cuts amounted to only 20 per cent. We have now persuaded our Secretary of State to restore some of the proposed cuts. Is it not even more important to persuade our NATO allies to take another look at their proposed cuts too?
§ Mr. Martlew
That would appear to be a failure on the part of the Ministry of Defence and of the Foreign 970 Secretary. The fact is that we must put our own house in order. We are talking about a decline in the quality of life of the British soldiers—I think that the hon. Gentleman will accept that that is the problem.
We need to raise morale by giving the Army a commitment. I fear that the Government give commitments only to the Treasury. Such improvements as they have made in the system have been done in a mean-minded way. For instance, the reduction in the secrecy surrounding boards of inquiry, and soldiers' ability to claim compensation from the Ministry of Defence have been effected in a mealy-mouthed manner, and if I have time, I will give examples.
I realise that I have made a long list of charges, and that they will need to be substantiated. I am sure that I will be accused of being a barrack-room lawyer—not a title that I would reject if it means that I am seen as a supporter of justice and fair play for our service personnel.
In a reply to me from the Dispatch Box, the Secretary of State said that service men would accept an increase in pay of 1.5 per cent. Does he realise that that is a greater cut than all other Government employees face? I arrive at that conclusion on the basis of the retail prices index. Headline inflation is running at 1.7 per cent., and seen against that, a 1.5 per cent. increase does not seem too bad. It is only 1.7 per cent., however, because of a big drop in mortgage rates. The underlying rate of inflation is 3.4 per cent., and soldiers, of course, tend not to have mortgages. So the Government are in effect reducing the pay of our soldiers by almost 2 per cent. this year.
The Secretary of State did nothing to stop this. He must have been aware of the retail prices index. Tories have praised the bravery of our soldiers, but they have cut their pay.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce
The hon. Gentleman has been misrepresenting what I was going to say. I firmly believe that the Treasury was right to ask for cuts in the Ministry of Defence budget. It is extraordinary of the hon. Gentleman to suggest that the budget should not have been cut in any way. Where would the Labour party have made the cuts that it promised at the election?
§ Mr. Martlew
I am delighted to tell the hon. Gentleman that the Labour party would not have cut the wages of British soldiers.
We have already discussed compulsory redundancy notices for 628 officers. That was not a new announcement; in fact, it emerged in a written reply quite some time ago, on 10 December. So despite deciding to save two battalions the Government have not been prepared to reconsider these redundancies. They simply took the decision that the officers were to go, and that was it. They are so arrogant that they take away people's jobs and careers, without giving the matter a second thought.
There has also been confusion over housing. This year, a record 22 members of the armed forces were evicted. No provision has been made for returning soldiers and local authorities are in deep trouble with housing. I appreciate that the Government have introduced a new scheme to help soldiers and other service personnel to buy their houses, but they did so ten years too late, and it is no good to those people who will be told tomorrow that they are to be made redundant: it will not help them one bit.
The Government even seem to be cheating our troops over overseas allowances. If they work for the United 971 Nations in Cambodia, they get a subsistence allowance of $145 a day—from the United Nations—but if they work for the United Nations, through the British Government, in Bosnia, they get next to nothing.
Finally, the Government's failure to follow the Labour party's advice and to have a total defence review, and the "Options for Change" proposals have made the Government a laughing stock within the Army, especially their proposal to decrease the number of infantry battalions from 55 to 38. That proposal has been exposed as unrealistic, and was based on flawed facts. That is why the Secretary of State had to make a statement to the House on 3 February to reinstate two of those battalions, but that is not enough.
The Tory-dominated Defence Select Committee has said that there should not be any amalgamations or disbandments. It has also been said that the stress and strain of overstretch is a serious threat to life and family life, because of the grossly reduced intervals between tours of duty, and that cannot continue. If the Secretary of State is to remain credible, we need an immediate defence review.
