§ [Relevant documents: the Defence Committee has reported on the Reserve Forces in its Twelfth Report of Session 1994–95, HC 65, and on Gulf War Syndrome in its Eleventh Report, HC 197. The Seventh Special Report, HC 802, containing the Government's Replies to the Committee's Sixth Report on Defence Use of Civilian Transport Assets and Personnel, HC 86, and the Seventh Report on Reconnaissance, Intelligence, Surveillance and Target Acquisition, HC 319, i.]
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Knapman.]4.35 pm
§ The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames)
When we last debated the Army—less than one year ago—who could have imagined that, today, the deployment of some 13,000 British troops as part of a NATO-led force charged with the implementation of an historic peace agreement in the former Yugoslavia would be virtually complete? Indeed, 4 Armoured Brigade has today been declared fully operational, ahead of schedule.
After four years of truly horrific carnage, there is now the prospect of a genuine and lasting peace in the Balkans. The Army, as well as the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, has played a vital part in achieving this much, and will be central to the agreement's future success. Of course, we must not forget that our troops are also supporting British interests around the globe; I shall mention some of the more significant deployments a little later. I should like first, however, to concentrate on what is a truly historic operation.
Since 1992, the British Army has served with great distinction in the former Yugoslavia, first as part of UNPROFOR and now as the second largest element of the NATO-led peace implementation force, IFOR. As the line is now drawn under the UNPROFOR operation, we can look back with pride at the fantastic contribution made by the British Army and, indeed, the other services, which resulted in the saving of many thousands of lives over three bitter winters in the Balkans.
It is also wholly fitting today to pay tribute to the troops from other nations who took part in the UN operation, and to the 78 UN soldiers who, sadly, were killed as a result of action by the warring parties, but today I pay a particularly wholehearted and warm tribute—as will the rest of the House—to the many British soldiers who served so well in a primarily humanitarian and peacekeeping operation, albeit that there was often little peace to keep in the past three years.
Soldiers from the Royal Armoured Corps, the infantry, the gunners, signallers, sappers, aviators, engineers, cooks, drivers, logisticians, medics and military policemen—every single one of them deserves our wholehearted and genuine admiration. The House will wish to salute their endeavours. The contribution that they made to the humanitarian effort that saved so many lives and to the restoration of relative peace and stability in central Bosnia during this period was second to none, and all those who took part can look back on their performance with considerable pride. All the soldiers, sailors and airmen who have taken part in the operation can feel a true sense of pride that what they were engaged in was extremely worthwhile and important.
Quite apart from the vital tasks of keeping the peace and helping the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to deliver vast amounts of aid, British 904 logisticians, sappers and engineers were heavily involved in a wide variety of projects to improve the civilian infrastructure. Among other notable achievements, they have constructed more than 100 km of brand new roads. They have constructed, improved and maintained more than 1,000 km of routes to help the humanitarian effort and the distribution of aid. They have disposed of more than 3,500 mines and unexploded objects, and overseen the clearance of more than 70 major minefields, reducing the risk to innocent civilians. They have repaired and rebuilt bridges, notably a 270 ft Bailey bridge in Mostar, to link the Muslim and Croatian sides. They have reconnected water, gas and electricity supplies, including the water supply to 45,000 people in Bugojno and 26,000 more in Gorazde, thus dramatically improving the quality of life of the local people. They have also reopened and rebuilt schools and health centres.
Tragically, in the course of the UNPROFOR operation, 18 British troops were killed and 42 were seriously wounded. Our heartfelt sympathies go to the relatives of the brave men who gave their lives, not only in the service of their country but when trying to alleviate the suffering of others.
Great Britain is now making a formidable and impressive contribution to the IFOR campaign. In all, up to 13,000 British ground troops will be deployed, including the headquarters of the ACE rapid reaction corps, a divisional headquarters and an all-arms brigade. In addition, 3,000 Royal Navy and Royal Air Force personnel support the operation on the sea and in the air.
The House will also wish to acknowledge some of the unsung heroes of that operation, especially the exceptional work that has been done by the tri-service movements staff in getting all those people and their kit into theatre in an almost unbelievably tight time scale.
Ours is by far the most militarily significant contribution by a European nation and it is second in size only to the United States contingent. It is also a tangible expression of our willingness to fulfil our obligations as a key member of NATO and our international role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. I hope that the House agrees that it carries a clear and entirely unambiguous message about our steadfast commitment to Europe's security and the absolute primacy of NATO as the bedrock of our defence policy.
Following the extraordinarily successful period when General Sir Rupert Smith and General Sir Michael Rose commanded UNPROFOR, British officers continue to exercise a defining leadership role, with General Sir Michael Walker, commander of the Allied Command Europe rapid reaction corps, ARRC, directing IFOR land operations in theatre. Indeed, it is a remarkable tribute to all that Britain has done as the framework nation for the allied rapid reaction corps—ARRC—that NATO immediately turned to the ARRC headquarters to command the land operation.
Our troops' performance in IFOR has continued to add to their formidable reputation, and it is no exaggeration to say that they have commanded the respect of all parties as they have coped in adverse and frequently arduous conditions with great fortitude and good humour.
The House may recall an example of that last July, when Corporal Neil Coull of the Royal Logistic Corps was challenged to an impromptu boxing match by the commander of a Muslim road block between Zepce and 905 Vitez. Corporal Coull, from Billingham in Cleveland, was on one of his routine mail runs on 11 July 1995 when he found, to his displeasure, a Canadian convoy halted at a road block. Corporal Coull insisted that mail for the British forces must be allowed through, but the road block commander barred the route—until he noticed a pair of boxing gloves in the back of the Corporal Coull's Land-Rover. Corporal Coull, a keen amateur boxer, was promptly challenged to a winner-takes-all boxing match. A makeshift ring was marked out by the roadside and, amid much cheering, Corporal Coull knocked his opponent to the ground in 30 seconds. As a result, the Queen's mail was allowed free passage to be delivered safely and on time to Her Majesty's troops.
I am grateful to the Quartermaster General, General Sir Willy Rous, chairman of the highly successful Army Boxing Association, for that admirable story.
The IFOR operation is going well. I am pleased to be able to report that, throughout Bosnia, we are witnessing a pulling back from all sides. British forces are conducting a major operation to check that withdrawal in sector south-west, and report almost complete compliance in advance of the deadline.
Not only the regular Army is deploying to Bosnia. Some 450 members of the Territorial Army and individual reservists have been called out for service. All are volunteers. They include signallers, engineers, movement controllers, military policemen and petroleum specialists. The deployment of reservists is a clear demonstration of the importance of the Territorial Army in the post cold war world. I hope to return to the reserves later in my speech.
To date, IFOR has, in the main, enjoyed the co-operation of the warring factions and has established freedom of movement throughout the theatre, including in Bosnian-Serb areas. Although there have been some breaches of the ceasefire, they have been isolated incidents. Challenges and great difficulties no doubt lie ahead, but IFOR is well equipped to deal robustly with any problems that it may face. The House will want to join me in wishing our service men and women a successful and trouble-free tour of duty and a safe return to the UK.
When we last debated the Army, the ceasefires in Northern Ireland had been in force for only six months, yet even at that early stage the effects on the lives of the people of the Province and of our armed forces had been dramatic. We are now more than 15 months into the ceasefires, and their continuation gives us cause for hope that the peace process will triumph and lift the curse of terrorism that has blighted the lives of the good people of Northern Ireland.
We have responded positively to the reduction in the terrorist threat in 1995 by relocating three battalions and a squadron to their home bases outside Northern Ireland. Greater responsibility has passed to the home service battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment, which have taken on many of the remaining tasks. The actions of the Royal Irish Regiment and its predecessors have been of a quality and standard that are in the ultimate and highest traditions of the British Army, and the commitment of full and part-time members of the regiment and their almost unbelievable courage continue to deserve our unqualified admiration and respect. I salute them.
906 There remains no room for complacency. The recent spate of vicious punishment attacks, which no right-minded person can justify, shows that violence has by no means disappeared in Northern Ireland. All terrorist organisations still have access to large quantities of illegal weapons. So, as we have said many times before, although we are committed to a return to exclusively civilian policing, we must not and will not lower our guard prematurely. Our troops remain prepared to assist the Royal Ulster Constabulary in whatever way they can.
For the majority, particularly those serving on two-year resident tours accompanied by their families, the reduction in routine support to the RUC has provided welcome opportunities to undertake training in a wide range of military skills. It has also been possible to take a more active part in community relations projects. I had a heartening visit to East Tyrone just before Christmas to see the Irish Guards, whose achievements in building bridges for the local community were outstanding and demonstrated what could be achieved in a range of activities by bright, dedicated and committed officers and men.
Beyond those two major commitments, Army units and individuals are deployed worldwide.
§ Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and I apologise for not being in the Chamber for the first few minutes of his speech.
Members of the Royal Irish Regiment and the Army in general will appreciate the Minister's remarks in respect of their service in Northern Ireland. However, despite the best intentions of its commanding officers and those responsible for it, the Army will be underemployed as a result of the present ceasefire. Is the Minister aware that extra resources in terms of training facilities and extra instructors, for example, would greatly benefit the Army in Northern Ireland? The last thing that we want is boredom and a lowering of morale because the Army is underemployed, because it is doing a necessary job by remaining in Northern Ireland while the ceasefire is so tenuous.
§ Mr. Soames
The hon. Gentleman, who has an outstanding and extremely gallant record, knows that we have in Northern Ireland a remarkable commander, General Sir Roger Wheeler, who is entirely aware of the difficulties that may arise, and deeply conscious of the need to ensure that the troops are well employed, well led and well motivated, and understand their role and mission clearly. I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that that is the case. We will watch the situation closely.
Beyond the two major commitments in Bosnia and Northern Ireland, Army units and individuals are deployed worldwide in the vigorous support of British interests. From Cyprus to Brunei, from the Transcaucasus to the Falklands, the British Army is a visible element of the Government's commitment to peace and security, and to the determined and vigorous pursuit of our national interests.
The House will recall the key role that the Army has played in helping to form South Africa's new army, and so to underpin the hard-won peace. Also in Africa, a self-supporting logistics battalion of some 650 personnel undertook a three-month deployment to Angola, starting 907 from May 1995, where they played a vital part in the United Nations peacekeeping operation. Their task was to establish the logistic infrastructure for the United Nations Angola verification mission. Without that infrastructure, the mission would not have succeeded and the greatest credit attaches to the work of our troops.
The battalion was drawn mainly from the Royal Logistic Corps, with elements from the Royal Engineers; the Royal Corps of Signals; the Welsh Guards; 4 Field Ambulance; and the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. They were supported by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Sir Galahad, and by aircraft and specialists from the Royal Air Force. They set up and handed over to UN contractors a comprehensive system for receiving, storing and distributing supplies to peacekeepers in the field. They also helped the arrival and onward deployment of infantry battalions and supporting units from other nations.
The operation was by no means straightforward, and the UN force commander expressed his exceptional appreciation of the British contingent's part in the critical initial phase. A small group of staff officers remains at the UN force headquarters in Luanda, where it has played an influential role in planning and organising the UN operation.
Clearly, the Army is and has been engaged on a large number of operational commitments. I make no apology for that. Operations are the raison d'être of an army.
§ Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)
So far, my hon. Friend has not mentioned Army bands. Will he join me in paying a warm tribute to British Army bands, whose continuing high standard of excellence is the envy of the entire world? They enhance Army morale and they are trained at the Kneller Hall Royal Military School of Music in Twickenham. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the new bandstand is now under construction and that that further mark of confidence in Kneller Hall underlines the suitability of that location as the natural site for any future defence school of music?
§ Mr. Soames
Well, I do not know where to start. My hon. Friend's vigorous championing of the Army school of music is a role model for all hon. Members who wish to promote their constituency interests. I agree with everything he said about Army bands. In 1995, in the celebrations of VE day and VJ day, we saw the wonder of Army bands from all over the United Kingdom at their best. I wholly endorse everything that my hon. Friend said and I am happy to give him any assurances that will lay his mind to rest. The bandstand is being built, and if it was not, it will be now.
As I have said, the Army is extremely busy. Indeed, it is the invaluable experience of operations that sharpens and hones the remarkable skills and exceptional professionalism of the British Army. The truth is that it is the operational deployments that help to make the Army such a stimulating and rewarding career.
However, there are understandable fears that the Army is over-extended. In this context, I wish to reaffirm the Government's commitment to achieving an average operational tour interval for infantry battalions of 24 months.
908 In 1995–96, we shall achieve an average interval of only about 22 months for the infantry, although we shall exceed the target comfortably for the Royal Artillery and the Royal Armoured Corps. On the basis of current commitments, including the continuing IFOR deployment, we expect to meet the target of 24 months for the infantry in 1996–97.
When the Army is successfully meeting a high level of commitments and training extremely hard for other contingency tasks which we lay on it, I recognise the real pressures that are brought to bear on the families of service men and women. I take this opportunity to pay the warmest possible tribute to Army wives and their families and, at a time of high operational requirements, when their loved ones are away a great deal, to acknowledge each and every Army family for their patience and forbearance.
As a former soldier, I shall always be grateful for the spontaneous generosity, kindness and good humour of service families. I remember the great importance of "the patch" and all that that means to service life. I am personally very conscious that service families do not always have an easy life. I want them to know that their concerns and anxieties are at the forefront of our thoughts when difficult decisions and judgments have to be made.
The Army is, of course, playing a major role in the establishment of the new joint rapid deployment force—the JRDF. The Fifth Airborne Brigade, with its two battalions of the Parachute Regiment, and two Airland infantry battalions, with supporting artillery, engineer and logistics units, forms part of the core around which the JRDF will be structured, and can be tailored to meet the individual requirements of any particular task.
That force, which will be held at a high state of readiness, will be a major enhancement to our ability to project power quickly in support of British interests worldwide—and will make good use of the fearsome specialist skills and versatility for which the Parachute Regiment is justly famous.
Such operations reinforce the great respect that is felt for the British Army worldwide. They also play an important part in making a career in the Army so stimulating and fascinating for the thousands of young men and women who pass through its ranks. Indeed, a career in the Army continues to offer a rewarding and exciting life, with excellent opportunities not to be found in any other walk of life.
This very afternoon, for example, as we sit in a warm House of Commons, elements of the 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment, 7 Royal Horse Artillery, 36 Engineer Regiment and supporting arms are in the Cascade mountains of Washington state, USA, on a major battalion-level training exercise. Also, a battery from 1 Royal Horse Artillery is exercising in Kenya, and a squadron of the Household Cavalry is exercising in Cyprus.
A small team has been dispatched to Zimbabwe to assist the Zimbabwean armed forces in training their troops in awareness of the threat from landmines before they deploy a battalion to Angola; a British colonel is acting as deputy chief of staff of the Latvian armed forces; and a colour sergeant has returned today from giving a bagpipe instructor's course in Colombia.
Loan service personnel are deployed all over the world from Belize to Bermuda, Malaysia to Mauritius and South Africa to Singapore. That is in addition to on-going jungle warfare training in Brunei and major exercises on the 909 Suffield plains of Canada, where the British Army sustains and justifies its ability still to be able to prosecute the high intensity land battle.
Closer to home, on Salisbury plain, 32 Regiment Royal Artillery are conducting live firing whilst young company commanders are participating in Exercise Globetrotter—an all-arms tactics course.
A platoon commanders' battle course is taking place in the Brecon Beacons, and recruit training is continues to be carried out at Glencorse in Scotland. Meanwhile, the Army Air Corps is using the battle group simulator at Catterick. In the United Kingdom and in Germany, the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters, the Queen's Lancashire Regiment and a squadron of the Light Dragoons are working up to deploy to Bosnia between February and May. There really is no other career in the United Kingdom that can offer such wonderful diversity, responsibility and excitement.
To sustain such a level of performance into the future, we must continue to attract a sufficient number of high-quality recruits to the service. To maintain the right balance of age and experience, the Army needs to recruit about 15,000 young soldiers each year. By and large, the fighting end of the Army is a profession for the young, and a regular inflow of recruits is essential if an appropriate structure of age and rank is to be retained.
This is truly a daunting target. The truth is that fewer volunteers than we would like are coming forward, particularly for service in the combat arms, so we are taking urgent action to ensure that the Army will get—and can keep—the soldiers that it needs.
As part of this, we are running a well targeted and carefully thought out advertising campaign to meet the shortfall in recruits to some units. Furthermore, a recruiting initiative was launched last week with the Employment Service to advertise jobs in the armed forces at 1,100 jobcentres nationwide. We are confident that, although the initiative will not solve all the problems, it will be of considerable benefit to the services and tap into a pool of young people who may not have considered a service career before.
Meanwhile, regiments are undertaking vigorous recruiting efforts, and we are studying, with the Chief of the General Staff and the Army Board, how we may further fortify, refresh and sustain the historic county and regional links with the Army, to which it and they rightly attach the greatest importance.
An Army career is still without parallel in the variety and excitement it provides and in the diverse trades and specialties that it offers.
Improving recruitment, however, is only part of the solution. We must also improve the rate of retention, especially of young soldiers. Accordingly, we have introduced a re-engagement bounty to encourage young trained soldiers to remain in the Army, with all the valuable and specialist skills that they acquire. The Adjutant General and his excellent team are looking at ideas such as modern apprenticeships and bringing military qualifications more into line with the requirements of civilian employers—through the introduction of NVQs, for example.
I acknowledge with gratitude the help of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment in this context. I attach the greatest importance to all this, but we have much still to do and we are pushing ahead with determination and vigour.
910 A further valuable source of potential recruits are the cadet forces, which provide many young people with their first experience of the armed forces and the service way of life. They also play an important wider role in our national life, helping young people to develop good citizenship, self-reliance and confidence through the provision of challenging activities and valuable and exciting training. Many cadets become role models in their communities.
I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the truly magnificent dedication and leadership provided by thousands of adult volunteers, who give of their spare time to run cadet units and to make them the great success that they are. I thank them all.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
Just last Friday, I formally opened the Army cadet force hall in Port Glasgow. Although I appreciated the smartness of the youngsters and of their NCOs and other officers, I was struck by the rather sparse resources devoted to their training. I hope that the Minister's officials will carefully consider any requests for further resources from this and other cadet forces in the west of Scotland.
§ Mr. Soames
I can think of no one better than a former royal military policeman to open a cadet branch—it was lucky to have the hon. Gentleman. I hear what he says: these units are not provided for as generously as we would like, but we have a finite sum of money and we have to spread it as best we can. If the hon. Gentleman has any specific ideas, I shall be happy to attend to them. I am delighted that he took the trouble to go and visit the Army cadets, and I urge all hon. Members never to miss an opportunity to do the same. They will leave the cadet forces feeling immensely encouraged if they do.
Returning to the reserve forces, I should like to take this opportunity to stress again the Government's wholehearted commitment to the Territorial Army and all the reserve forces. They make a truly invaluable contribution to our defence capability and are, above all, an integral part of our military operation.
§ Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)
Does my hon. Friend accept that there is tremendous excitement and enthusiasm on the part of all reservists, particularly those in the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, at the new opportunities that they will get from the Reserve Forces Bill? The sooner it is passed, the better, so that they can get on with serving the country as they want to.