This is not the first time that we have had such a debate —it has happened many times. There was a similar debate in 1794, when William Pitt was Prime Minister. The Commander-in-Chief of the Army was having major problems in Flanders. The event is remembered to this day in the jingle "The Grand Old Duke of York". Hon. Members know the rhyme:The grand old Duke of York,He had 10,000 men,He marched them up to the top of the hill,And he marched them down again.Does that not remind hon. Members of someone? The Secretary of State had 55 battalions, he decided to take them down to 38 battalions and now he has said that he will take them back up to 40 battalions, while the Select Committee says that he should not have touched them at all. The British Army does not know whether it is coming or going.
The grand old Duke of York resigned on that occasion, although he was reinstated because his brother was King George III. Perhaps the Secretary of State should do the same tonight.
§ The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken)
We should remember that his brother used to say to the grand old Duke of York, "They will never kill me, James, to make you King." We certainly would not replace my excellent right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State with the shower of Opposition Members who have spoken tonight.
One admirable aspect of the debate has been the steady flow of tributes which have rightly been paid to the skill and dedication of our armed forces and to the Army in particular. I thank the two Opposition spokesman—the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) and the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid)—who paid particularly warm tributes early in their speeches.
As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces made clear in his opening speech, the Government share that high admiration for the Army. The Army is a beacon of professional excellence that always 972 shines brightly—it is perhaps shining particularly brightly now when we seem to be living through a not unfamiliar period of doom and gloom in our national life and every institution is under attack. The Army, happily, is immune from such attacks, perhaps because it enshrines some of the old-fashioned values of loyalty, duty, discipline and patriotism, as well as its conventional professionalism and skill. I am sure that the Army will be gratified by the unity of the tributes paid to it in the House during today's debate.
This is the first service debate in which I have spoken from the Dispatch Box. I had always heard that they were quiet, amicable occasions, but today's debate has not turned out quite that way. I do not exactly feel—as the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) said—as though I have been parachuted behind enemy lines, but the words of the poet Tennyson came to mind—Cannon to right of themCannon to left of them,Cannon in front of themVolley'd and thunder'd.I hope to persuade some of the Opposition Members and some of my hon. Friends whose speeches were critical to reason a little more deeply. If they did so, they might see some of the issues in a fairer perspective.
I shall attempt to address as many issues as have been raised in the debate as possible. However, I shall not respond to those points that ranged wide of the Army subject.
I turn to the extraordinary speech of the hon. Member for Motherwell, North with some relish. The only point on which I agreed with him was his tribute to the Army. After that, with the air of a funny-money salesman about to perform the three-card trick, he took us into a world of pure statistical mumbo-jumbo and sought to persuade us that the Labour party has a consistent defence policy by projecting the trends of the Callaghan Government defence budget in 1977 to show that the Labour party was sound on defence spending today.
The argument was not convincing when one remembered that the Labour conference in 1992 proclaimed that it would require defence cuts equivalent to £6 billion. Then, to cover up the embarrassment with a convenient conjuror's handkerchief, the Labour party produced that all-singing, all-dancing formula—the defence review. Hiding behind that device, Labour Members call for increases in defence manpower and resources in speeches in the House, then go to their conference in Blackpool or Brighton, where there are simultaneous calls for huge reductions in defence spending. That formula does not fool anyone.
When he finished his funny-money routine, the hon. Member for Motherwell, North showed a flash of anger on the subject of redundancies. However, he got his party's policy stance absolutely wrong. His anger was directed at the regrettable fact that some redundancies that are to take place in the Army will fall on those who are today serving on active duty in Bosnia and Northern Ireland. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East made the same point, but in noticeably more cautious and measured tones.
All redundancies in the Army are much regretted. We are losing first-class people, which is painful and sad for the Army and for Britain. However, it is the Army's opinion—and not just that of the brass hats—that it would be wrong and unfair to make a special exception to the 973 redundancy programme on the grounds that a service man happens to be serving in a specific operational or geographical theatre at any one time. That view is shared by all sensible people who think deeply about the Arny's welfare and, of course, by Ministers.
I think it was my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) who said that a wounded man could be brought out of theatre and be exempt from redundancy in one place, but liable for redundancy in another. It would be nonsense to grant exemptions on the basis of special theatres. That would be unfair to the Army as a whole. I am sure that our policy is right—and the Army certainly thinks so.
With his great experience as a former Secretary of State for Defence and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater spoke with great authority. I was grateful to him for nailing the absurd misrepresentation that "Options for Change" was planned on a financial-only basis, without strategic considerations. As my right hon. Friend rightly said, if that were true—it certainly is not—it would be an insult, not just to him, but to the Chief of the Defence Staff and the other military advisers.
Since "Options for Change" we have added commitments in Bosnia. It was envisaged in the original statement that there might have to be extra military resources—[HON. MEMBERS: "It was planned."] No, it was not the plan. But there was certainly a plan for possibilities—that was always said and always recorded. [Interruption.] No one is being smug. I do not know why there is so much joviality among Opposition Members when the Government do what is sensible and right in accordance with changing commitments, because commitments have changed and increased and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State deserves great credit for thinking about the matter for a long time. I know that he was thinking for many months before he made the announcement on 3 February which was widely welcomed in the House and the country.
The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East made a serious allegation, which was repeated by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), about the rules of engagement in Bosnia. I was surprised by their allegation that those rules somehow resulted in weapons having to be handed in, according to statements made to those two hon. Members when they were on their travels.
There are no United Kingdom or United Nations rules of engagement which require members of United Kingdom forces in the former Yugoslavia to hand over their personal weapons under any circumstances, nor is there any local clarification note to that effect. Of course we shall look into the reports by the two hon. Members but they are out of tune with everything that we know.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell
Perhaps the Minister is about to offer some reassurance to me and to the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook). I suppose that we both stand as credible witnesses and I assure the Minister that when the matter was put to a senior British officer the answer was that which we have reported to the House. If by doing that we bring about a change in circumstances in Croatia, we shall have done our duty by the House and by our forces.
§ Mr. Aitken
Of course, I accept that the two hon. Members have correctly reported what they were told. We shall get it clarified down the chain of command.
Two hon. Members raised constituency matters. One was my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who rightly takes great pride in Catterick. Like him, I am glad that it is expanding and that infantry recruitment training is to go there. I was glad to hear his welcome for market testing. I assure him that there will be a level playing field and open and fair competitions. I hope and expect that many in-house bids will succeed.
The other Member to raise a constituency point was the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott). The Donnington depot to which he referred is being market-tested and I accept that there will need to be the fullest consultation with the work force. The market testing programme is on a level and fair playing field and if it does result, as market testing programmes usually do., in savings of about 20 per cent., they will go to the sharp end of the defence budget. All those who care about our defences will welcome that programme.
§ Mr. Aitken
I should prefer to make progress.
The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) wanted a review of defence lands. We need our present training areas. The defence estate consists of 600,000 acres and 80 per cent. of it is needed for training. As we reduce our training areas in Germany, we need our domestic training areas and we must keep them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), who is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, made an important speech. I thank him for his leadership on the Select Committee and for its important work. He spoke about the equipment budget and, as the Minister responsible for that budget, I am pleased to have something to say about it, although I cannot make announcements now on the equipment issues that he raised.
The equipment programme for the Army remains strong and healthy, with AS90, Warriors, and tenders having gone out for the attack helicopters. For those who take a great interest in Royal Ordnance plc, I am pleased to announce that, in line with the strategy for ammunition procurement announced on 20 January, a five-year contract for the supply of L106 fuses has today been awarded to Royal Ordnance plc. It is a vital order, which is worth up to £15 million to the factories in Blackburn.