§ Mr. Soames
I thank my right hon. Friend for those remarks, and I pay tribute to the wonderful work he has done over the years, particularly with the Royal Air Force reserves, to whom he has made a magnificent contribution. I completely agree with him. We hope that the Bill will have a speedy passage through the House, commanding support from both sides.
We are truly fortunate to be able to draw on the splendid commitment and skills of the men and women who serve with the reserves. The whole House will agree that their genuine professionalism, dedication and commitment are well illustrated by those who have chosen to serve in Bosnia. Nor should we forget that, even before the deployment of IFOR, there have been and still are other reservists from all three reserve forces supporting operations in the former Yugoslavia.
911 In addition to the formal process of call-out, members of the TA undertake short periods of service with members of the regular Army, deploying on operational tours and exercises. For example, last year, the TA completed a two-stage trial deployment to the Falkland islands. Many useful lessons were learned, and we have now agreed that TA platoons will regularly accompany Army units deployed to the Falklands.
The whole House agrees, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) said, that we should make greater use of the expertise of reservists. My visits to reserve units confirm that they are extremely keen to be given greater opportunities to use their skills. We therefore plan to use reserves more widely in the future, particularly to support our regular forces when unpredictable commitments arise.
The House is aware that the necessary new legislation for this, the Reserve Forces Bill, forms part of the Government's legislative programme and was introduced in another place on 16 November. I look forward to debating it later in the year. It has received widespread support from those affected by it. It is practical and, I think, sensible, and I welcome the statements by the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), who has promised to give it a fair wind.
Before concluding, I should like to make a couple of disparate points. First, I hope that the House realises—and that the country realises—how incredibly lucky we are in Great Britain to have such a superb Army. At every level of command and throughout all ranks, the Army is exceptional in its personal and professional standards, in its team work, and in its highly developed sense of cohesion, identity, duty and obligation. This institution is a matchless asset. It is a great credit to the quality of the Army's leadership that, in a period of considerable upheaval, it has retained extraordinary and exceptional flexibility combined with greater clarity of purpose and endeavour.
It is undeniable that the United Kingdom remains one of the very few nations capable of playing a telling role in world affairs. Membership of the world's key organisations brings real and unavoidable responsibilities and obligations. We regard it as our clear duty to meet those obligations. An efficient, mobile and powerful Army is a vital part of those obligations, and that is truly what we have today.
It is quite true, of course, that the reorganisations of the past few years have inevitably extracted a price in terms of the pressure and upheaval that they have caused.
§ Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)
I am sure that the Minister will join me in saying how fortunate we are to have such excellent manufacturers of military equipment. I refer, of course, to Land-Rover and to Marshalls of Cambridge and the Ministry of Defence's decision, announced today, to order 800 military ambulances. I am sure that he would wish to join me in congratulating both firms and their work forces on winning the contract.
§ Mr. Soames
I do, but I hope to say a little more about that if the hon. Lady will give me a moment. I acknowledge her interest.
912 The big decisions have been taken. The restructuring of the front line as set out in "Britain's Defence for the `90s" is complete, and the Government believe that the front line is now, in broad terms, correctly configured for today's uncertain and troubled world. Of course, there are always gaps where we would like to see more and there are difficulties and problems that we have to overcome; that is inevitable, but overcome them we shall.
The Labour party can indulge in as much convoluted arithmetic as it likes on the precise numerical strength of the Army and the exact—and usually greatly exaggerated—size of the recruiting shortfall. The real strength of the front line is not just a matter of numbers, important though that it is; it is the ability to do the business that matters. The Army clearly can and regularly does.
The re-equipment programme of the past few years is delivering, and will continue to deliver, equipment that enables the Army to operate at an exceptional level of effectiveness—AS 90, Challenger, Warrior and, towards the end of the decade, Apache. The Army, however, could not carry out its task without its essential support vehicle fleet, and I am therefore pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement has today announced the procurement of some 8,000 new Land-Rover utility vehicles, about 800 new Land-Rover ambulances and a further 65 Pinzgauer heavy duty utility vehicles.
§ Sir Anthony Grant (South-West Cambridgeshire)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that announcement, which will give great pleasure to Cambridgeshire in particular and to British industry as a whole. Does he agree that much credit for that wise decision should go to the care, courtesy and unfailing scrupulousness and sagacity of my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement?
§ Mr. Soames
My hon. Friend is quite right. I have always found my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement to be unfailingly courteous, extremely sagacious and not at all devious. I wholly endorse the points that my hon. Friend made and applaud the great support given by him and other hon. Members with a constituency interest in the matter. The decision taken by my hon. Friend the Minister will prove to be the right one. It is good news for the Army and, as my hon. Friend said, it will be welcome to Land-Rover and its sub-contractors, including Marshalls of Cambridge.
§ Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)
Does my hon. Friend accept that Securicor Steyr, which also put in a bid for the ambulance contract, had an excellent record in the trials? Indeed, its vehicle broke down only once, compared to Land-Rover's 17 times. Does he accept that that bid also had some merits, which made it a strong contender, and that that is why the MOD has shown such confidence in Steyr by ordering 65 heavy duty lorries for other purposes?
§ Mr. Soames
My hon. Friend is correct. We have indeed ordered a number of Steyr vehicles. I understand that its bid was good, but my hon. Friend the Minister has come to his conclusion. It was an admirable and well-fought competition. I am glad that the matter is now settled. It is but one of the matters to which the House 913 will wish to turn its attention during a broader—and important—debate on the whole Army. I know that those decisions, which are worth more than £200 million and will sustain more than 500 jobs, will be welcomed on both sides of the House.
The soldier in the field on operations would tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker, were you to ask him—and he would be very pleased to see you—that whatever problems we have, and there are many, he has never been better equipped or supported. When the deployment of IFOR is complete, more than one third of the Army will be on, preparing for or recovering from operational commitments. At the same time, it will continue with the implementation of important, far-reaching and profound changes. I am extremely proud to be able to praise the loyalty, dedication and professionalism of all those in the Army, regular or reservist, which are unmatched by any other army in the world.
One does not become the best by accident and it is no accident that the British Army is one of the best trained, led and equipped—and undoubtedly the most highly respected—armies in the world. It is the aim of Her Majesty's Government to keep it that way.
§ Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)
In some ways, that was a comprehensive speech. I know that Tory Members are well read. It has always struck me that the mark of the great man is the capacity to combine the sweep of strategy with a grasp of detail. I was therefore deeply impressed with the manner in which the Minister of State for the Armed Forces could tear himself away from his analysis of the almost total integration of the social structures of Rwanda to respond immediately on the question of the bandstand at Twickenham. He has that mark of the great man.
In other ways, especially in the light of the past few weeks, it was rather an odd speech. There seemed to be no cloud on the horizon, and no attempt was made to raise an umbrella against the deluge that has been falling on the Ministry of Defence, and especially on the Secretary of State for Defence, since the beginning of the year. I shall return to that point.
I shall start with the subject of our service men and women, especially those of the Army. The Minister mentioned the vast array of operations in which the members of our Army are involved—from the Transcaucasus to the Falklands was perhaps the most graphic description. All hon. Members agree with the conviction and sincerity of his tribute to the troops.
The Minister pointed out that those same troops participate fully in the activity of the largest land army to be assembled in continental Europe since the end of the second world war. I think that he referred to it as an "historic operation". It is historic in respect not only of its size but of its objectives. He mentioned—it was worth mentioning, and he spent some time on it—the practical details of the products of the British Army presence in Bosnia: the bridges, the hospitals, the skills and, not least, the thousands of lives saved, directly or indirectly, by the production of roads and shelters.
We commend to the British people, should there be any doubt about it, the presence in Bosnia of British armed forces under the limited time scale and with their limited but extremely important objectives. They serve not as an 914 instrument of war but as a means of peace. Their task is not to take life but to preserve it; not to wreak destruction but to construct order. We are rightly proud of them, not only because they have, as ever, responded to the will of the House, but also because, by serving our national interests, they are furthering the wider interests of peace, justice, order and international law of behalf of the world community.
Those troops not only represent the practical reality, but are also a symbol of the challenge which defence planners and politicians in this country have faced for the past 10 years: to shape a post-imperial role for the British Army and the British armed forces. In referring to our "post-imperial" role, some hon. Members may point out quite correctly that that challenge is some 50 years old. If there were a watershed for the end of empire, surely the ending of the second world war and events in the years immediately following it—certainly until 1956—represented such a watershed.
However, in a sense, that period left us with no choice. At the time, Dean Acheson said quite properly that the British had lost an empire but had not yet found a role. Our role was imposed upon us and upon our armed forces by the cold war. It is only now, free from the burdens of empire and the imposition of a massive direct external threat, that we face the complex task of reformulating our response to a rapidly changing world, and, in the context of that response, reshaping our armed forces.
Our Army's presence in Bosnia does not represent simply a humanitarian mission or a practical, beneficial extension of this country's foreign policy: it is part of our evolving response to that new and complex world. The world is changing rapidly, and the complexities of the threats and the risks that our troops face are multiplying.
Of course, we take heart from the peace advances in Bosnia, at home in Northern Ireland and in the middle east. However, the recent events in Chechnya; the civil war in Georgia, which has reached a stalemate and has hopefully ended; the little reported war between Azerbaijan and Armenia—I know that several hon. Members have visited those countries—and a hundred other instances remind us constantly of the potential dangers we face from many directions.
Only this week, we were reminded of the dangers—if we needed any reminder—when researchers at Harvard university's centre for science and international affairs gave the latest of a series of warnings that the threat of nuclear disaster is probably as high now as it was at the height of the cold war, because of the smuggling of nuclear fissile materials and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The smuggling of nuclear material, terrorism, border disputes, ethnic wars and fundamentalist extremism—I will not rehearse the arguments, as they are well known to hon. Members—are only the headline dangers in a world that has been deprived of the icy stability of the cold war and the disintegration of the Soviet empire.
Labour Members have argued for some time that the Government have proved inadequate to the task of meeting those challenges. Naturally, the Government have denied that. I found it rather odd that the Minister offered no defence of the Government's policies, as opposed to defending the Army's operations, which I fully accept have a legitimate place in the debate. If any evidence were needed of the incompetent, bumbling, bungling, 915 incoherent and at times demoralising mess that the Government have made, we have seen it in the first two weeks of 1996.
I think that that is why the Minister of State for the Armed Forces had such a difficult time tonight defending the Government's record. I have no doubts about the Minister's ability and courage; he is an able and a courageous champion, and tonight he spoke in his usual stentorian fashion. In fact, he has become rather a champion of distressed gentlefolk of late.
He is prepared to ride out one day in defence of the heir to the throne, and the next in defence of the heir to the Conservative party leadership. Perhaps, tomorrow, he will have a whip round for the Duchess of York. However, even the Minister of State faced a daunting task in attempting to defend the Government's policy record, so he avoided it altogether.
I remind him of some of the comments that have been made in the past few weeks, not by dangerous left wingers on the Opposition Benches or by fringe groups outside this place, but by people from the establishment, who are reasonably respected by the Army and by the entire armed forces. The crescendo of criticism is so deafening that even the Secretary of State for Defence must hear it.
I turn to the remarks of Lieutenant-General Sir David Young, former General Officer Commanding, Scotland, in the Daily Mail of 12 January. His comments are relevant, because I know the strenuous efforts that the Minister and others are making to recruit to the armed forces. Lieutenant-General Sir David Young said:Were a bright youngster now to seek my advice on whether to pursue a career in the armed forces, I would sadly be unable to offer unequivocal encouragement".In the same article, he spoke ofincreasing overstretch, insufficient training, bad manning levels, continual alterations and errors of judgment".He referred also tocutbacks and changes which have severely weakened the structure and morale of all the services…a marked loss of continuity, shared history and tradition; all the qualities which inspire a sense of loyalty and cohesion".That is a pretty comprehensive and damning indictment by a former GOC Scotland. Perhaps most damning of all were his comments on the tragic waste of talent in the Army. He said:Sergeants, sergeant-majors and officers … All top-rate soldiers…are choosing to leave the Army"—not because of their age, as the Minister would have us believe, butbefore the axe falls on them. The traditional philosophy of 'my country right or wrong' is harder and harder to maintain in the face of politicians who fail to recognise the special commitment required of servicemen and servicewomen".Rarely have I heard a more damning indictment of the Government's defence policy, and rarely have I heard such silence from Government Back Benchers when such criticism is levelled.
No sooner had the Minister's reputation on the Army been machine-gunned than another senior officer torpedoed the Government's policy on the Navy. The following day, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Nicholas 916 Hill-Norton—who I believe is known to the Secretary of State and to Ministers—warned that the Government have left this countrya nation unable to defend itself".I have no knowledge about Admiral Hill-Norton's judgment; I do not know whether he would know a creep if he saw one. However, he certainly recognises a walking disaster of a policy when he sees it. [Interruption.] Ministers are now intervening from a sedentary position. The Minister had 40 minutes in which to defend the Government's policy, and Conservative Members have been remarkably acquiescent in the face of stirring criticism from major figures in the military world.
If the Government will not accept criticism from the military or from us, what about the criticism of their friends? Yesterday, the Daily Express—I believe that it is now the new Daily Express; perhaps, like new Labour, it is turning over a new leaf—contained a very interesting editorial. I do not know whether Ministers have had a chance to read it; I do not want to embarrass them too much. I shall not read all of the editorial, although I know that my hon. Friends would like to hear it. I shall quote merely one or two lines.
The editorial states:under Michael Portillo's stewardship, Britain's defences are in danger of becoming a laughing stock".
§ Dr. Reid
That is what the Daily Express editorial said; I do not know who wrote it. It was probably some fifth-columnist red left-winger who has been working under cover at the Express since 1945 and has only now come out to undermine the Tory Government.
The editorial continues:Talk privately to almost anyone of any rank in our Forces and the inescapable message you will hear is the same. Their morale is rock bottom, and their faith in the Secretary of State for Defence even lower".Five paragraphs later, the editorial continues:it demeans Mr. Portillo's office, making him seem nothing better than a squalid little estate agent".
§ Mr. Soames
In view of the generous words that the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) has extended to me, I am reluctant to say that he is making a total fool of himself. The Daily Express editorial and the extract that he has read from it is so idiotic, fatuous and so far from the truth that I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman would bother to introduce it into a serious debate on the armed forces. It proves his ignorance of affairs in the armed forces. If he believes that it is credible that he can say that the morale of our armed forces is at rock bottom, he must come to understand that that is fundamentally, totally and utterly untrue, devoid, null and invalid.
§ Dr. Reid
I do not mind the Minister calling me ignorant. Similarly, I do not mind him calling the Daily Express ignorant. I do not mind him describing colonels in chief as barmy or admirals of the fleet as being wired to the moon. I do not object to a GOC Scotland being described as having no appreciation of what is going on, or to the Minister rejecting the criticisms of Defence Committees. But has the Minister never considered, in the 917 face of all this criticism, from traditional allies as well as traditional foes, that perhaps that army is not marching out of step, but that perhaps he and the Secretary of State are the ones who are out of step?
I quoted directly from The Express, the Daily Mail, a former GOC Scotland and a former admiral of the fleet. If the Minister thinks that he can throw aside all criticisms by describing them only as the product of ignorance, he begins to take on some of the faults of his immediate superior. That will not bode well for him or for the armed forces.
§ Mr. Soames
I was at great pains to stress that there are always gaps, difficulties and problems. There are always things that, if we had the money, we would wish to do better. There will always be equipment that we would wish we could buy. However, the hon. Gentleman's portrayal of the armed forces is a travesty. It is not reality. Retired officers, however great and distinguished they may be, are not truly in touch with today's Army. I beg the hon. Gentleman to understand that what he is saying about the Army is a travesty. It is entirely untrue.
§ Dr. Reid
I seem unable to get through to the Minister. When he gets round to checking what I have said, he will find that I have quoted at great length others whose views, presumably, the Minister does not respect.
I shall talk also about recruitment. I have been warning the Minister for three years about overstretch, yet I have been accused of ignorance. He has talked about the average interval of tours of duty being 24 months. He used to refer to the minimum interval being 24 months. Tonight, it is the average. He has denied overstretch, as did his predecessors. He has been proved wrong, and he resents the growing public awareness of that.
§ Mr. Garnier
I say from the bottom of my heart that I am deeply disappointed that the hon. Gentleman has thought fit to descend into personal abuse in this of all debates. I do not mind whether the hon. Gentleman is quoting others or using his own words, but it is a pity that, as I have said, in this of all debates he has felt it necessary to descend into personal abuse.
Will he comment on the Labour party's defence policies, and how they differ now, if they do at all, from those that he and his right hon. and hon. Friends and other Labour party candidates were espousing during the general election? Is it not right that, during that election, the Labour party was advocating massive cuts in defence expenditure—even greater than those advocated by the Liberal Democrats?
§ Dr. Reid
The answer to the last question is no. The hon. and learned Gentleman has talked about personal abuse. I shall explain that the abuse levelled against the Secretary of State should not be personal. It reflects a political difference that I shall attempt to explain.
918 After 12 years of hearing personal abuse heaped upon the integrity and patriotism of Opposition Members by the hon. and learned Gentleman's right hon. and hon. Friends, I am deeply moved by the sensitivity that apparently comes across the Conservative party when it gets around to defence. I have not engaged in any personal abuse. The only comment that I have made of a personal nature was in praise of the Minister of State. I have, however, quoted others.
I shall explain later why what Conservative Members consider to be a personal foible reflects political incompatibility between the views of the Secretary of State and the nature, history, tradition and ethos of the British armed forces, if the Minister will give me the time to do so.
§ Sir Jim Spicer (West Dorset)
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) referred to Labour party policy at the time of the general election. I do not want to talk about that. Instead, I shall ask a question. Retired officers, as my hon. Friend the Minister has said, are saying that they would like more money to be spent on our armed forces. So would every officer in the armed forces. Indeed, everyone in the armed forces would take that view. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with those who say that they would like more? Would he commit his party to spending more on our armed forces in future than the Government are now?
§ Dr. Reid
I commend the hon. Gentleman to read the articles to which I have referred. It is not simply that those concerned want more—indeed, they are not saying that they want more. Instead, they are criticising incoherence, lack of planning, inconsistency, changed judgments and lack of training. They are criticising the planning that has resulted in a shortage of soldiers. Conservatives demean the argument by saying that there is merely a wish to see more.
The Minister talked about shortage of men, and—I give him this—said that it was not merely a matter of making soldiers redundant and then bringing in other soldiers to replace them because of shortage. I accept that there are age differences. I appreciate that many of the soldiers going out are older than many of the soldiers coming in. I understand that some units are up to establishment, while others are over-subscribed. At the same time, some units are under-subscribed.
We warned the Government, however, of the demographic curve. We told them that the cuts that they were imposing would result, first, in overstretch, secondly in shortages, and thirdly in the destruction of morale. We were told that we were ignorant. The Government said that we knew nothing about defence. If we were ignorant then for saying what has turned out to be right, we are pleased to be called ignorant again today. The fact is that we are still right.