§ Mr. Greg Pope (Hyndburn)
As the Minister is aware, that contract has been long fought for, not just by me but by my hon. Friends the Members for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms. Anderson). The award of the contract is extremely good news, not just for defence procurement but for the economy of east Lancashire, where the Royal Ordnance factory has long been a skills base which has spread into the wider economy. I hope that the Minister will accept my thanks and congratulations and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Blackburn and for Rossendale and Darwen.
§ Mr. Aitken
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks.
My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster raised the great issue of overstretch. The kernel of the charge that he and many other hon. Members made against the 975 Government was that the present arrangements are such that the Army is unable to meet the 24-month interval between emergency tours. We know and accept that that is a difficult problem. We have always acknowledged that the process of restructuring would inevitably lead to additional pressures and demands on service personnel and we are sensitive to the impact of those additional demands. That is why my right hon. and learned Friend made his important announcement on 3 February.
I can say that the add-back of the two battalions announced by my right hon. and learned Friend will have the immediate effect of increasing the average interval between emergency tours during the difficult period of transition to the new force structure and, on the basis of our current commitments, this should comfortably exceed the target of 24 months once restructuring is complete. We now have the 15-month figure for the current year, and that will increase to 17 months. By 1995 the figure will be more than 24 months, so we are moving in the right direction.
The hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) rightly paid tribute to the work of the Royal Irish Regiment in Bosnia, and I agree with him. He raised many detailed points about the situation in Northern Ireland, particularly relating to the TAORs, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will write to him about the detailed points that he has raised.
I now turn to the important speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), who argued that a reappraisal of the command structure was needed and that we had too many chiefs and not enough Indians. He made some telling points. I certainly have some sympathy for his view that there is too much paperwork in the Ministry of Defence. I can tell him that senior service appointment numbers will fall as a consequence of "Options for Change", but senior Ministry of Defence posts are under particular scrutiny as part of the rationalisation of headquarters. I agree that he made some telling points which we will consider carefully.
I was glad that the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh), who spoke for the Scottish National party, came out in such strong terms for greater spending on defence and much greater expansion of our armed forces. I am glad to know that it is SNP policy, as it is apparently to strangle the workers of Rosyth by withdrawing the Trident submarines immediately.
§ Mr. Welsh
Strangling the workers of Rosyth is something that the Government do rather too well, and I wish that they would not. Will the Minister now answer the question about overstretch? He rather skated over it. If there were extra commitments in Bosnia following a peace plan, could the Government meet such commitments?
§ Mr. Aitken
I have just answered the central point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster on overstretch generally. It is true that if the Vance-Owen plan was implemented and Britain made a major contribution in troop numbers, it would cause a re-evaluation of the numbers in "Options for Change"; but that is a hypothetical situation at present.
I dealt with the point of the hon. Member for Stockton, North about the rules of engagement. He thought that the most important question was what exactly prompted the 976 statement on 3 February, as though this was the most fundamental question of our time. There is no great mystery about it. I think that it was Sir Winston Churchill who said, when answering a similar charge of inconsistency from the Opposition Benches:My thoughts are a harmonious process in tune with the music of current events.My right hon. Friend responded simply and wisely and was sensitive to pressures that are building up in this area.
Turning briefly to the point made by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) on the subject of nuclear testing, there is no question of our carrying out nuclear tests while the United States moratorium lasts, but we continue to believe that testing remains the best means of ensuring the safety and credibility of our deterrent. We are keen to develop alternative warhead-proving techniques, but we do not regard these as adequate substitutes for testing in the present state of technology. The Russians, French and Americans must speak for themselves, but I remind the hon. Member that United States legislation does not propose an immediate end to nuclear testing.
§ Mr. Dalyell
May I congratulate the Minister on actually answering the debate? Would he be indiscreet enough to say what he thinks about a Queen's Counsel and the questions on the public interest immunity certificate that I raised with him?
§ Mr. Aitken
I will be indiscreet enough to say that I thought that the hon. Gentleman's allegations were totally unfounded and unfair.
I was grateful that at least one voice on the Government Benches, that of my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch), accepted that we could reduce numbers in the new strategic environment. An unreal and unwordly air ran throughout the debate. So many hon. Members, from all sides of the House, demanded extra spending, extra resources and extra commitments. My hon. Friends the Members for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes), for Upminster and for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) and the hon. Members for Angus, East and for Stockton, North were all on the theme that we should increase substantially defence spending in financial or resources terms.
Defence spending is not an island isolated from the rest of the economy or Britain's economic needs. Nor is defence strategy isolated from a favourable change in the strategic environment, if it takes place. I should remind the House that we are withdrawing some 27,000 Army personnel from Germany, including 3 Battalion garrison at Berlin. In addition, we will lose 4 Battalion garrison from Hong Kong by 1997. Those reductions in commitment far outweigh the commitments that have been taken on. Sensible points have been made about how we should manage the changes. I took the point of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) about the need to look again at our reserve forces. We are doing just that.
Parts of the debate seemed unrealistic. I want to end with an illustrative anecdote which I think it is worth telling the House. I feel that it is necessary to bring us back to the realities of spending commitments and strategy. Last week I was travelling in east Germany, a country which until 1990 was bristling and bulging with the menace 977 of 500,000 Warsaw pact troops, all hostile to the west. I was being taken on a tour of military installations by my host and friend, the State Secretary of Defence for the Federal Republic of Germany.
One highlight of the tour was a visit to a vast encampment of military equipment at Grimma. The encampment was about the size of Hyde park and it was jam-packed with tanks, armoured cars, field guns, missile launchers and attack weapons of every description, all abandoned by the east German army and destined never to fire again, waiting only for destruction by scrap merchants.
Then I was taken to the huge Soviet barracks near Leipzig, which less than a year ago was packed with thousands and thousands of red army troops. Today those barracks are totally empty and deserted. It was a surreal, almost spooky experience to wander among those cavernous blocks and buildings in a ghost:own atmosphere, to see weeds growing on the parade ground, to see cobwebs in the machine rooms where once nuclear warheads had been fitted to missiles, and to look at the broken plinth where the statute of Lenin once stood, which the troops had to salute.
In that atmosphere of complete emptiness suddenly I felt overcome by a quiet feeling of enormous pride at the realisation of what our defence policy and our commitment to NATO had achieved. Those abandoned Soviet barracks symbolised vividly and visually that the cold war was over, that we had actually won it, that our old enemies had gone home and that we are starting to make friends with them again. That happened only because the NATO alliance, and particularly the British Army of the Rhine, had held the line for many years, and had kept the peace so professionally and so patiently for 978 long enough for western democratic ideals of freedom to take root and for the Communist ideology to crumble and fall.
When we consider the Army of the future, we must not forget the lessons of the recent past. The massive job of peacekeeping which the British Army did so well with our allies in Europe in the last part of the 20th century may need to be repeated, but surely in much smaller scenarios. Other tyrannies and dictatorships may arise on the European land mass in the 21st century. At home Northern Ireland remains a steadfast commitment, because there, too, the Army holds the line professionally and patiently against the IRA terrorists, whose ideology of evil and hatred will surely one day become as discredited and will crumble and fall, just as Communism fell.
Of course, there may be other aggressors elsewhere in the world; there may be other Saddam Husseins who will need to be checked by coalition forces in which the British Army will play a vital role. We all recognise that those commitments will exist, but I cannot accept the arguments that were made so easily for massively increasing resources and spending when there is no truly identifiable or immediate threat. There is plenty more work for the Army to do in the closing years of this century and early years of the next.
The debate has revealed some understandable anxieties, but it also shows that the British Parliament and the British people are proud of our Army and that they will support it and require it to continue its superbly professional role in safeguarding Britain's future for many years ahead.
It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.