A number of people, including Sir Michael Rose, have expressed reservations about the recruitment of soldiers for the infantry and other regiments through jobcentres.
§ Mr. Soames
On a point of accuracy, Sir Michael Rose has expressed no such reservations. In a letter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, he made it clear that he had expressed no such view. He made it clear also that he had every confidence that an important initiative had been taken that could go some way towards helping the Army.
919 Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House in which areas the Army is short of training? Secondly, in what units that he has visited, or knows about, is morale a problem?
§ Dr. Reid
I am not here to report back to the Minister on any visit that I have made or on any comments that have been made to me. Similarly, I would not make comments from the Opposition Dispatch Box on what I have been told by chiefs of staff when I have met them. If I divulged that information, the Minister would be the first—quite correctly—to condemn me for doing so.
Let me stick to recruitment. The Government spend hundreds of millions of pounds making soldiers redundant. That is the first cock-up. The Government then find that there is a shortage of soldiers, and spend hundreds of millions on recruiting them. The Government then run down the Army's recruitment centres. When we are desperate for soldiers, there are no recruitment services. That is the second mess.
A press release last week proudly boasted—making a virtue out of a necessity, as we no longer have the resources to recruit people directly through Army recruitment centers—that recruitment will be through jobcentres. The Government have even made a mess of that. I have read the press release carefully. It said:By using the nationwide network of about 1100 jobcentres the armed forces are giving easy access to quality jobs.What it did not mention is that, under current legislation, an unemployed person in receipt of unemployment benefit who unreasonably refuses available employment at a jobcentre can be financially penalised. That is the product of the thinking of the Secretary of State for Defence, in his previous incarnation as Secretary of State for Employment. Let me tell hon. Members in simple terms what that means. A refusal to accept a job at a jobcentre can mean a cut in benefit of up to 40 per cent.
The jobseekers regulations, which we debated as late as yesterday in the House, make the situation even worse. Under the regulations, anyone who has been unemployed for more than six months at a jobcentre will have to accept any job offered. I have checked the press release, the existing regulations and the Jobseekers Bill. There are no specific qualifications to the regulations that exclude the recruitment to the armed forces from their provisions. The published regulations are clear. Any fit young person on unemployment benefit who visits his jobcentre but refuses to accept the offer of enlistment in the Army could have his benefit withdrawn.
Whether by incompetence or intent, Ministers have introduced creeping conscription into Britain.
§ Dr. Reid
The Minister may shake his head. He does not think that it matters. I am not saying that it was intended; it may just be incompetence again.
The Minister can tell us whether there are special arrangements, private agreements, informal assurances that it will not happen, but we want it in black and white, in published regulations, because we in the Labour party, the armed forces and the people of this country want 920 nothing to do with financial press-ganging. We do not want any creeping conscription. We want no element of compulsion.
I will give way now to the Minister if he will give us an immediate assurance that there will be no element of compulsion at jobcentres, and that that will be written in black and white by tabling amendments immediately to the jobseekers regulations.
§ Mr. Soames
I regret that such an important debate should descend into such unbelievable unreality. This country does not have conscription. There will be no compulsion. The armed forces do not want to recruit anyone who would not come willingly into their ranks. The proposition advanced by the hon. Gentleman is so fatuous, so idiotic and so stupid that it almost defies imagination.
§ Mr. Soames
I have already made the point as clearly as I could. If the hon. Gentleman does not understand it, there is nothing that I can do to help him. There will be no such thing as any of the things that he has described.
§ Dr. Reid
I am surprised that the Minister is not prepared to say that he will exempt that. There are a list of exemptions under the regulations, including conscientious objectors, people who are disabled, jobs that are unsuitable. It would take five minutes to draft a regulation to exempt the armed forces from compulsion or to remove the financial penalties for any young man or woman who goes to a jobcentre. I am surprised that the Minister will not do that.
§ Dr. Godman
It find it difficult to believe that these Ministers are so incompetent. Surely the Department of Employment must have issued guidelines to the managers of all jobcentres to say that they can only advise youngsters of vacancies in the armed forces. My hon. Friend should ask the Minister to ensure that a copy of those guidelines are placed in the Library. I shall speak to the manager of my local jobcentre in the morning to tell him that he only advises youngsters of these vacancies.
§ Dr. Reid
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I shall be doing the same at my local jobcentre. There are some 161 clauses in the jobseekers regulations. I had hoped that the exemptions would be part of the regulations, but the Minister has declined to give us an assurance that amendments will be tabled.
The criticism and incoherence of what the Government have produced on defence over the past few years is a tragedy, because there could be agreement on both sides of the House on substantial issues, such as our commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation as the cornerstone of our defence policy; the Western European Union being the European pillar; our approach, through intergovernmental means, to construct alliances abroad; and on joint activity with our allies and tri-service activity at home.
There is immense scope to build consensus in the House on central defence policy, but that will not occur if Ministers respond to criticisms that have been made 921 inside and outside the House merely by accusing those who make those criticisms of being ignorant, and claiming that Ministers are the font of all wisdom.
§ Lady Olga Maitland
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will deal with a point that Conservative Members have been waiting for; we have listened now for half an hour. What is the Labour party's position on the defence review that it announced it would launch should it ever become the party of government? Would his party not be struggling to fulfil the commitments it gave at six Labour party conferences, which committed it to reducing defence spending by £4 billion—which, frankly, would gut our security?
§ Dr. Reid
Cuts of that size would. That is why we have never accepted it. That is why we are equally surprised that the Government made a 30 per cent. cut. The Government have implemented Labour conference decisions that we have refused.
On a defence review, our position is well known. I need not rehearse the arguments again. The choice is whether to have change that is managed and coherent, or to have change that is done through a series of piecemeal reviews—"Options for Change", "Options for Change plus 1", defence cost studies and a sell-off of housing. A full defence review and managed change would give a strategic signpost five, 10 and 15 years down the road, which would give the stability to our armed forces that they have lacked over the past few years.
On the philosophy behind the Ministry of Defence's approach to defence planning, the Department has a growing obsession with markets. It is focusing on meeting cost targets rather than the purposes behind the use of military force.
On training, which the Minister mentioned, the Army Training Organisation is due to become an agency on 1 April 1996, under the control of the Adjutant General. The office of the Inspector General (Doctrine and Training) is to be broken up—a decision omitted from the defence estimates 1995. There is a risk that it reflects a diminished commitment to bringing together the formulation and articulation of land warfare doctrine and its importation into a system of all-arms collective training.
Similarly, the Secretary of State announced on 14 July, in a statement on the outcome of the defence costs study, that there would be an increase in collective Army training in Germany of between 50 and 100 per cent. as a result of additional funds that would be made available to purchase range time. The intention to increase the six weeks of battle group training has not been achieved. At a time when the defence budget is reduced, military readiness is relaxed. I hope that moneys for training will not be a soft target to provide financial savings.
With regard to personnel matters, which were not mentioned tonight, for all its limitations the average operational tour interval would first appear to be the most objective measure of the actual levels of commitment of a proportion of army units outside of using targets relating to operational and formation evaluations—OPEVAL/FORMEVAL. However, providing that measure does not enable us to analyse the relationship between the commitments and the resources of the Army or particular arms in the Army. An additional measure of performance is necessary as the Army continues to adjust to the effects of the defence costs study.
922 The MOD sets its agencies detailed targets for annual performance and measurements of the outcome. Notwithstanding publishing the OPEVAL/FORMEVAL statistics, to which I have referred, there is no reason why it should not do the same for the performance of the Army if the Department wishes to be true to value for money in real terms, which is operational effectiveness.
Questions of procurement will be handled by my hon. Friend the Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) when he replies, if he is lucky enough to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. I merely say that there is increasing concern about slippage on equipment for the Army. The AS90 155mm howitzer had an original in-service date of August 1992, and the actual ISD is November 1993. An estimated over-cost of £33 million in a competitive contract is also illuminating.
The Bowman replacement combat radio system had an original in-service date of 1995. With a current ISD in 2000, Clansman is becoming increasingly vulnerable to electronic countermeasures, and lacks the data handling capacity to meet requirements for currently improved C2I systems. In other words, slippage in the actual provision of resources to the armed forces has operational implications which go beyond just the lack of use of new equipment, as I mentioned in the case of the Bowman replacement.
Equipment availability in the Army, even where it has been purchased, is disturbing. It is easier to evaluate changes in the structural readiness of the Army than the operational readiness because of the ambiguity in measuring the training of personnel and the working order equipment. Clearly, less quantifiable factors require monitoring when forces are more likely to be used.
Unfortunately, the Defence Committee's report on the 1995 defence estimates acknowledged that availability statistics from the Army battlefield equipment reliability return weredisturbing even when allowance is made for doubts about their accuracy and the methodology used.Although the precise data are classified, the Chieftain, Challenger and Warrior, which were all mentioned by the Minister, and MLRS, as of November 1994, had availability figures of, in some cases, barely 50 per cent. So the resources that the Minister mentioned in his opening remarks are apparently available only half the time, despite the fact that their full ownership is ascribed to the Army.
Those are a number of the detailed areas. I am sensitive to the fact that Conservative Members seem to think that I was making a personal criticism of the Secretary of State. I was quoting others who were. Let me turn to my criticisms, because those who think that the Secretary of State has some malevolence towards the armed forces for personal reasons, or that these mistakes arise because he is not an able, articulate, organised type of chap, are sadly mistaken.
The differences between the Secretary of State and the armed forces have arisen because of the contradiction between a free market fetish, or a free market fan, on the one hand and, on the other, defence and the armed forces, which require planning, strategy and collective esprit de corps—the opposite of the individualism of the free market. That is the contradiction that lies at the bottom of 923 the terrible incompatibility between the Secretary of State and the armed forces, not the lack of any personal qualities on the right hon. Gentleman's part.
§ Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)
I am rather surprised by the hon. Gentleman's last remark. I thought that the Labour party had now takenon and embraced the idea of the free market. Is he now saying that he has changed his mind again?
§ Dr. Reid
The hon. Gentleman obviously was not listening. I referred to a free market "fetish". The Opposition do not have a fetish for the free market, any more than we have a fetish for nationalisation. We believe in a balanced economy, in which the members of the armed forces are appreciated, and where the traditions, ethos, collective planning and strategy are compatible with the thinking and philosophy of the Secretary of State.
We all know that the past 10 years have been difficult for members of the British Army and their counterparts in the other two services. Their numbers have been slashed by a third, their financial resources have been cut by a third, and, at times, morale has been reduced to rock bottom. However justified may have been the reductions in expenditure, they have often been imposed during the past decade with a mind-blowing insensitivity and incoherence.
We should all be worried about the growing feeling that the armed forces and those who previously associated with them lack the respect and the understanding of some of their political masters. There is a growing awareness of a struggle within the MOD; it does not take a genius to recognise it.
In some quarters, there is a tendency to diminish the ethos and to underestimate the traditions and spirit of the armed forces; to pay insufficient attention to their attachment to heritage, architecture and symbolism. That is a tendency which is intrinsic to the values of the economic extremism of the free market right wing.
People of extremist free-market tendencies are not at ease with an institution such as the armed forces, which puts honour above price. They do not understand a code of conduct which puts the benefits of the collective above the advancement of the individual. They are ill at ease with the suggestion that self-seeking is not in itself meritorious, and they are alien to the concept of individual sacrifice for the advancement of the group. They have become desiccated calculating machines who know the value of nothing while pretending to know the price of everything.
Of course, they protest their virility from public platforms, waving toy guns. But away from conference platforms, when decisions are made, when they brand all public expenditure, including defence, as unproductive, when they display the mentality of the 18th-century liberals who thought that the worst form of public expenditure was expenditure on defence, they cannot hope to have a binding relationship between their philosophy and the institutions which fall under their control.
I do not blame the Secretary of State. He did not ask for the job. He is ill fitted politically, not personally, for it, and we all suffer for him. The Secretary of State, who sets the agenda for the Government on defence, is a man 924 of that political philosophy. Thank heavens the day is not too far off when our armed forces will have a Government more attuned to their traditions and hopes.
§ Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)
The House will have been disappointed that the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) lowered the tone of the debate which had been so robustly opened by hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. I am afraid that the picture of gloom painted by the hon. Gentleman is simply not borne out by the facts. As the Chairman of the Defence Committee, I have visited many units around Britain—I dare say, rather more than he has. It has been clear to me that morale is extremely high.
There will always be a number of armchair generals and admirals prepared to fire broadsides and to criticize—that has always been the case—but the picture painted by the hon. Gentleman this afternoon is far removed from the truth. He had to resort to quoting from newspapers such as the Daily Express. If one wanted to be critical, one could say that that proves only that there is a shortage of good quotes for a debate such as this. I had hoped that, when he returned to his script, there would be an improvement in the hon. Gentleman's speech, but that was just wishful thinking.
My hon. Friend the Minister paid tribute to our armed forces in the implementation force in Bosnia and to the people who earlier served in former Yugoslavia in the United Nations protection force. I endorse everything that he said. The other day, the Select Committee on Defence took the opportunity to visit the 14th Armoured Division at Catterick. We saw there the forces of the Queen's Royal Hussars, who were preparing for a second trip to former Yugoslavia. I have seldom seen a unit better trained, better equipped and better led and with such high morale. We wish those soldiers well, pay tribute to the work that they have already done, and wish them a safe return to this country.
My hon. Friend did not pay tribute to non-service personnel in former Yugoslavia, who are doing so much work. From the Select Committee's visits to that region, it was clear that the Overseas Development Agency is doing great work on the infrastructure there. I pay tribute to the civilians who have been drivers and workers on the relief convoys carrying humanitarian aid to former Yugoslavia and, we must not forget, to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), who has spent much of his recess time taking humanitarian aid to that country.
Former Yugoslavia is a tragic example of the sort of overseas operation that our forces are likely to be involved in following the end of the cold war. There are going to be joint operations with other nations in peacemaking, peacekeeping and implementing United Nations Security Council resolutions in a much more disordered and unpredictable world. My hon. Friend the Minister is right to say that, in such circumstances, the Western European Union will have a role in determining formations in Europe, but that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation will still remain the benchmark of this country's defences. I welcome what he said about the progress that is being made towards meeting the 24-month target for intervals between operational tours.
Four weeks after my hip replacement operation, my doctor says that I should not be here this evening, so I hope that hon. Members will understand if I am not in my 925 place for the winding-up speeches. I hasten to add that I shall read Hansard carefully to find out the Minister's replies to my questions. I am sorry only that the welcome decision to order 800 Land-Rover ambulances was not made in time for my rush to the House to vote on the common fisheries policy just before Christmas, four days after my operation. Perhaps with Corporal Coull to see me safely through the Christmas traffic, I would have managed it. The House enjoyed the Minister's story and I hope that he will be using his boxing gloves to good effect on future occasions.
The Land-Rover ambulance meets or exceeds all the Ministry of Defence's operational and medical requirements, the technical specification and the reliability targets and it is less expensive to buy or run than its Austrian rival. I hope that the MOD will use the private finance initiative leasing option on contract maintenance and guaranteed availability. The Land Rover will also save money through the commonality with the MOD's existing fleet, and benefit from a global support network. All in all, it is a good decision, not only for our armed forces, but for British industry.
The Land-Rover order demonstrates that, when the then Minister of State for Defence Procurement, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), told the Joint Defence and Trade and Industry inquiry that, in making procurement decisions, Ministers would carefully consider the impact on our long-term defence industrial base and on jobs, he meant what he said. That is why I want to comment on the industries that equip our soldiers. That Joint Committee inquiry was only the second time that departmental Committees had co-operated in such a way.
The inquiry was prompted by concerns about the United Kingdom's defence industries. They involved declining spending on defence equipment, fiercer international competition and the MOD's efforts to obtain greater value for money. The Joint Committee's view was that, for both defence and industrial reasons, the defence industries have a distinctive importance that justifies Governments looking beyond short-term, value-for-money considerations in procurement. In particular, they form a high-technology and high value-added sector with major influence on other parts of UK industry through the transfer of skills and technology.
Our report had three major sections: rationalisation and collaboration, research and development, and technology acquisition and procurement. Collaboration with United States companies remains important, but we considered that greater European collaboration was crucial.
The UK Government take a prominent role in creating a European defence market and the Committee welcomed that. Many defence projects are collaborative. In the White Paper on the defence estimates, there were plenty of examples of that. This country is collaborating with more than 15 other countries on joint projects. France is in the lead: it has 25 joint projects with the UK; Germany has 22 and the United States has 19.
The United States remains our principal rival in defence production and sales, but it is still an important partner and an important market for British defence industries. It is significant that, in 1979, when the Conservatives came to power, the so-called two-way street of reciprocal sales and purchases of defence products across the north Atlantic had a ratio of 10:1 in favour of the United States. 926 That is down to a ratio of only 2:1, which is a tremendous improvement, but the Government should double their efforts in trying to gain fairer access to United States markets for our defence products.
Our Committee emphasised the importance of research and development to the long-term future of the defence industries. Our main recommendation was for an R and D strategy extending beyond Government-funded R and D and co-ordinated by the MOD. Its aims would be to fill gaps in R and D in critical sectors, prevent duplication of effort, to disseminate the results of research to where they are most useful, to co-ordinate defence and civil R and D where worth while, and to maximise the benefits from international collaboration. We also recommended that the MOD be given a more formal responsibility to take account of the future of the UK's defence industries, and to maximise their contribution to the UK's technology and skills base.
Essentially, that industry involves leading-edge technology. It supports some 315,000 jobs, specifically in defence-related manufacturing, and makes more than £5 billion worth of exports a year. The position needs careful monitoring because this nation must never risk being held to ransom by foreign equipment suppliers in times of crisis. Our defence industrial base is therefore a crucial part of the country's defence needs and strategy.
Recruitment has been mentioned in earlier speeches. The Defence Select Committee is in the middle of an inquiry into manning and recruitment, but two questions have arisen, on which I would welcome the Minister's comments. With Army recruitment having fallen by some 5,000 in the past three years, is this the right time to close 133 recruiting offices and to hand over the task of recruiting to the 1,100 jobcentres? I want to be reassured that the jobcentres are ready to assume their new task. Why does the available research suggest that applications to join the Army have fallen by some 50 per cent. in the areas concerned?
My second question about recruitment relates to press reports about the Home Secretary's plan to reintroduce the so-called boot camps for young offenders. Is it not just possible that young offenders who are sent to boot camps rather than prison, given a short back and sides, clothed, well fed, housed, trained and able to enjoy sport and recreation, will conclude that more of the same—along with pay, and the very interesting job of a soldier—is better than returning to a life of crime and the dole? Is my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces reviewing the criteria for recruits to allow those who have been convicted of criminal offences—particularly young people—to be considered more favourably for membership of the armed forces?
§ Sir Jim Spicer
We hope that the airborne initiative, which has been so successful in Scotland, will be extended to the rest of the United Kingdom. It deals not with convicted young people, but with young people who are at risk, giving them a genuine start in life—not training them for the armed forces or running a boot camp, but combining employment opportunity with the guarantee of a job in local industry at the end of a 10-week course.
§ Mr. Colvin
Indeed: I have seen for myself what my hon. Friend has described.
927 The last matter that I wish to raise has been given considerable publicity during the past week. I refer to the so-called—I use the phrase advisedly—Gulf war syndrome. Our Committee reported on 7 November. Our report did not try to prove or disprove the existence of the syndrome, acknowledging that much more research was needed. I know that the Ministry of Defence is currently conducting investigations, and I applaud the fact that, according to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, it is taking the matter seriously. I feel, however, that the Committee's recommendation of a full epidemiological survey should receive a positive response.
At present, we are debating the issue in the dark, because no one knows for certain whether the so-called syndrome exists. Let me put the matter into perspective. Of the 51,000 British personnel who served in the Gulf, about 1 per cent.—550—have reported symptoms; I have been told over the past week or so that the number has now risen to about 700, and this morning, during a radio discussion, someone who is suffering from symptoms of the so-called syndrome said that some 3,000 people were affected. That is a worrying development. It seems that we are beginning to copy what is happening in the United States of America, a country that thrives on litigation. There are too many cases of "no pay, no fee", with solicitors trying to persuade people to have a go at securing compensation. We must avoid that at all costs.
Many figures have been bandied about in regard to epidemiological surveys. The Sunday Times spoke of a cost of £500,000, and of such surveys taking two or three years to complete, but I am assured by the medical research unit of Southampton university's epidemiology department that they could be carried out at a cost of about £100,000, and would take about a year to complete. That would mean surveying 10 per cent. of service personnel who went to the Gulf—about 5,000—and some civilians, along with another 5,000 who stayed here. Until that has been done, we shall not know whether the percentage who have reported symptoms are representative, or whether there is any real comparison to be made between those who went to the Gulf and those who did not.
Our Committee applauded the MOD's establishment of a medical assessment programme, but felt that it should be given more resources. I believe that 330 service personnel have been assessed so far, out of some 700 who have reported symptoms. I am, however, worried by reports from some units of officers being unnecessarily heavy-handed with people who have expressed a wish to be assessed. Now people feel that they may be putting their jobs at risk if they ask for an assessment. I want to be certain that everyone who is experiencing symptoms can be assessed, and that proper expenses are paid to enable such people to travel to Raughton, which may be a long way from where they are stationed. Alternatively, proper facilities should be laid on in NHS hospitals.
We should compare what is happening here with what is happening in two other countries that participated in the Gulf operations. In the United States, a third of 323,000 Gulf war veterans who have left the service since the Gulf war are now receiving treatment, and are involved in the US assessment programme. In France—significantly—there have been no reports of so-called Gulf war syndrome. None of the French troops were given the 928 multiple vaccinations that were given to our troops and those of the Americans. More work must be done on that, and comprehensive research must be done on the long-term effect of the combination of drugs that were used in the Gulf.
There must also be a full exchange of information with our coalition partners. We must accept that, in future, the risk of warfare and attacks on our country will involve chemical and biological weapons much more than nuclear ones. That will be taken into account in military training and practice, and we need more information about it.
During the past week, worrying evidence has been published about the genetic effects of the Gulf war on the children of veterans. Some 52 cases have been identified so far. I am aware that between 1 and 2 per cent. of children born in this country suffer from abnormalities or malformations, but I think that we must put such reports into perspective. That would be done by the epidemiological study for which I have asked. Surely we owe it to people who risked their lives defending freedom in the Gulf to establish the facts, to ensure that free treatment is available to all and to pay compensation if and when it is due.
Following the collapse of the iron curtain and the end of the cold war, in common with all NATO and former Warsaw pact countries, we have used the peace dividend to reduce defence expenditure—although, in cash terms, it has stayed about the same at around £22 billion a year. Our armed forces have had to undergo a period of difficult adjustment, but I am glad that they can now enjoy a period of stability, with a more efficient support structure, thanks to "Front Line First". The one thing that they do not want, which has—luckily—not been referred to, is another full-scale defence review.
§ Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), because I echo much of what he said, especially that concerning the relationship between defence contracts and the health of British manufacturing and the recent experiences regarding contracts for military ambulances and other vehicles, and Land-Rover. I certainly echo his welcome for the decision to award the contracts for the 8,000 light and medium vehicles and the 800 military ambulances to Land-Rover. I should like to focus on the contract for the ambulances.
I suppose that I have to declare a number of interests. First, I declare a formal interest in that I am a member of the Transport and General Workers Union parliamentary panel. There is no doubt at all that many T and G members' jobs would have been affected by the success or otherwise of the contract. I also declare a much broader interest, shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House, because I represent a constituency in the midlands.
There is no doubt about the importance of manufacturing to the midlands. The automotive industry is particularly vital to the success of the economy in the midlands. The Rover group is certainly important. Indeed, the Longbridge plant is in my constituency. Behind the big manufacturers, however, there is a network of component suppliers all the way down the supply chain for whom a healthy automotive industry and a healthy manufacturing industry in general is so vital. There is no 929 doubt that manufacturing made the midlands, and unless it remains healthy, the midlands will not make it.
That is why so many of us have been disappointed by events over the past 15 or 16 years, which have caused the region's manufacturing base to suffer. Of course not only the midlands is important to the industry. The conversion of the Land Rover for ambulance purposes is carried out by Marshalls of Cambridge, an important specialist conversion firm. The Land-Rover deal is vital to British exports. Land-Rover is doing very well in its export performance in military and civil spheres. I welcome the announcement made earlier in the week of a new contract to supply Land Rovers to the Italian military.
Awarding the contract for our ambulances to a firm based overseas would have sent out some very strange signals. It is not that there is anything wrong with the quality of the Land Rover. It met all the specifications required by the Ministry of Defence, including its competitive price. Considering that the Government have been saying—apparently—how important it is to promote British exports and British industry overseas, it would have looked very odd if we had looked elsewhere when it came to awarding contracts which were vital to Britain's industrial and defence interests. Such action would also have been very strange since the Secretary of State for Defence showed his willingness at the Conservative party conference to wrap himself in the Union Jack, which to many was somewhat distasteful.
§ Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)
I am delighted by what the hon. Gentleman has said. Will he reassure me that his local authority does not buy any foreign vehicles, and that his ambulance trust has no Renault or Mercedes ambulances?
§ Mr. Burden
I cannot answer for my local ambulance trust, because—unfortunately—like many trusts it is not accountable. To my knowledge the trust does not have foreign ambulances, but the hon. Gentleman should not take that as gospel. The trust is not as accountable as it needs to be. With regard to the local authority, I am pleased to be able to report that, when Leyland Daf was under great threat a little while ago, it was one of the bodies most active in supporting and promoting the existence of a healthy van industry in the midlands and the country.
It would have been odd had the Secretary of State continued with the Viennese waltz, but I am pleased that he did not and the contract was awarded to Land-Rover. It is important, that credit is paid not only to Land-Rover and Marshall but to all the people, as well as hon. Members on both sides of the House, who worked so hard to ensure that all the factors were taken into account and that the final decision went the way that it did.
It is clear that the Ministry of Defence is entitled to expect the highest quality products from its suppliers. It is also clear that the Ministry of Defence has to recognise the strategic importance of British manufacturing to the health of our economy. That is why it is important to learn the lessons from the story of the awarding of the contract. We should be looking for more pro-activity from Ministers.
930 While looking back over similar circumstances that have arisen, I was struck by an article in the June 1994 edition of the International Defence Newsletter. It is quite topical in that it describes events as far hack as the 1970s, as well as those more up to date. It says:In the late 1970s a military requirement was recognised for a lightweight 2 tonne military vehicle with excellent cross country capability including the ability to carry a variety of weapons systems.I commend to hon. Members on both sides of the House the extremely instructive story told in the article. The procurement process in the United Kingdom was a catalogue of muddle and procrastination, but resulted in a vehicle being chosen in 1990. The article went on:Almost immediately the specification was changed to a new manual gear box and production delayed. From its very inception the old ghosts of Larkhill came back to haunt the vehicle. The Army were not at all happy with the performance of the vehicle and the order was reduced to fulfil the light gun tractor and Vixen radio vehicles only. Problems continued until two vehicles collided at Larkhill following brake failure. Now reports are coming in from Bosnia of vehicles having brake failure following the fitting of snow chains, in one case demolishing a house. The whole fleet is believed to have been withdrawn from service again and the Army is left to fall back on their one tonne Land Rovers which are now 26 years old.Admittedly, that report is about 18 months old, but it is instructive in the light of recent events. Its point is to contrast the catalogue of muddle in the UK with the experience elsewhere.
Around the same time, a similar need was identified in the Australian Army. The conclusion drawn by the article about the process in Australia was:The Australian experience is a prime example of a contract driven by the needs of the user and staged upgrades introduced during the process of evaluation where new variants and derivatives are developed following operational experience.The conclusion is that in Australia—what singularly failed to happen here with regard to the order that I have described—there was planning, partnership and long-term commitment. Even though things have moved on since that catalogue of muddle between the 1970s and 1990, some of the problems remain.
§ The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. James Arbuthnot)
That is why we were most fortunate to be able to recruit the Australian, Sir Malcolm McIntosh, as chief of defence procurement.
§ Mr. Burden
As I have said, I think that things have improved somewhat, but there is still room for improvement. The Minister was complimented earlier in the debate on his courtesy during the negotiations at Land-Rover, and I heartily endorse the compliment. When I and my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) went to see the Minister about this issue, nobody could fault his courtesy, and he listened to everything that we had to say.
During the discussions about the order—which have taken the best part of a year now—many of the actors who were crucially involved found it difficult to obtain information on exactly what problems were identified. I accept that Ministers are in a difficult position when engaged in a competitive process—there is no doubt about that. However, a balance must be struck between respecting commercial confidences and going into a defence contract budget purdah, in which it is difficult to 931 obtain vital information that could help to identify and iron out problems at a much earlier stage than happened in this case.
In addition to celebrating the award of the contract to Land-Rover, its export performance and the deal with the Italian army, it is important that we learn some lessons from the experience. There are three principal lessons to which I should like to draw the attention of hon. Members.
The first lesson—again echoing something said by the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside—is the need to break down departmentalism. If it is possible for the Defence Select Committee and the Trade and Industry Select Committee to pool their resources and look at Britain's defence and industrial needs and produce a joint report, much more could be done to break down departmentalism in Government. I hope that some further work will be done on that. If there had been a little more co-ordination and co-operation, not only in this affair but generally, we could have avoided some of the problems that we have identified.
Secondly—again echoing what was said by the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside—we need a far longer-term view of our industrial needs and their relationship to defence contracts and defence procurement.
Thirdly, we need a much more pro-active partnership between Government and industry that recognises that the Ministry of Defence has an absolute right to expect high quality but also recognises that the Government have a responsibility to British industry, its promotion abroad and for the safeguarding of jobs in the UK.
As we celebrate Land-Rover's success and congratulate everyone who has made it possible, I hope that we will learn those lessons and, in future, that some changes will be made which will enable us to avoid the problems that we have seen perhaps a little too often during the past year or so.
§ Sir Archibald Hamilton (Epsom and Ewell)
I declare an interest. I work for Litton, which is an American defence contractor, and W. S. Atkins, which does a certain amount of contracting work for the Ministry of Defence. I shall not, however, he making any reference to procurement during my remarks.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), I was disappointed by the speech of the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid), and I am sorry that he did not find it possible to stay with us for a little longer. When I was a Defence Minister, he used to make rather witty, pungent and significant speeches. I thought then that it was rather surprising that he was not shadowing the Secretary of State for Defence because he seemed to have a lot going for him.
I must say that, after today's contribution—the personal abuse and inaccurate accusations against people—the Labour party has made a sensible decision to keep him in a much more junior post on its Front Bench. It is not good enough to hide behind articles in the Daily Express and letters from retired officers to try to put over views and then to say that they are nothing to do with him.
932 I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not here, but I should tell him that there have always been complaints from retired officers. That has happened over the years. even when there were 3 per cent. real terms increases—which our Government inherited from the Callaghan Government in 1979 and ran on to 1983–84. Even during that time some retired officers complained about the way things were done in the Ministry of Defence.
One of the great triumphs of the national health service is that people live much longer than they did before, and that applies to retired generals. As time passes, they get memory lapses about what happened when they had to wrestle with all those problems. It may be something to do with the great effectiveness of the NHS that we continue to receive large numbers of letters from retired officers who seem to see things in much starker and black and white terms than the shades of grey that they probably had to wrestle with during their time in charge.
It is amazing that the Labour party continues the farce of hiding behind a defence review. I wonder how much longer that will go on. It is a charade and an excuse to produce no policies on defence between now and the general election. I am not sure that it will be possible to go on fooling the British people for that long. Eventually it will have to harden up a hit on all this.
I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Motherwell, North is back in his seat. I made a number of remarks about him which, I am afraid, he will now have to read in the Official Report. It is sad that he had to leave so quickly after his contribution. I should like to apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, because I will not be here for his closing remarks as I have engagements later on.
I join my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces in the warm tributes that he paid to our troops in Bosnia. That tribute applies to the tasks that they have been asked to undertake in the past rather than what they will have to do in the future. There was no doubt that the UN resolution for them to protect safe areas in Bosnia, when they had neither the equipment nor numbers with which to do it, was extremely arduous. In the circumstances, they did a fantastic and noble job. It seems that, with the much larger forces in Bosnia and the agreement with the warring parties, the role that they now have is much more sustainable than it has been in the past.
I am extremely encouraged that our troops have been occupying many of the sites and bits of high ground in Bosnia that were previously occupied by artillery formations of the warring factions. That means that the job they are being asked to do is one that they will be able to perform, and that they should, as a result, be in much less danger than they have been. That is enormously encouraging. We must hope that the peace agreements last and that more permanent arrangements can be made within the 12 months that I know everyone wants the mission to last. We must keep our fingers crossed.
Now that we have a massive NATO deployment in Bosnia, we will have many of the advantages of US technology with the United States troops there. At the same time, the United Kingdom brings the greatest expertise in peacekeeping. That is a result of what we have learnt and achieved in Northern Ireland. I think that there is certainly something that we can teach the Americans in that area, and I suspect that they will he quite grateful to learn because peacekeeping may be what will be happening more in the future.
933 Some of my military contacts—unlike the hon. Member for Motherwell, North, I will not mention who they are—are quite concerned that, if we do too much peacekeeping, we will run the risk of some of our soldiers losing the ability to fight. We must remember that armies are there to fight. They are not there to stand around like policemen, trying to keep warring factions apart. There is obviously a risk of degradation in their capabilities if they are to be involved in peacekeeping the whole time.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces mentioned the lack of volunteers. When I was in the Ministry of Defence, I took the view that as long as our main commitment for the Army was Northern Ireland, there did not seem to be a role for Gurkhas. As they were unable to speak good English and were a different colour from everyone else, they would have found it extremely dangerous and difficult to carry out tasks in Northern Ireland. However, if the Army continues to be involved in peacekeeping abroad and we are running short of volunteers from Britain, there might be a bigger role for the Gurkhas. I am encouraged that they have been used to reinforce certain units, but perhaps we could go further and salvage one or two battalions of Gurkhas who could effectively carry out peacekeeping tasks.
Changes have been made to ensure that the Gurkhas all speak English, and that is a critical element in making them more effective. The nostalgic tradition that all British officers learnt Gurkhali and spoke to them in their native language was not helpful to the Gurkhas, who need to speak an international language and communicate with others. If they are to have a role in the British Army, it is important for them to speak English. It might be possible to reconsider the future of the Gurkhas if we continue to be involved in peacekeeping abroad.
The United States continues to have a significant role in the deployment to Bosnia. That is important move as it cements the United States into European defence. Our European partners talk about European defence, which normally means the future of European politics rather than anything to do with defence. I am extremely worried about the underlying motives of the French when they talk about European defence structures, which are often used to squeeze the Americans out of any commitment to defence in Europe. That carries the most enormous dangers.
The Gulf war demonstrated the vast technological capability of the United States which is not matched anywhere in the world, and to divorce ourselves from that defence capability strikes me as absolute madness.
The United States is one of the few countries with an Executive system that enables it to take the decision to go to war. We know that there are large numbers of historical reasons for the construction of political systems in Europe, but there is no doubt that coalition Governments find it extremely difficult to take a decision to go to war. To cut ourselves off from the United States, with its technological superiority and a political system that enables it to take difficult decisions strikes me as absolute madness. The deployment to Bosnia is doing a tremendous amount to ensure that the United States plays a role in European defence for many years to come and that is an extremely satisfactory outcome.
934 Finally, I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to our armed forces. Like him, I believe that they are the finest troops in the world and we have every reason to he extremely proud of them. They are a great institution, and I give them all my support.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)
There is now less heat in the debate than there was earlier, hut perhaps there is a little more light. The last two or three speeches focused on more practical day-to-day issues concerning the Army that certainly should be included in the debate. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) is no longer in the Chamber. I wanted to welcome him back after his successful operation and commend him as a most distinguished successor Chairman of the Defence Committee.
As the then Secretary of State, now the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, said when the defence costs study was first placed before the House, it was entirely different from previous reviews because its aim was to cut costs, not defence, and cuts in the front line were not acceptable. I am willing to accept that that was the intention of that exercise, but I am well aware of the logical fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Since the defence study review, the Army has operated undermanned battalions and it now has a shortfall that is estimated at between 5,000 and 7,000.
Like others, I am well aware of the failings of retired senior officers, although I have to declare an interest in respect of Lieutenant-General Sir David Young, as he is a personal friend. He is a most distinguished soldier, who began his career in the emergency in Malaya and finished it as Captain Commandant of the Ulster Defence Regiment in Northern Ireland.
People who give up an activity in which they have been intensively involved tend to take into retirement a fairly strong view as to precisely how that activity should be managed. I can think of at least one activity that I have given up on which I consider myself the world's greatest living expert, although 99 per cent. of the population might take an entirely different view.
Having entered those qualifications, I have to say that, when senior officers feel compelled to go public, we should take account of the fact that they were compelled to go into print—that in itself must have some significance—although we should not accept that everything they say is exactly correct. Their comments often reveal the resonance in regiments—particularly when they have been closely associated with those regiments—of the feeling at the time and the response to change.
In civilian life, cuts in expenditure or the announcement of redundancies undoubtedly undermine morale. It would be curious if it were different in the armed services. I do not believe that morale is at rock bottom but, like others who have talked to senior commanders, I have been told that morale is fragile. The House and the Government should be concerned to improve it.
Much has been made on this and previous occasions of the now famous speech by the Secretary of State for Defence at Blackpool in October. I suspect that his reception might have been different if he had told the audience that there was likely to be a real-terms cut in the defence budget in the forthcoming year and the year after. 935 As I have declared in the House on many occasions, we have now reached the stage at which the House should say on an all-party non-partisan basis that we do not believe that there should be any further material cut in the defence budget in the foreseeable future.
§ Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)
Did the hon. and learned Gentleman say that to his party conference?
§ Mr. Campbell
Not only did I say that to my conference, but I had its unanimous endorsement on the point. I suspect that such a commitment would do a great deal to buttress fragile morale in certain parts of the armed services.
I do not share precisely the same views as the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton) on Europe, but I agree with other parts of his speech. The Defence Committee and the Trade and Industry Committee joint report calls for greater co-operation in defence procurement in Europe. I strongly believe that we must maintain a European base for defence technology and prevent the domination—I accept that that is a pejorative word—by American companies such as Lockheed and McDonnell-Douglas.
Some interesting developments have arisen from the efforts of some countries, which were previously members of the Warsaw pact, to join NATO. Some have found a steady procession of arms and equipment manufacturers at their front doors, saying, "You're a former member of the Warsaw pact and you're now anxious to join NATO. Has it occurred to you that if, for example, you bought the F16 aircraft, inter-operability would not be an issue?"
There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that some American companies have been arguing vociferously that only if they buy American equipment will such countries be capable of fulfilling the requirements for becoming a member of NATO. Perhaps that is a measure of free market economics, but it is also a measure of the efforts that American companies are willing to make.
It is right to maintain a leading edge in critical technologies on a European basis, using collaboration with our European partners if necessary. Indeed, paragraph 26 of the joint report states that European collaboration iscrucial to the survival of the defence industries of the UK and other European countries.Maintenance of the technology base of the UK defence industries should be a priority. I do not shrink from the observation that consideration of that factor should be built into the procurement process from the initial stages right through to the decision to order equipment.
If I was making this speech on Capitol hill or arguing this case before an American audience, I suspect that I would have a ready response. The extent to which the United States Defense Department is open to ordering equipment from countries other than the United States is extremely limited and it is, effectively, practised only in relation to equipment from areas which the US cannot usefully produce itself.
A common foreign and security policy will evolve in Europe. It will be driven by economic as much as political means. At best static—and more likely reducing—defence 936 budgets will drive forward such issues as joint procurement and force specialisation as the only reasonable ways to meet the cost of advancing technology and to continue to provide a range of capability sufficient to meet all requirements.
It is worth reminding the House and the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell that, when President Clinton came to the NATO summit approximately two years ago, he agreed to the notion of combined joint task forces—occasions on which the European members of NATO might feel compelled to embark on an operation of some sort in which the United States did not want to join and that, for such operations, European members of NATO would be entitled to look to the whole assets of NATO.
A European defence identity is not inconsistent with NATO or, indeed, with a continued transatlantic relationship. There are on Capitol hill many legislators who argue strongly that the strength of that relationship will depend on the extent to which Europe is willing to do more in its own defence.
I must deal with some issues that apply directly to the Army. At the outset, the Minister gave us an interesting piece of statistical information. If I noted him correctly, he said that we need to recruit about 15,000 men and women annually, which is a considerable number. One of the difficulties, to which hon. Members have not referred in the debate, is that the physical standard of recruits is often rather less than what is desired. To put it bluntly, young people are not as physically fit as once they were. It is said that some have never worn anything other than training shoes and, as a result, cannot make the transition to boots; some are pretty unfit.
If we have to meet a target of 15,000, implicit in that target is finding 15,000 people who are fit and capable of accepting the training and fulfilling the job once introduced into the armed services—the Army in this case. That is an additional obstacle that recruitment must overcome.
§ Mr. Soames
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for taking up that point and acknowledging that daunting target. He is right—the physical fitness side is a source of anxiety to us. The other great difficulty is the fact that many more young people are staying in further and higher education—it used to he one in nine, and now it is one in three. We are automatically fishing, within a certain age group, in a substantially reduced pool. We shall have to direct our attention—and are directing it—to getting round that problem, and we shall have to direct our recruitment towards slightly older people.
§ Mr. Campbell
That intervention serves to emphasise the fact that the problem cannot be analysed on the basis of numbers alone. There is a qualitative element, which has to be analysed carefully and given such weight as it requires.
There is another problem, particularly with the infantry. Because they are required in Ireland and Bosnia and for public duties, the burdens on infantry men and infantry women—if that is the right way to describe them—are in some respects disproportionately greater than those on other units.
If there are shortages, the men and women who are left behind might consider themselves to be overworked and, as they would see it, not properly rewarded for the extra 937 demands on their time. To deal with that problem, we must deal not only with recruitment, but with retention. I cannot help thinking that we sometimes divide recruitment and retention as if they were two separate issues, but I am sure that they are two sides of the same coin. The greater the problem of retention, the greater will be the demands for recruitment.
The tours of duty that people are asked to undertake are often pretty disruptive. I have heard an allegation—I do not know whether it is founded on fact or purely anecdotal—that, in four years, a 26-year-old captain had six weeks at home. That may or may not be true, but we all know that it has not yet been possible to meet the 24-month target. That target has lain at the heart of the policy of the Ministry of Defence for some considerable time. If it is not being met, we can all understand the disruption that results to the personal and family lives of those involved.
One important influence when men and, increasingly, women decide to stay in the armed services is the extent to which they can look to their families for support. If families feel that the individual in the armed services is away from home for a long time, there is bound to be a more difficult atmosphere if he or she considers signing up for a further period of service.
No one has referred to homosexuality in the armed services, but the issue should be drawn to the attention of the House. In due course, we are to be told the results of the Ministry of Defence survey, which are clearly not available today or we should have heard them from the Government.
For my part, I believe that it is a fundamental issue of human rights. There is no justification for discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. I appreciate that that is not a popular view in many parts of the Ministry of Defence, particularly at the level of senior commander, but those who are so opposed will have to recognise—in due course, if not immediately—that public attitudes to such matters have changed and that the special circumstances that they argue for with regard to the armed services are increasingly difficult to justify.
Racial harassment is an extremely difficult topic. We know that only 1.4 per cent. of those in the armed services come from black or Asian ethnic minorities. I do not suggest that there is a direct correlation between those numbers and the issue of racial harassment, but there are from time to time some unpleasant reports in the tabloid newspapers and elsewhere in which unpleasant allegations are made of racial harassment in the armed services. I have often heard the Minister at the Dispatch Box pledge himself and all of those for whom he is responsible to do everything in their power to eradicate and prevent harassment. I believe that the issue is of greater substance than ever surfaces into public consciousness. There is no place for racial harassment in a civilised society, and there is certainly no place for it in the armed services of the United Kingdom.
On the matter of increasing opportunities for women in the armed services—and, in particular, the Army—I asked a number of questions recently about the sexual harassment of women. I was somewhat taken aback to discover that no central record of such harassment is kept by the Ministry of Defence, although I believe that it is proposed to draw up a system to maintain such records. If there are to be more opportunities for women in the 938 armed services, it would be quite foolish to ignore the possibility of increased sexual harassment. It would be foolish indeed not to take steps designed, first, to deal with those guilty of harassment quickly, effectively and efficiently and, secondly, to create an atmosphere and culture in which sexual harassment is regarded as wholly unacceptable.
There should be increasing opportunities for women in the armed services, although I know that there is a great debate about the extent to which women can be used in combat roles. I recall being driven in an armoured vehicle around the streets of Northern Ireland with the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) by an extremely competent 22-year-old female driver. If women are capable of being deployed in such circumstances—where a substantial element of risk is involved—there may be other circumstances in which they can play a fuller part in the Army than they have previously been allowed.
I accept that there are physical differences between men and women, but in terms of application and aptitude, many women are just as well qualified—if not better qualified—than men. If we are facing a recruitment problem, it would be foolish not to take the opportunity to utilise a resource in the form of the increased use of women in the armed services. That might go a long way towards remedying the difficulties created by the shortage to which I have referred.
§ Mr. Soames
The hon. and learned Gentleman will know that there is no obduracy or lack of desire on the Government's part to see more women filling more jobs in the armed forces. A week ago, I visited the great explosives experts at 33 Engineer Regiment, which is sending a troop off to Bosnia under the command of an extremely bright woman officer. The problem is not obduracy or a lack of desire to fill posts—we are happy to do that—but there must be a sensible cut-off point between areas in which women can satisfactorily undertake duties and areas in which it is impossible for them to be deployed. For example, it would be impossible for women to be deployed in tanks in the Royal Armoured Corps—it simply would not work—but there is no obduracy on our part with regard to pressing ahead with the programme, for the very reason to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred.
§ Mr. Campbell
I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention. I apprehend from the way in which he approached the topic that he agrees that this is an area in which, by a more sensitive approach, we might be able to deal with the shortage.
I do not want to say much about the reserve forces, because the Reserve Forces Bill has begun its life in another place and, in due course, will come to this House. It is worth recalling, however, that 1,774 reservists were called out or recalled in support of the United Kingdom forces during the Gulf war. This week marks the fifth anniversary of the commencement of the Gulf war, and it is worth pointing out how effective the contribution of the reserves was. As our armed forces are pared to the bone to meet the financial demands to which I referred, there is likely to be an increasing role for reservists, particularly those with specialist skills.
I support what the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside said about a commitment to a full 939 epidemiological survey of those who claim to be suffering from what has come to be called Gulf war syndrome as a result of serving in the Gulf. I do not know whether there is a Gulf war syndrome, but I certainly know that several hundred people who served in the Gulf now have a very debilitating illness. I am not qualified to say whether their service was the cause of that illness, but they are entitled to a high-quality investigation to seek to establish whether their claim can be properly evaluated.
I shall finish by saying a word or two about Bosnia. The Minister paid generous tributes to General Sir Michael Rose and to General Sir Rupert Smith. They were different characters, who interpreted and implemented their responsibilities in different ways, reflecting that substantial difference in character. I think that hardly anyone in Britain would not be able to recognise General Sir Michael Rose, whereas I suspect General Sir Rupert Smith could walk down Oxford street and never be recognised. I do not mean that either fulfilled his obligations in a less or more efficient way than the other, but they certainly had different approaches to their problems.
Both men deserve a generous tribute from the House of Commons, because they did not always receive the recognition that they deserved. In particular, General Rose was treated disgracefully by a number of American-based columnists, who rarely ventured beyond Washington or New York but who, from that rather safe distance, felt able to make pronouncements about the conduct of affairs by the UN in Bosnia. On occasion, those columnists—entirely without justification—were extremely critical of General Rose.
Now that there is a different operation in former Yugoslavia, it is our duty to be steadfast in support of the operations. I would go so far as to say that it is vital that the operations succeed. There is a clear difference between peacekeeping and peace enforcement, and the deployment of NATO forces—a considerable and, I think, almost unqualified success—demonstrates that, in the circumstances, enforcement is undoubtedly the only doctrine to adopt.
We should be unwilling to allow ourselves to be seduced into the view—often expressed by columnists who never went to Yugoslavia to see the extent of the UN effort—that the UN effort was a failure. Lives were saved, mouths were fed, utilities were made to function and, to put it bluntly, people were kept alive as a result of the efforts of the UN forces, including those from the United Kingdom.
We should ask ourselves how much more could have been done by the UN forces if they had had better resources, funding, intelligence and political direction; the failures in former Yugoslavia were not military, but political. They were failures based on Security Council resolutions, each of which was a masterpiece of ambiguity. They were failures caused by a lack of proper and effective political direction in Yugoslavia from United Nations officials charged with that responsibility. They were failures dictated by a ludicrous lack of resources for the objectives that the United Nations had been given.
940 The declaration that certain areas were to he "safe areas" has been mentioned. I supported that declaration, hut it was rendered virtually meaningless by the absence of adequate resources to make and keep safe areas safe.
Which is likely to he more effective: a patrol of two Warrior fighting vehicles painted white, with the United Nations logo on one side, or what is now seen typically—a squadron of Challenger tanks with immediately available close air support, backed up if necessary by 155 mm howitzers? We have only to state the proposition of resources and effectiveness to realise the extent to which our forces, and other UN forces in former Yugoslavia, were operating, if not with their hands tied behind their hacks, at least without the necessary tools and resources for the job that they were asked to do.
A matter that has concerned me is the NATO forces' attitude to war crimes and war criminals. I accept that NATO forces are not in former Yugoslavia to act as the investigating arm of the war crimes tribunal established at The Hague. I understand that the terms of the Dayton accords lay paramount obligations and responsibilities on those forces, but if it becomes obvious that evidence that might lead to allegations or prove that war crimes have been committed is being concealed, it should he within NATO forces' responsibility to try to secure that evidence, so that it can, if necessary, be made available to the investigators.
I appreciate that it is a question of balance. One can hardly expect NATO forces to go looking for such instances. If they did, they might spend a substantial amount of their time not only looking, but finding; but when such evidence is available, and when there is a risk of its being destroyed, the British public and international public opinion would be surprised if NATO forces did not take steps to preserve it.
§ Dr. Godman
I appreciate the difficulties of gathering evidence required by a tribunal, but might not a group of special investigation branch officers and military policemen from the NATO forces being brought together and given that task be the way to gather the evidence needed?
§ Mr. Campbell
I yield to the hon. Gentleman's undoubted expertise and experience in that matter. His service as a military policeman has been referred to. He suggests one way in which to deal with the problem; I am anxious only to establish the principle that NATO will not ignore such efforts and that, if such efforts are made. it will do all it can to assist.
As has been said by politicians of all the three major parties at various stages since 1992, all the armed services need a period of consolidation. Those who risk their lives for us deserve clear political guidance and sufficient military and financial resources.
Some people question the value and utility of these single-service debates. I still believe that they have a proper place in the parliamentary calendar as they allow us not only to question Ministers and hear the Government's policy hut, once again, to emphasise the important place that the armed services occupy in the life of the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Neville Trotter (Tynemouth)
I refer to a letter written to me just before Christmas by Trevor Minter, who commands the first battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, which has strong links with the north-east—it is based at Catterick—and is currently serving in Bosnia.
Colonel Minter writes that it has now completed half of its tour and says that itis in good heart and enjoying the challenge of contributing to peace in this turbulent land.He refers to one company that removed a United Nations force from Gorazde and escorted it all the way to Belgrade, via Zagreb to Split, a journey of 1,000 km in extremely difficult circumstances. He says that the battalion's mission has constantly evolved during its time in former Yugoslavia. The area that it controls has grown to 13,000 sq km. It covers 257 km of confrontation line and isthe most operational unit in the Army today.The letter goes on:a lot of effort has been put into helping the local populace return to normality. The companies have repaired damaged houses in preparation for the winter, re-opened local schools, dug drainage ditches and the Battalion charity project has provided clothing for the needy.Colonel Minter refers to the pleasure with which the battalion returned from the United Nations blue to wearing the Fusiliers' traditional hackle, and I well understand that.
Constant change has characterised the battalion's time in former Yugoslavia. Colonel Minter sums up his letter by saying:The First Fusiliers remain capable and willing to have a go at anything and have a high reputation for getting the job done well. We all miss England and look forward to returning to our loved ones after the tour. It will be hard being in Bosnia over Christmas but we are determined to do the job to the best of our abilities and look forward to the challenges of IFOR.That is a far more typical account of the British Army today than what we heard from Opposition Members. That letter shows no sign of low morale.
Last year, the second battalion of fusiliers was based at Chester and exercised in Gibraltar, Hungary, Kenya, Belize and the Falkland islands. The Army is still a life of adventure for a young man. When that battalion goes to Germany later this year, the brigade will move to Poland for an exercise. It will be the first time that a British brigade has exercised in eastern Europe. John Wilsey, the present Commander-in-Chief of Land Forces, said:We have become the first port of call for the United Nations when they want a difficult job done.It reflects great credit on our Army that, based on 50 years of confrontation with the Warsaw pact, it can take on whatever challenges there might he in the uncertain world now facing it. Like all our allies' armies, ours has been reduced by just over a quarter and reorganisation over the past few years has been a mammoth task. Fortunately, that period of inevitable turbulence is now coming to an end. It would be madness to reduce the Army further, whatever the siren voices in other directions say.
942 The November issue of Armed Forces Journal International says:Labor has been sphinx-like over its defense plans. All they have committed themselves to is a promise that they will carry out a defense review … With commitments to health, social security. education, and so forth, the cash cow of defense will he on the chopping block again.Unless Labor is intent on overseeing deep cuts in military capability, it's difficult to imagine what new cost-saving measures would emerge from yet another defense review. All it would add is…damage to service morale".That is a fair summary of the position if, God forbid, there should be a change of Government.
I am convinced that we must maintain the Army's high-intensity capability. If we abandon it, it will he a long and expensive business to get it back, in terms not only of equipment but of experience. Charles Guthrie, head of the Army, recently said that no army in the world was better equipped than the British Army. I would add to that statement by saying that no army in the world is better led than the British Army, which reflects the high spirit of all those who serve in it.
In recent years, huge sums have been spent on the finest equipment for our soldiers, but one capability that we shall need in the years ahead is just coming into service internationally—the capability provided by the J-stars system. I do not advocate a particular system, but we shall need that type of capability. For those who are not familiar with the initials, it is an airborne reconnaissance system which can provide an image of all the vehicles on the ground in an area of hundreds of miles. The system was proven in the Gulf and in Bosnia, and it would give a great advantage in battle to any army that possessed it. We must supply it to our Army in the future.
A special feature of our involvement in Bosnia is the enormous contribution we are making to the corps headquarters and the corps support system. Many of the 13,000 British troops there are involved in that vital role. No other European country in NATO could make that contribution. We are not contributing just the corps commander, but most of the staff in the corps, including a whole brigade of signallers. That is a great tribute to the capability of the British Army. Without that capability, NATO could not operate effectively in Bosnia.
We must determine a finite time for our stay in Bosnia. It is easy to get in and we all know how difficult it sometimes is to get out. It was right to set a limit of a year and when that time is up, it will be very difficult to go on beyond that time.
With change in the centre of gravity of the Army from Germany to the United Kingdom, there is obviously a need for more training in this country. Maximum use is being made of traditional areas of Canada, and now eastern Europe, but we must have effective training areas near the Army's bases in this country. In the north-east, that means increased use of Otterburn. I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) is in his place, and I am sure that he will wish to speak on this subject. All that I will say is that I support the case for a sensible and controlled development of Otterburn, so that the armoured brigade that has moved to Catterick from Germany will be able to exercise with its weapons nearby. Catterick, of course. is now the largest garrison in the British Army.
943 The Army still has a large requirement for fit young men, but hardly anybody in the population these days has a detailed knowledge of the Army. Many families have nobody who has ever worn a uniform. That is a great challenge for the recruiting organisation.
Inevitably, there will be conflict between the two types of people who serve in the Army. If a fit young man is looking for adventure, the last thing he wants is stability. He wants real soldiering and to see the world. However, the career or professional soldier is probably a married man. The wives certainly are the unsung heroes, as my hon. Friend the Minister said at the beginning of the debate. The career soldier wants a more stable life style, and there will be problems reconciling those different factors.
§ Mr. Soames
My hon. Friend has hit on an extremely important point, which I was not able to deal with in the time available. One of the important recommendations of the Bett review, which we are currently studying, is the whole question of how careers should be divided. No young man joins the infantry to sit around on his backside all the time. He wants excitement and adventure and as many deployments as possible. Morale is so high because the Army is so broadly deployed. One of the critical challenges for the future is how we retain those people satisfactorily.
§ Mr. Trotter
My own view is that the Bett review provides a strategic background to that problem, but it will not be easy to solve.
I hope that the recruitment through the jobcentres will work. I thought that it was ridiculous to suggest, as the Opposition have, that people who visit jobcentres would be made to join the Army. No employer has to take on anybody he does not want to take on and that applies as equally to the Army as to any other employer. I have never heard such an absurd suggestion. There must be a close link between the jobcentres and the military. The ethos of the military must be put over by somebody who actually believes in it and has experience of it. That should be taken into account when we rely more in the future on jobcentres.
I welcome the decision to bring back the junior soldiers and the junior leaders training regiments. History has shown that they have provided very sound men to the Army and I am sure that they will do so again. Similarly, the increased support for the Army cadet force is welcome. It has played an important role in inculcating the right attitude in young people who do not go into the Army, but experience adventure and discipline in the cadet force. They go into civilian life with benefits that they will never lose. The cadet force also provides many good recruits for the Army.
In Northumbria, John Stevens, the chief constable, is encouraging his officers to serve as instructors in the Army cadet force. That is a commendable initiative.
In an uncertain world, we can be certain that the British Army will continue to he challenged to respond rapidly to difficult and dangerous tasks. We can also he certain that the men and women who form the Army will respond with great professionalism and skill, as they always have in the past. The Army is a great asset to Britain and is rightly respected in this country and all over the world.
§ Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)
I pay tribute to the Army in Bosnia. It is still performing a vital task for peace and I wish it good luck in its continuing work there. That is the end of my consensus with the Minister's statement.
I want to raise two issues about the Army, for which the Ministry of Defence should he accountable. The first was referred to in The Observer on 14 January in an article entitled "Gulf of Despair" by its defence correspondent Peter Beaumont. It is about the fifth anniversary of the Gulf war and the performance of the British forces. I hesitate to read it after the treatment my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) got for quoting the Daily Express. God knows what I will get for quoting The Observer. However, Peter Beaumont's words are relevant to the debate. He wrote:The mustering of armed forces for the Gulf had revealed the unthinkable. The four British armoured divisions on the Rhine, whose jobs for decades had been to help protect Europe against the towering might of a Red Army onslaught, proved so ill-maintained that the best Britain could muster was a single armoured division—and only after cannibalising its remaining Challenger tanks for spares. Once deployed in the Gulf, there were more shocks. The Challengers broke down so often that the RAF had to organise a 'Red Star' service to supply a stream of spares. Vickers, the manufacturers, had to deploy civilian engineers to the war zone to keep the tanks going.It got worse: some British tank crews, it was discovered, had not fired their tank's main gun for two years.'It was an absolute scandal,' said a senior officer involved in the planning of the Gulf war. 'It was one of the great lies. Suddenly we discovered that although the taxpayer had been stumping up for this force in Germany for years, it was only 23 per cent. effective and a large number of the crews hadn't even trained with their own weapon.He continues:It was ironic. The Tories, the party of strong defence had allowed the armed forces to become so overstretched that the country's reputation as a serious military player was on the line … It had become horribly clear that if Britain committed its tanks to battle in the Arabian sands, she ran the risk of losing the effective strength of the entire British Army on the Rhine.What an indictment of the Tory mismanagement of our nation's defences and the lack of accountability and the great secrecy of the Ministry of Defence.
The taxpayer has been ripped off for years by the arms manufacturers who supplied, at high cost, a lot of relatively poor equipment. We should get more than ministerial bluff as a response to the indictment in that article.
The second issue that I wish to raise in my short contribution comes from the programme "Face the Facts" on Radio 4 on 18 May 1995. The programme dealt with the shabby treatment meted out to service men, who suffered through the incompetence and stupidity of their comrades, especially those maimed or even killed by what the Army calls negligent discharges—weapons triggered recklessly or in avoidable accidents.
I refer to two cases that were discussed in the programme. The first concerned Gunner Bob Smith, who was taken to hospital after being shot. He had massive internal injuries; the guard who shot him, Gunner Sean Bennett,was handed over to the civil police and subsequently appeared in court where he admitted unlawful wounding. It then emerged that the shooting was a prank which had gone wrong. At the time he 945 pulled the trigger, Gunner Bennett hadn't realised there was a round in the firing chamber. He was sentenced to a year's youth detention. Gunner Smith got a life sentence in a wheelchair.The programme presenter went on to point out that Gunner Smith was formally discharged from the Army on medical grounds on 31 June last year. Gunner Smith said:It makes me so angry that the MOD can more or less wipe their hands of it because … First of all, they employed me, they employed the man that shot me—they gave him the weapons to use, they put him on guard. It seemed to me they were the only ones that could be held responsible.But the MOD refused to accept responsibility. At the time of the programme, some two and a half years after the shooting. it was still considering the question of liability.
Gunner Smith's solicitor, Hilary Meredith, claims, after having handled dozens of such cases, that getting the information from the Army that she needs to pursue legal claims is often the toughest part of the process. The programme quotes her as saying:We have no access to witnesses, we have no access to any information as to how these accidents happened until there is a Board of Inquiry and that can take up to two years. As far as locating witnesses are concerned, the MOD have a system whereby we will write to the witness in a sealed envelope, send it to the Ministry of Defence and they will try and locate him and pass on the … paperwork. It is then up to the witness to contact us. I've never yet had a witness that comes forward under those circumstances.What a farcical system it is.
"Face the Facts" continued with the tragic case of Corporal Neil Hughes, who served with the first battalion of the Duke of Wellington's regiment:His father had been the Battalion's Regimental Sergeant Major and Neil had followed proudly in his footsteps … Neil Hughes was an exemplary soldier … On the 21st September 1993, Corporal Hughes set off for what was supposed to be a routine mock battle on Salisbury Plain.Later that day, his wife was informed that her husband had been accidentally shot on the range and was undergoing surgery. Later again, she was told that he had died.
There was no Army board of inquiry. Corporal Hughes's wife was given very few details about how he had come to be shot.It wasn't until the civil inquest, a full year later, that she sat in a coroner's court and heard how her husband had fallen in a hail of bullets as an ill-planned war game went tragically wrong. It was only then, as she sat sobbing in an open courtroom that she was allowed to know that her husband's last words in a bloodstained trench were for her and the child. So damning was the evidence that the mock battle had been poorly planned and executed, leaving troops at risk, that the jury decided Corporal Hughes had been unlawfully killed. But so far as his widow and her lawyers have been able to discover, no action has been taken against anyone involved in the exercise. And to this day, there's been no Army Board of Inquiry.The programme went on to say that there will almost certainly be no board of inquiry at all. In response to questions from the BBC, the MOD said that all the facts had been established during the coroner's inquest, so no board of inquiry was required:The statement added that the Ministry accepted the finding of unlawful killing and that those involved had been dealt with at the time. The statement did not say who they were, how they were dealt with or what. if any punishment they received. All this came as news to Mrs. Hughes. No one, it seems. thought to tell her those facts and it was left to us"—the BBC—to do that just a short time ago.946 Mrs. Hughes told the programme:It has been nearly two years since my husband's death and this now just puts me hack to square one. I'm no further on now today than I was the night he died. I just find it diabolical that everybody else—a radio station—anybody else can find out this information which me as the widow should have been told first and I still don't even know it from the MOD. I have still heard it second-hand. as I have done everything else. I just feel again that I have been excluded whenever I should have been the main one.The programme presenter asked Mrs. Hughes:And what are your views on the way the Ministry of Defence has handled this?She replied:I just feel it's been so cold and callous towards me and my family. I think it's horrendous. He died carrying out their work and it's like they have just pushed him away.This is just one example of the lack of human feeling in the MOD and of the callous way in which it treats former soldiers and their families. Money and meanness are at the root of it all. Denying responsibility at all costs seems to be the MOD's motto.
We have heard other examples in this Chamber, relating to nuclear test veterans, Gulf war syndrome victims and so on, which show that the MOD always tries to avoid accepting responsibility. I say to Ministers and the MOD: get a human face.
§ Sir Anthony Grant (South-West Cambridgeshire)
We are all devoted to the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen). He is one of the most agreeable Members of the House. There is no greater champion of the underdog and the unfortunate. I am certain that Ministers will take careful note of the radio programme to which the hon. Gentleman clearly listened so closely, always bearing in mind his great sincerity—even if he is often hopelessly wrong. More generally, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will broaden his reading somewhat beyond The Observer. If he does so, his attitude may change.
I am one of the declining band of old soldiers still in this House. I have worn my regimental tie for this occasion—
§ Sir Anthony Grant
I seem to recall that my hon. Friend belonged to a junior regiment, yes.
In my day, the British Army was undoubtedly the finest in the world. I have no hesitation in saying that the modern Army is much better, and much more efficient. It has to deal with much more sophisticated equipment. and it needs to be more technically sound than it was in my day. A soldier in my day who had some mechanical ability and was very fit could, with luck, get into the armoured corps. If he lacked that ability, but was very fit and could shoot, he could get into the infantry. If he had none of those qualities, he was put in the cookhouse.
But these days, the modern soldier has to be highly efficient. I join in the Minister's justifiable tribute to the armed forces and the modern soldier, and the role that they play.
When the cold war ended, everyone understood that our defensive strategies and policies would have to change. But that did not mean a declining role for the Army. On the contrary, it has, if anything, played an increasing role 947 since then throughout the world. George Orwell's forecast has come true. He predicted in his novel "1984", written in the 1940s, that there would be no more global war—world wars were done for—but that there would permanently be regional wars all over the world.
That is precisely what has happened, in the Falklands, in Brunei, in the Gulf, in Bosnia and in Northern Ireland. The British Army has had to be engaged in all those places, and it is fortunate for us and for the peace of the world that it has been so engaged. I was critical of some the political decisions made when we intruded into the Balkans affair, but, having made those decisions, it is fortunate that the British Army, which is the best in the world in this respect, is there carrying out a remarkable task with the utmost efficiency.
The British Army deserves the best equipment and service that it can obtain. The best equipment is not necessarily made in Britain. A good case can be made that, if the Army needs the best, equipment may have to come from abroad. The broad principle we adopt in procurement, as I understand it, is that, while we are not chauvinistic or xenophobic—as the French and Americans all too often are—where the price and quality are roughly equal in a defence contract, the balance should be tipped in favour of domestic industry.
I am therefore glad about the decision to give the contract for the 800 ambulances to Land-Rover and Marshalls, and I pay special tribute to the MOD for that. My interest is chiefly in Marshalls, which makes the ambulance body for the Land-Rover vehicle. It would be fair to say that the expertise and quality of the part of the ambulance made by Marshalls perhaps tipped the argument in favour of the contract being given—as my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement so wisely gave it—to the Land-Rover and Marshall consortium.
I repeat how impressed I have been with the impeccable way in which my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement has handled the whole delicate matter. He has listened patiently to the arguments from all sides. He has met me, my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), who has Marshalls in his constituency, and the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), who has joined forces across the party divide and has part of Marshalls in her constituency. He listened to the arguments with great care, sagacity and, if I may say so, great inscrutability and total fairness. I commend him for taking his time and finally coming to a decision that is in the interests of the British Army and the services as well as of British industry, whether in Cambridge or the midlands.
The decision has been taken for three reasons in particular. First, the price of the British bid was lower than that of the Austrian hid. That is an important consideration when there are constraints on finance. Secondly, while it is a horrible word, commonality of services, equipment and spares is immensely important. Thirdly, the Land-Rover Marshall vehicle is wanted by the medics themselves. They are the people who have to work in them, and they have much closer contact with them than do high-powered committees, no matter how grand. in the MOD. On all those grounds, the decision was wholly justified. I commend the Government for that. There is great delight in Cambridge about it.
948 We have heard a lot about morale. As an old soldier, I know that there has never been a time since the dawn of mankind when the British Army has not grumbled. When it has grumbled, it has nearly always done its task well. There has never been a time when it has not had a thoroughly healthy contempt for politicians, no matter what their party.
§ Sir Anthony Grant
That is absolutely right, but what is more, the Army will serve; it will do its duty wherever it may be, no matter what king reigns or which party rules. I have had not only a father, uncle and two cousins who served in two wars, but a son-in-law who was until recently an officer in the Royal Artillery. I am satisfied that there is nothing wrong with the morale of the British Army or the British soldier. No matter what party or politicians are in power, they will do their duty by their Queen and country.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)
It is an unusual privilege nowadays to follow an honourable old soldier in these debates, because there are so few fellows of that sort in the House. There are one or two ex-cavalry officers, but we will leave them in silence.
Earlier, I said that it was a real pleasure and privilege last Friday evening formally to open the Army Cadet Force hall at Highholm street, Port Glasgow. I put it on record that Colonel Gallagher, Major Wilson and Staff Sergeant McCafferty have produced a very fine unit of intensely keen, smart young soldiers, who wear, it will not surprise some people to hear, the cap badge of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, which recruits extensively in my constituency and neighbouring ones.
As part of the formal opening, I was asked to inspect those young soldiers. I think that I still have something of a keen eye. They were well turned out, and their boots gleamed. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) said that some youngsters today are unfit and only ever wear trainers. I invite him to Port Glasgow to see the youngsters in their Argyll and Sutherland Highlander's uniforms. I also sat in on map-reading exercises and first-aid training, and was even daft enough to have a go on the range. I fired six or seven rounds at a target. My marksmanship left a lot to be desired, I regret to say.
As I said earlier to the Minister of State, those youngsters and Colonel Gallagher and his officers and NCOs are poorly equipped. I accept what the Minister said, but the .22 rifle that I used to fire in the general direction of the target was as heavy as the old Lee Enfield .303 that I trained with all those years ago. I do not usually go in for special pleading, but I ask that a fresh examination be conducted into the way in which such units are equipped.
Many of the youngsters involved are from difficult areas of my constituency that are characterised by massive unemployment. Many of their fellows at school or work are misusing or experimenting with drugs. The youngsters that I met are not, although I caught one of them smoking 949 round the back and, as an ex-smoker, I read him the riot act. It is marvellous to see such youngsters in the cadet force, but their equipment could be improved.
I must absolve Colonel Gallagher, Major Wilson and Staff Sergeant McCafferty from my special pleading. They did not know that I would speak this evening, although they might have had a good idea. They are not part of this—
§ Dr. Godman
As my hon. Friend suggests, it is a one-man conspiracy.
It gave me a lot of pride, as their Member of Parliament and an ex-military policeman, to see how smart and enthusiastic those youngsters were. Even if they do not join the Argylls, or another regiment, such as the Royal Scots or the Kings Own Scottish Borderers, they are being taught disciplines and skills that will serve them well in whatever work they undertake. They are taught the discipline that is needed to perform their duties. They are being taught the essentials of comradeship, which is important in any kind of work. However, I believe that they should be better equipped, as, to put it bluntly, their resources were very poor.
I am not happy about Army recruitment by way of the jobcentre. I much prefer recruitment through recruitment officers. Last Friday, I spoke with a company sergeant-major in the Scots Guards who has wide recruitment experience, and he said that it is the best way. Youngsters should go to a recruitment centre to meet professional soldiers, who will give them advice from the shoulder. That is what they need if they are thinking of joining the armed forces.
In the morning, I shall check with the manager of the Greenock job centre, Mr. Ian Pollard, to determine what guidelines he has been given by his superiors in Edinburgh and London. I have no objection to the staff at my local jobcentre advising youngsters about careers in the armed forces, but that is where their role must end. What sort of training or induction procedures have jobcentre staff received to enable them to advise youngsters about careers in the services? Such careers may be very fulfilling, but I do not believe that jobcentre staff should perform the recruitment function. Next week, I shall visit my local jobcentre and make my views known.
The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East touched upon the issue of homosexuality in the armed forces. I have a good deal of sympathy for his remarks, but I was not always so sympathetic. As a military policeman, I recall patrolling the Sennelager area in what was then west Germany and encountering a young soldier engaged in an act of sodomy with a German civilian. I found it completely repugnant, and I believed that that young soldier deserved to serve at least five years in Colchester.
He received the most vicious bullying while in the guardroom. I recall telling the regimental police sergeant—in the presence of a couple of my colleagues, because I ensured that I had witnesses and he did not—that, if ever I saw him in a guest house or in a bar in Sennelager or elsewhere, I would lift him, even if he were only sniffing the barmaid's apron. I was appalled by the way in which that young soldier was treated. Now, I adopt 950 a much more mature and detached attitude to the issue of homosexuality in the armed forces, and I am keen to see the review when it is published.
I now refer, as did to the hon. and learned Gentleman, to harassment. In the middle of last year, a young female constituent, who was very keen to rejoin the Army, came to see me. She had been stationed in Lichfield, and she said that she had suffered both sexual and racial harassment. Her English squad corporal had complained nastily that her west of Scotland accent was incomprehensible, and told her that she had better do something about it. She was subjected to that sort of bullying for a fairly lengthy period.
I brought the case to the attention of the Minister and his ministerial colleagues, and received a sympathetic hearing. The young woman asked me not to take the case any further. She has been discharged from the Army on health grounds, but when her health recovers she hopes to re-enlist. I hope that she will not be discriminated against in any way because she had the temerity to approach her Member of Parliament and complain about harassment.
As a young soldier, I experienced bullying. That is not to say that military policemen ever bullied anyone—at least, not in my presence—as we were too decent for that. Bullying in the barracks will never be eliminated. Nevertheless, I am pleased with the way in which the Ministry of Defence is dealing with that serious problem. Youngsters who are perhaps 200 or 300 miles away from home for the first time do not want to be harassed by bullying squad corporals or other soldiers. It is right and proper that the Ministry of Defence should take the matter very seriously.
Regretfully, I believe that the Ministry of Defence and the Army failed my young constituent. I hope that, if she re-enlists, her application will be treated with the utmost sympathy. The Minister or his officials will know the girl's name, her regimental number and other details.
I am also very concerned about what appears to be the policy of reinstating in regiments men who have committed acts of violence. I never approved of the reinstatement of the soldier Clegg. As a redcap, I witnessed some appalling acts of violence, and I saw women who had been raped and viciously beaten. When a regular soldier is convicted and serves a sentence, I do not believe that he should be re-engaged. A soldier who is guilty of committing an act of violence should be discharged ignominiously.
§ Sir Jim Spicer
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not attempting to class Private Clegg with people who deliberately commit criminal acts. Private Clegg acted in the line of duty, and many people, including me, believe that he was innocent and should not have been found guilty.
§ Dr. Godman
I do not wish to introduce a note of controversy into the debate, but I disagree completely with the hon. Member. Private Clegg was charged with and convicted of murder. I should like to see the charge of culpable homicide introduced into the Armed Forces Bill. We have that charge in Scotland, and I think that it makes much more sense than having the two charges of manslaughter and murder. I am not a member of the Standing Committee that will scrutinise and amend the legislation.
§ Dr. Godman
I must be careful what I say; I thought that I could speak with confidence, but perhaps hon. Members have not yet been chosen to serve on the Committee.
It seems to me that the charge of culpable homicide is worthy of scrutiny, and perhaps the Bill should be amended to include it. I stand by what I have said: those who inflict violence upon civilians and others are not worthy of their cap badges, and they should be discharged.
Finally, I too offer my compliments to our soldiers stationed in Bosnia and elsewhere. I think that British infantrymen—I suppose that I should add, also their comrades in the cavalry regiments—are among the finest peacekeepers in the world. That view was expressed to the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) and me at the United Nations recently. In discussions with me, United Nations officials spoke very highly of our soldiers. Discipline, training and their experience in Northern Ireland have made our soldiers among the finest in the world. That means that they must receive the very best of training. They must be as well equipped as any army in the world. Their family concerns need always to be treated with the utmost sensitivity, especially when requests are made for compassionate leave. Such requests must never be ignored. The good officer and the good NCO—NCOs run our regiments anyway—are always conscious of such matters. The Ministry of Defence has an important role to play when issuing guidelines to commanding officers and others on the family needs and concerns of our soldiers.
§ 8 pm
§ Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)
I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words.
We have heard about the changes that have taken place in the Army over the past five years, which have been highly significant. From 160,000 officers and men and women, we are now down to about 112,000. Any organisation that has seen that much change over a relatively short period will have experienced problems. In my view, however, the problems in the Army have been dealt with especially professionally by the Ministers involved, including my hon. Friend the Minister of State, who is no longer in his place. The same can be said of all the service personnel who have been involved in making the consequent changes.
The British Army was a professional organisation at the start of the changes, and it remains so. Along with a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I would have wished the changes in the Army to take place over a longer period. I welcome some of the reassurances that we have received. We have been told that the changes are at an end, and that the Army, like the other two services, can look forward to considerable stability over the next few years.
Several hon. Members have talked about the problem of recruitment. I am convinced that, at the start of the process of change five years ago, few people involved in the Army—the same can be said of those outside—recognised that there would be such a problem. Most Army personnel thought that, by reducing the size of the Army to the extent that we have, there would be no problem in recruiting the fewer men and women who would he required. That has not been the case. I suspect 952 that one of the reasons is that people outside in the community also thought that the Army did not require many recruits. As a result, the Army no longer seemed the career that previously people had considered it to be.
The changes that have taken place in the pattern of recruitment should have been thought through a little more carefully. I have nothing against jobcentres providing advice to those who wish to go into the three services. I would have wished, however, that the information provided in the jobcentres was available before some of the career offices were shut.
It is true that many career offices throughout the country did not directly recruit a great many service men, but they provided a shop window for the armed forces. Shutting them gave the impression, indirectly if not directly, that the armed services, and especially the Army, did not want the number of recruits that they now need. I welcome what my hon. Friend the Minister of State has said about what is being done to make a correction.
I suggest that one of the reasons for the underspend this year in the defence budget was that the Army did not recruit the number of men and women that it wanted. I would have liked to see a percentage of that underspend used to enhance the recruitment budget so that we could return to the level that was originally anticipated. I understand that that might have caused one or two problems during the discussions that the Minister of Defence had with the Treasury this year. It seems that the savings that have been made balance out exactly the money that was not spent this year on the original estimates.
I was pleased when my hon. Friend the Minister of State mentioned the junior leaders. I, too, believe that we made a mistake some years ago in disbanding the battalion. I am pleased that we are now taking steps to recruit youngsters at an earlier age. There is no doubt in my mind that education standards have improved; the two years between 16 and 18 are extremely important in a young man's life, and he could well go down the wrong road. Even at the age of 18, he might not be suitable for recruitment into the Army, because of what had happened in the interim.
I am encouraged by what has been said about the cadet movement. I would like to see a firmer commitment to increasing the size of the movement. It has an important role to play in recruitment. I acknowledge, however, that relatively few cadets join the regular armed forces. At the same time, they provide an important link between the armed services and the civilian community. That link will become even more important in future.
Unlike virtually every other armed service throughout Europe, we do not have a citizens' army. We do not have people who, after leaving school, go into an armed service. As we have a professional army—it is right that we should—all the time, the number of people who have had experience of military life is reducing. If we are generally to understand the need for armed services—they carry out an excellent role—we must develop links between civilian and military life styles. The cadet movement is one way of achieving exactly that. As has been said, many adult volunteers give up their spare time to encourage useful activities that help self-reliance and confidence.
953 The cadet movement is extremely important for another reason. I believe that it fulfils a useful social purpose. It provides a gainful occupation for teenagers. If they were not in the movement, they might well be doing other things not nearly as constructive.
I was struck by a statistic showing that it costs less than £500 to keep someone in one of the cadet movements for one year. It costs over £2,000 a week to send a young offender who has stolen a few motor cars to an outward bound centre in north Wales, let alone to a holiday in Egypt, where the young person would carry out precisely the same sort of activities that he would experience in the three cadet movements. I sincerely hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench will continue to press the Home Office to recognise the excellent work that is undertaken by the cadet movements and that, as a result, the movements will receive some financial benefit to increase their size, so that they might carry out their important social role.
Opposition Members would be disappointed if I did not mention the Labour party's contribution to the debate. If the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) does not mind, I shall not mention his speech especially. It was a good knockabout speech. I think that he was fishing a bit too far when he talked about a regulation associated with the jobseeker's legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter), who has left the Chamber, dealt with that extremely well. If people do not volunteer for something and if others do not want anyone, it cannot be said that anyone has refused a job.
§ Dr. Reid
First, I have no objection to the use of jobcentres. Secondly, I would encourage people to join the Army. Thirdly, there is volunteering. If someone is not very keen on a job and there is the implicit threat of removal of benefit, suddenly that person becomes extremely keen on that job. I said that there is no exemption under the jobseekers regulations, which are before Parliament, for armed forces' jobs through the jobcentres. Under the regulations, every other job, if not accepted, will lead to the withdrawal of benefit.
To retain the voluntary and professional nature of the services, which the hon. Gentleman, the Minister and I want, as do the armed forces, will the Government please bring forward an explicit amendment to the regulations? Let us ensure that no young person is under any threat of compulsion or coercion, at the discretion of any local persons. I hope that my intervention clarifies the matter. The issue is not whether the Army or anyone else wants someone, but whether someone feels that he should apply for a job because there will be a financial penalty if he does not.
§ Mr. Mans
I should not have given way, as we have just heard another speech. I am sure that my hon. Friend on the Front Bench has heard what the hon. Gentleman has said, and if there is any need to examine the regulations, I am certain that that will be done, because I am quite convinced that what the hon. Gentleman has said is just not true in practice.
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
I can assure my hon. Friend quite expressly that any rejection of a service career by someone who does not want a service career will not involve his losing benefit as a result.
§ Mr. Mans
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point—most Conservative Members had understood it—in a way that the hon. Member for South Shields can also understand.
What is more relevant is that, following the demise of the cold war and the Soviet Union. there have been tremendous changes in the size of the armed forces. If there had been—God forbid—a Labour Government since, very few people would think that the armed services would he in the good position that they are in now. Despite a number of Opposition Members who are very honourable and understand the need for the armed forces, the fact remains that the Labour party has always had different priorities.
Put simply: the Labour party's philosophy puts social security in front of national security. We had a fair number of examples of that—I personally experienced those examples—when we last had a Labour Government, in the mid-1970s. Sometimes, I have to say, some of my colleagues have not been quite as forthright as they should in making that clear. To me, national security must always come before social security, and we must ensure that the available resources are used first for the defence of the country.
Something else separates our view on defence from that of the Labour party—the hon. Gentleman alluded to this, although I do not know whether he quite realised that he had done so. Essentially, the armed services are for fighting wars. We must ensure that we are properly defended so that we can fight a high-tech war, of the sort that we saw in the Gulf, for example. We must not allow the primary role of our armed services to be peacekeeping.
Indeed, I would go further and suggest one additional reason why we have problems with recruitment. We were a member of the UN forces in Bosnia during the war there. That was not an incentive to recruitment. I strongly suspect that the experiences of many soldiers out there was not of the sort that would encourage others to join. I also strongly suspect that, following the NATO involvement, we shall now see an upturn in recruitment as a result of the activities that it is able to perform there.
An important part of ground operations—hon. Members would probably expect me to mention this—is the contribution of air power. We have just seen on television a very interesting programme on the Gulf war. I do not wish to comment on what a particular general said about the RAF operations. The statement has already been shown to be inaccurate. I sincerely hope that he corrects his statements, as I am certain that he will in the weeks ahead. I want to dwell on what we saw.
The British Army has been fortunate over the past 40 or 50 years. It has always been able to fight a land battle in the knowledge that it had air superiority. The only time when we came close to losing that was during the Falklands—one of the most tragic incidents was the loss of the Sir Galahad—and we lost a huge number of soldiers as a result.
It is difficult deciding whether to buy more aircraft or more tanks or other ground vehicles. It must be doubly difficult for a general to suggest that perhaps we need a few more aircraft. I must tell the House, as a former airman, that I am quite certain that the day when we do not have sufficient air superiority for our Army to operate will be the day when the British Army recognises that it has made a mistake. There must be a balance: otherwise 955 the scenes—as we saw on television over the past week, which showed what the Iraqi Army suffered—would be devastating.
I am quite convinced that the changes that have taken place have been handled well. I am also convinced that we can do much to enhance our recruitment. There is no doubt in many people's minds that, although the armed services are most certainly safe in the hands of the Conservative Government, they most certainly would not be as safe in the hands of the Opposition parties.
§ Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)
The hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) has brought considerable expertise to the deliberations of the Defence Committee. He is usually rather helpful. He made a brave attempt at being partisan, which is out of character, but I shall not hold that against him, as I realise that an election is coming up.
Perhaps I should put in an early bid to take part in the same debate next year, because I hope to learn a lot more about the work of the armed forces, and the Army in particular, during the coming year, not only as a member of the Defence Committee but having signed up—I believe volunteered is the term—for the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Not only will I see many soldiers but I will see quite a lot of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland). I suspect that we shall hear again and again, as I have in recent years in meetings with members of the armed forces, that they are undermanned, under-recruited and overstretched. The Defence Committee has been going on about that for years.
We heard from the Minister about the emergency tour interval. Twenty-four months is supposed to be the minimum, yet he boasted that it is now the average. That is a step in the right direction, but the Department has been striving to meet that objective for many years and has not done so yet. That is taking its toll on service men and their families. The Department must do better.
I understand why people such as the hon. Member for Wyre and others like to accuse Opposition Members of causing uncertainty in the armed forces by our undertaking to have a comprehensive defence review when we come to power. It is, perhaps, more satisfactory for the armed forces to have one major defence review and to set the strategic objectives in the long-term rather than the on-going grind that they have suffered from the Conservative Government—"Options for Change", defence cost studies, "Front Line First" and so on, and a 30 per cent. cut. It is no wonder that morale is not what it should be. Even this Government, in their dying months, must try to do better.
Specifically, I endorse the point that was made by the Chairman of the Defence Committee earlier about Gulf war syndrome. The Committee was unanimous on that point. There is an overwhelming case for the MOD to undertake an epidemiological study to ascertain whether there is such a condition and, if so, what it may or may not he. For Ministers to adopt the position that it does not exist or that sufferers from it are malingering will not do. There is no question but that the people seen by the Select Committee are ill and they are entitled to proper understanding and proper action.
956 The Minister of State opened with an important statement about the deployment in Bosnia. Hon. Members may be aware that I have spent a certain amount of time in Bosnia, both with the Committee and—perhaps rather recklessly—at the wheels of lorries in convoys run by Edinburgh Direct Aid last summer and the previous one. I have driven on most of the roads made by British Army engineers in central Bosnia.
I join the Minister in paying tribute to the engineers for their remarkable achievement in creating those links, which would not otherwise be there, and which have made it possible for UNHCR and other organisations to take assistance desperately needed by refugees and others in isolated communities such as Tuzla, Sarajevo and other areas of central Bosnia. It was a harrowing experience for me to see the plight of refugees from places such as Srebrenica and Zepa last summer. It has at least been possible to keep those people alive, and that is the achievement of UNPROFOR.
I join the Minister and others in paying tribute to all the British service men and those from other national contingents in UNPROFOR who have worked hard, often in great danger, during the past three to four years to make it possible to sustain that operation. I certainly join him in wishing the new IFOR contingent well. I look forward to seeing it in the course of the coming year.
I recall taking part in an Army debate three years ago when the deployment in Bosnia was fresh and new and we were all rather confused and perhaps optimistic. At that stage, we were talking about the Vance-Owen plan—the first of many. I remember saying that a massive force would have to be put into Bosnia in order to enforce an agreement, and that such a massive deployment would inevitably require United States participation. We have got there at last. Meanwhile, about 200,000 people have lost their lives in that vicious civil war.
The trouble was that, for all the good will, UNPROFOR had neither the mandate nor the firepower to make that peace stick. All concerned can draw important lessons from that experience. The fundamental difficulty was that Bosnia is a European problem. We had to wait that amount of time for an American-led solution to a fundamentally European problem. It required United States diplomacy, forces and lift to achieve what is being achieved there now.
I do not blame the Americans for being reluctant to become embroiled in such a conflict. It is in a faraway place of which we know comparatively little, and for the Americans it is an even further-away place, of which they know even less. Why should they get involved in such European conflicts?
In view of the instability and the difficulties in eastern and central Europe, and perhaps also on the southern flank of NATO, there is a powerful case for the development of a stronger European defence entity. We cannot always rely on Uncle Sam to send GIs to deal with problems in Europe. It is time that the European nations got together to lead a stronger and more coherent European defence entity, and the obvious leaders for such a scenario must he Britain and France. That should he the objective.
It has been said again and again in the debate, and rightly so, that the British Army is one of the best, if not the best, in the world—that has been manifested time again, for example, in Northern Ireland and Bosnia—but does it have the tools required to do that job? The 957 equipment that has just been taken out to Bosnia for our contingent in IFOR had to be carried in foreign ships in many cases. That is one point that should be addressed more vigorously.
Even more important is the question of our ability to mount amphibious operations at all. An article in the 27 November edition of Defence News, referring to a report submitted to the Secretary of State by the directorate of operational capability in October, said:Britain's armed forces no longer have the shipping capability to carry out an amphibious assault on the same scale as the Falklands operation, according to a highly classified Ministry of Defence report.Being an inquisitive soul, I tabled a question to see whether I could discover a little more about that report. Predictably, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces replied:Reports produced by my directorate of operational capability are classified documents, and constitute advice to Ministers. It is not our practice to place such documents in the Library of the House.Surprise, surprise. He went on:The Royal Navy retains the capability to conduct amphibious operations in support of our defence policy objectives. This capability is currently being enhanced by the acquisition of the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean, which was launched earlier this year, and the refit of the landing ship logistic Sir Bedivere.The final sentence is the intriguing one. It says:Negotiations are under way with VSEL on its tender to replace the amphibious ships HMS Fearless and Intrepid."—[Official Report, 4 December 1995; Vol. 268, c. 3.]Veterans of the Defence Committee will know the protracted story of the replacements for Fearless and Intrepid, the amphibious assault ships. As long ago as 1975, Ministers were worrying about their replacement. The Government's whole life has been spent talking about the replacement of those ships—the one commissioned in 1965, the other in 1967, both steam powered. I will not bore the House with the catalogue of false starts, talks about a ship life extension programme, and so on, but here we are, 20 years on, with still no answer.
We now have the NAPNOC initiative whereby VSEL has been invited to bid to replace the ships on the principle of no acceptable price, no contract. The trouble is that what flows from that is no contract, no capability for an amphibious operation such as was undertaken in the Falklands. I shall be interested to know whether the Government intend to take that decision. It is obviously long overdue.
It is all very well to praise our armed forces—we can all do that—but our armed forces need the tools to do the job and I fear that the evidence of recent years shows that the Government are not prepared to sustain the scale of either our armed forces as required or the equipment of our armed forces as required.
§ Sir Jim Spicer (West Dorset)
I shall try to be as brief as I can, but I have to open by saying that the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) did himself less than justice in his opening speech and when he reads it tomorrow I think that he will agree with me.
I am not in the habit of quoting or hiding behind newspaper articles and retired generals, but the hon. Gentleman's speech turned my mind to an article in the Daily Express today entitled "Could we win a war today?" from which I shall quote one short extract. It says:In our current Defence Secretary. so hated by liberals"—958 I imagine that that means new Labour—of all persuasions. we have a man of firmness and of vision Michael Portillo who aspires, and rightly so, to lead his Party and his country. He has many of the qualities necessary. We expect him to make economies where they can be safely made. But we also expect him to stand firm against the mania for cuts designed to deliver lower taxes.Portillo is, among other talents, an historian. As such he knows that advocates of defence spending always over-state their case. As the great Lord Salisbury once put it: 'If you listen to the Generals, nothing is safe.'I leave it there.
Almost all the hon. Members who have taken part in the debate have said, rightly, that we are proud of our armed forces and of our Army. Over the years, its professionalism, discipline and confidence has been displayed many times, as they are again today.
I had to live through the days of national service. As a regular soldier, I could not have been more delighted when conscription came to an end. It was sapping our professionalism in the armed forces and we were spending far too much time on training young conscripts, good though they were. Now we have a solidly professional Army, smaller in size compared with other conscript armies, but more than making up for that by its training and ability.
The world has changed and anyone who says that we cannot reduce the defence spending level of five years ago is living in cloud cuckoo land. The limit of the cuts, however, has now been reached and we cannot afford to reduce the strength, especially of our infantry battalions, any further. It is no use having establishments of infantry battalions when those battalions are not being kept up to strength.
This is not a criticism—my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces made clear the concern that we all feel about the recruiting figures—but it is a fact that we are some 2,000 men short in the infantry today. That does not sound a large number, but it is 10 per cent. of our infantry strength. That should cause concern.
As my hon. Friend the Minister said, however, we must understand that the infantry, by its very nature, demands and needs an inflow of competent, capable young people, and that people will be leaving the infantry at a much earlier age than they will other arms of the services. We must therefore have highly motivated young men and women who are determined to make the Army their career, but who are prepared, when they reach the age of about 40, to go into a second career—we must always bear that in mind.
Are we recruiting sufficient young men of quality? It is self-evident that we are not. How could we improve recruiting? We could have better publicity. There is a marvellous story to tell about today's Army and the way of life that young people can expect when they go into it. The role of a soldier in an infantry battalion today is startlingly different from, but much more rewarding than, that role in such a battalion six years ago.
What was that role six years ago? One travelled to Germany with the battalion and went through a succession of annual training cycles. One would wake up on 1 January of one year and know that one would be going through exactly the same cycle as the year before. On top of that, increasingly, all infantry soldiers had to face up to the fact of more and more tours in Northern Ireland. 959 To be honest, having led a platoon in difficult country on active service, the one thing that I would not have liked to do was patrol the streets of Belfast at certain times during the troubles. I pay tribute to all our soldiers who had to face that duty.
We must consider providing better recruiting facilities. It may not be ideal to use jobcentres, but they are there and there are many more of them than there could be of Army or service recruiting centres. I suggest to the Minister who will reply that we use those jobcentres, recruit people who are leaving the armed services at about the age of 40, and put them in the jobcentres. They would be capable of doing the job in the Employment Service, but they would also be available to give specialist advice as and when required to people who might want to join the Army. A manager could then say, "There is George. He has been in the Army. He will tell you all about it."
It has been said that a problem exists in relation to 16 to 18-year-olds. If I were 16 years old, leaving school and wanting to join the Army, I would know that a gap in time existed before I could do so. If I were worth anything, I would get a job. By the time that I approached 18, therefore, I would not want to join the Army, because I would he too settled. Why on earth does that happen? I gather that the Highland Division is carrying out an experiment with a junior company. Let us get back to that, because it gives young people an incentive, good training and, above all, a good education.
If the money is not available in the defence budget, surely it would be right and proper for the Ministry of Defence to turn to the Department for Education and Employment and say, "Half the content of this one-year training programme involves education. Therefore, you can pay for it." I suggest to the Minister that it is worth a try.
Why on earth do we have a recruitment age of about 18? I joined the Army when I was 16. Some people are perfectly mature at that age, others are not, but there is no reason why we should not reduce the recruitment age to 17 for certain people. We, and they, should have a right to choose. We could take such young people in, or reject them.
Why do we not allow Territorial Army battalions to take youngsters in at the age of 16? We all know what a good job the cadets do, but, by the time they reach 16, many young cadets are fed up with seeing 11 and 12-year-olds coming along behind them. They are ready and possibly willing to go into the TA. It would not be a large number and we might not get many recruits, but at least it would not cost a great deal of money. It might be worth experimenting with that idea.
On recruiting teams in schools, there was once a major problem with that in some areas. I hope to goodness that that time has come and gone and that new Labour will make it clear to all schools under their control that they should allow Army recruiting teams in to tell young people about the value of Army life. I see the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) nodding his head. I am sure that he will do all he can to bring that about.
Those were just a few thoughts from a regular ex-soldier, long retired from the Army. I am concerned about the 10 per cent. shortfall, and all the predictions are that that figure could rise to 20 per cent.—some 4,000 960 infantry. Something must be done to avoid this. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces for his awareness and his determination to do something about it.
We have all talked about the Territorial Army and know its value. Is it not strange that the most senior officer in the TA, which gives splendid support to our regular forces, is a brigadier? No other reserve force, including the National Guard and the Australian Reserve Forces, does not have a civilian general in charge, obviously with the back-up of a regular alongside. Is it not time that we gave that ultimate accolade to the TA and say, "You do a good job; you must have someone in the TA who could and should be a major-general"? That would be recognition of its work. I commend that proposal to the Minister when he replies.
§ Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)
Some of the wisest words that we have heard tonight have come from our wise old warriors, my hon. Friends the Members for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) and for South-West Cambridgeshire (Sir A. Grant). We should consider the words of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire—who has no doubt had the good sense to retire to the mess at this stage of evening—on the question of morale and the danger of listening to the views of retired Army officers, especially senior ones, after they have left the service.
In the old days, bucolic colonels used to shower The Times with letters from the shires. No one, except perhaps retired admirals, took much notice of them. Nowadays, unfortunately, their views arc picked up by the tabloid press and are used by the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) to attack the Army.
Of course, in an organisation as big as the Army, one will find people who are discontented—that is inevitable. After the end of the cold war, it was clearly necessary to go through "Options for Change" and "Front Line First", which meant a dramatic change in the way in which the Army operated, and the civilianisation of many support services. Undoubtedly, it changed the life of some serving senior officers—the life in the mess changed with the advent of civilianisation. Clearly, those people were not happy. That was inevitable. I do not think that the same applies among younger men and women in the services today.
Visiting local Army bases, I was impressed by the enthusiasm of young people who were keen to go out to Bosnia and undertake other tasks that the Army undertakes nowadays. All our lives are busier than they used to be, but young people are taking up their tasks in the Army with relish. I do not agree with what Opposition Members have said about morale; I place far more credence in the letter read out by my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter), which demonstrated the level of morale in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers—which recruits many people from the north and from my constituency.
I think that we all agree that the Army needs training. Given that we no longer have access to training in Germany, we must develop the facility at home. It is a pity that the MOD has experienced so much difficulty in securing an expansion of the training area in Otterburn, part of which is in my constituency. Training is needed in the use of new weapons such as the AS90, the Warrior and the multiple launch rocket systems.
961 Unfortunately, although local people in the Otterburn training area support that multi-million pound development, some are fighting a rearguard action to prevent it. I am sorry that the chairman of the Council for National Parks, Sir Chris Bonington, turned up at a demonstration in Otterburn to protest about the Army's plans, demanding that no provision should be made for the AS90 and the modern weapons now being deployed in Bosnia, and asking for a public inquiry into the scheme to extend training on the Otterburn ranges.
Luckily, some of the local people found out about the demonstration, and when Sir Chris turned up with his supporters in their anoraks and walking boots, they were met by another group. The locals waved their own banners, reading "Bonington go home". They knew that the country needs the Army, which plays an important part in the life of the remote Northumbrian community. I am glad to say that the demonstration ended without having the public impact that Sir Chris Bonington had expected.
A public inquiry would delay the Army's implementation of the plan for at least two years, probably three. The Army cannot wait that long. Men and equipment are returning from Germany, and training is necessary in this country. I am pleased to learn that—as a result of pressure from local people, I believe—the Northumbrian national park authority, which controls planning in the military training area, hopes to reach a compromise with the Army. With luck, the outcome will be in March.
I must say something about the role of the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), the shadow Secretary of State. Sadly, he was unable to attend today's debate. On 9 September, his local newspaper, the Newcastle Journal, reported that he had led a diatribe against some of my constituents at another demonstration in Otterburn, where he was joined by a group of ramblers. The shadow Secretary of State—in his anorak—accused my constituents of beingnarrow-minded, selfish and fuelled by anti-Tyneside sentiment.More significantly, the hon. Gentleman said that there should be a public inquiry into the MOD's plans for Otterburn. He must have known that, if his call for an inquiry had come to fruition, it would have delayed the vital expansion of the Otterburn training range for two or three years. What kind of action is that from someone who speaks of the need for our troops to be properly trained?
A few days later, in the House, the hon. Gentleman asked the Secretary of State to give an assurance that the troops in Bosnia would be properly equipped with, among other weapons, the AS90 gun, which he has tried to stop the Royal Artillery from using on the Otterburn training ranges.
Local people support the Army 100 per cent., but one detail needs to be resolved: the method of transporting heavy weapons such as the AS90 and the Warriors to and from the Otterburn training ranges. We must ensure that the good will of those local people is not dissipated by the lengthy disruption of their lives by those convoys: there must be proper negotiation between the MOD, the police and the Highways Agency to minimise that disruption. I am sure that careful planning and widespread consultation would make that possible.
The people of Northumberland gladly put up with low flying, and they put up with the Army in Otterburn. Indeed, they welcomed the Army, which has been there 962 since 1911. They have done that mainly in the national interest. If consideration of the national interest is to prove helpful to the people of Northumberland, a couple of bypasses should be provided in Ponteland and Belsay to enable military vehicles to move to and from the training area. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister's response will be encouraging.
§ Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green)
I had flu recently. I hope that my speech will he audible; I also intend it to be short.
Like other Conservative Members, I found the speech of the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) regrettable and out of character. It was partisan, specious and fatuous, and said nothing about what Labour wanted to do. It hid behind a cloak of stating the obvious. All NATO countries have made cuts since the end of the cold war, which will inevitably cause disruption and uncertainty among those who serve until stability returns.
The hon. Member for Motherwell, North did not say what he would have done. Would he have suggested a different balance of forces at the end? Would he have suggested the introduction of more infantry and less cavalry, more air power or more sea power? Nothing in his speech was relevant to serving military officers or, indeed, armchair generals and admirals.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans), who spoke of the difference between Labour's defence policy and that of the Conservatives. Inevitably, Labour puts much more effort into providing social security than providing national security, and a nation without the will to defend itself is not really a nation but a collection of communities. As I may have said in another speech, a nation loses the will to survive if it cares more about providing a safety net than providing a security net. I hope that all hon. Members will think about that as the maniacs in the Club Med or elsewhere point their missiles increasingly at Europe, supposedly in support of their religious zeal in the Islamic or any other extremist or nationalist cause.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces made an excellent speech that covered a wide range. I particularly appreciated his response to an intervention by the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis). My brother is about to leave his battalion in Northern Ireland—he is in the Grenadier Guards—and I know that, with a difficult job ahead of him, he will take great comfort from the fact that my hon. Friend intends to ensure that soldiers in Northern Ireland are given the necessary training facilities so that they are busily and usefully employed.
A number of remarks have been made about recruitment. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces for the attention that he gave the subject in his speech, the careful consideration and answers that he has given it in Defence questions and the seriousness with which he views it. It is inevitable after a period of reductions in the armed forces and the—sometimes—enforced losing of men from various different branches of service that there will be a feeling abroad that the Army, the Navy and Air Force arc shrinking, will therefore not need young people to join, and that in any case such a career might not last that long.
The work, the speech and indeed the actions of my hon. Friend the Minister will put that right. It will give young people the impression that there is a wonderful career to 963 be had in the Army and the other services and that it is well worth joining up and making a major contribution to the country's interests.
No speech in this debate would be complete without recognising the extraordinary service of our Army, especially the infantry units which are now joined by the cavalry armoured units in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia. I would add only that I have great respect for them. My hon. Friend the Minister put exactly the right colour on the matter by saying that we owe them a huge debt of gratitude. Although I am sure that all of us would have wished for it sooner, there is at last an extremely bright light on the horizon. It makes us very proud to see British troops carrying that light of peace forward and enabling the process to continue.
The announcement about the order for Army Land Rovers made by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement is extremely welcome, especially in my constituency where many people work at the Land-Rover plant down the road in Solihull. Although I know that my view will not be shared by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), I do not think that it behoves Conservative Members to denigrate either of the contenders for the order.
The order was given to Land-Rover because its ambulance is cheaper to buy, cheaper to run, it has better medical facilities in it, it is easier to use for medical people and it has the significant advantage of having parts in common with the existing Land Rover fleet as well as the new Tul-Tum fleet which the Army has ordered. Such commonality is an important aspect to the order, although I do not in any way wish to denigrate the excellent contender that might have been produced by the Austrians. The order will be very good news for people in the west midlands. The order for the much larger Tul-Tum units will be equally welcome.
While I am on the subject of Army equipment, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement whether he will soon be able to announce the order of, for example, the Merlin Smart 81 mm mortar or—perhaps—the longer range anti-tank weaponry about which I know the Army is keen to hear. We all look forward to his speech with great interest. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to make a few remarks.
§ Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)
Now that all the Opposition Back Benches have been deserted, we can have a serious debate about defence.
§ Mr. Key
The hon. Gentleman says, "Silly man", but I think that it is serious that not one Back Bencher from any Opposition party is present. The Conservative Members who have been sitting here for five hours waiting to speak have serious contributions to make to the debate.
One of the advantages of speaking late in the debate is that everything that should be said probably has been said, and one can just say, "We all agree." I must however congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces on his speech. It said everything that I 964 would wish to say. I also thank him for his personal contribution to the raising of morale throughout the forces. It has been a great pleasure to see him fulfilling his role. He has done it seriously, but with a great sense of fun, which has made a great deal of difference to the armed forces and their families.
If the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) wonders why we minded so much about what he said, I should tell him quite simply that the tone, as well as the content, of his speech offended Conservative Members. I think that he will regret it. He has lost friends and smashed bridges, which is serious given that we all try to establish a bipartisan approach to defence matters in the House. Perhaps the worst that I can wish on him is that tomorrow morning the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) sends round the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) to give him a little spinning, because clearly the mask has slipped.
I have worked with more than 20 Defence Ministers in my time as a Member of Parliament. They come and they go—as do commanders in chief, generals, admirals, air marshals, and private officers in the Ministry of Defence. I say with complete confidence that we have the best team of Ministers with whom I have worked. I have heard it said in the field by troops, from generals, socially in my constituency and among the retired military of all ranks, whom I am fortunate to have living in my constituency and to whom I listen. I am never short of advice, and I appreciate it.
Morale became low in the forces quickly after the Gulf war, but there is no doubt that it is so much better now. The forces are professional, well equipped, well trained, well motivated, proud of the past, proud of their current role and held in the highest esteem worldwide. I am immensely proud of our service men of all three services. Let us not forget the service men and women in Northern Ireland and Germany, who, as well as those in Bosnia, are all doing their duty.
Defence research is often underestimated. It is quite clear that these days wars are won through intelligence and science and technology, as well as by training and people. This year £550 million has been spent on defence research and that is a substantial sum. The Defence Evaluation and Research Agency has a £1 billion turnover and 12,000 staff, and is the largest physics-based research grouping in western Europe. That is something of which we can be immensely proud.
In my constituency, the Defence Test and Evaluation Organisation is at Boscombe Down and the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment is at Porton Down. Their contribution is of inestimable value. It was good news to hear that the Defence Research Agency, as it was called, saved £100 million over two years in its running costs—and quite right, too. I am a little concerned, however, that applied research must save some £20 million a year, and I certainly wish the Ministry of Defence well in seeking to save £30 million a year by increasing the amount of collaborative and non-departmental work. I hope very much that it can achieve that—but it would be quite an achievement.
I give my strong support for the Ministry of Defence wealth-creation initiative. The recent dual-use technology centres will bring a new and refreshing atmosphere to structural material centres, super-computing, thermal imaging, maritime technology, software engineering, 965 information technology and robotics. Behind all that are people and families, who are part of our all communities. Sometimes people think of the armed forces as just those soldiers they see on television every day or those involved in trooping the colour. In fact, they are an immensely important part of our entire civilian community as well.
Behind every uniformed member of the forces is at least one non-uniformed member of Ministry of Defence staff. In my constituency, I have about 5,000 uniformed personnel and about 5,000 civilian employees. They use our services, schools and health service, which is a very good thing. We also should not forget the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute in Amesbury and all that it is doing, or the warehouse in Grantham that will shortly be opened and which will boost the NAAFI's massive operation. It is a huge retail operation, of which any of the high street supermarkets would be proud. The NAAFI does much more. It operates in times of war as well as times of peace, and provides everything from television sets to tea.
The social side of the Army is important and must not be forgotten. My hon. Friend the Minister has mentioned the Federation of Army Wives, but I shall be keeping a close watch on the new Housing Executive as it starts to fulfil a difficult role.
The hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) said that we were now free of the burdens of empire. We are not quite free of those burdens. When I visited Hong Kong in September—the visit is declared in the Register of Members' Interests as having been financed by the Government of Hong Kong—I met members of the British military forces out there, such as the chief of staff, and I talked to a number of people. I was distressed to hear of the damage being done to Britain's reputation as we move towards the handover to China in relation to a small number of Hong Kong residents who have worked for many years at British military establishments there as a part of the locally engaged work force.
Those people are a unique, ring-fenced group of Hong Kong citizens who, as a condition of their employment by British military forces, had to sign a contract that specifically transferred their loyalty from the Government of Hong Kong to the British sovereign power. In real and practical terms, they were fully signed-up Brits. In the distribution of 50,000 British passports to Hong Kong citizens, they received no special treatment, yet they are very special and deserve to be recognised as such. They are people on whom the British forces of all services have relied for many years.
I wrote to the Home Secretary about those people on 25 September. The wheels of the Home Office grind slowly, and I have yet to receive a response. I hope that the response will he positive.
I congratulate the chief executive of the New Defence Estates Organisation on his third annual report. It is something that the Army has to live with—and in. It has 706 historic buildings, 606 of which are in England, which makes life pretty tricky if one is trying to train a modern army. The new approach is much appreciated, and I congratulate the Army.
Finally, may I raise a small but important point; perhaps it is this sort of thing that will help to encourage morale among service families. It is perhaps because of the 5,000 soldiers in my constituency, many of whom move in and out of this country with their families, that I 966 am receiving a growing trickle of letters about our pet quarantine regulations. Our tough rabies laws have protected this country successfully for a long time. However, the report of the Agriculture Select Committee has convinced me that we need a fresh approach.
I have always been a strong supporter of our vigilant stance against rabies—that is not in question. The evidence of the Select Committee, together with its unanimous recommendations, has forced me to change my mind. Since 1972, 160,000 pets have been through quarantine and death has occurred in 2,500 cases, without a single case of rabies. I believe that we now need a system that is based on vaccination, antibody testing and approved identification with electronic tagging for pet dogs and cats which arrive from rabies-free and approved countries. The heartache among service families should not be underestimated. It is a major factor in their morale and finances. The law-abiding and pet-loving people and their pets are, as ever, the ones who are penalised.
In 1992, the European Commission's Scientific Veterinary Committee produced a report which said that it wasof the opinion that cats and dogs vaccinated with inactivated vaccines which conformed to European pharmacopoeia standards, at at least three months of age, do not present a risk of spreading rabies provided that they are symptom-free at least four months after the initial vaccination.It also told the commission that if 1,000 dogs were imported each year from France to the United Kingdom, even without passing through the quarantine system, one could expect that, on average, a dog incubating rabies might enter this country once every 1,250 years.
That issue must be looked at. I make that plea on behalf of my service constituents. It is a small point at the end of an important debate on the Army, but I hope that my hon Friends on the Front Bench will take it seriously.
§ 9.3 pm
§ Mr. Matthew Banks (Southport)
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). He was entirely right to draw attention to the fact that we have a superb team at the Ministry of Defence. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently paid a highly successful visit to the middle east, my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement is doing an extremely good job and batting for Britain to boot, and, if my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will permit me to say so, he is known throughout the armed forces as a class act in our so-called classless society.
I listened with great interest to my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire (Sir A. Grant), who described himself as one of the few old soldiers left in the House. I agree wholeheartedly with a number of his remarks. In particular, we share his delight in the decision to award the contract to Land-Rover.
I listened with interest, but some disappointment, to the remarks of the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid). Hon. Members who have listened to the hon. Gentleman in previous debates will know that he was not on good form tonight. He cannot believe for a moment that there would be any compulsion on jobcentres to send people into the services, particularly the Army. That is utter nonsense and was dealt with first by my hon. Friend 967 the Minister for the Armed Forces when the hon. Gentleman was not listening, and by my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement.
Several of my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) mentioned the Army Cadet Force, which I agree is not simply about Army recruiting. It is also a means by which young people can be acquainted with the armed forces, particularly the Army. I believe that, over a number of years, the cadet force makes them better citizens and we should continue to support it. I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) that we should spend more on it—we are getting good value for money.
I should like to pick up a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire. It is important that many hon. Members take part in the parliamentary armed forces scheme. I keep getting letters from Colonel Thorne, who is a former hon. Member, and I keep telling him that I was in the Army, but he still writes to me. I am probably being told that I should spend some time with the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force. It is clear that hon. Members have benefited a great deal from that scheme.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre that we made a mistake in doing away with the Junior Leaders Infantry Battalion.
I was interested in what the hon. Member for Motherwell, North had to say about Army recruiting. I was not so concerned about jobcentres becoming involved in recruitment. It is entirely right that the Ministry of Defence should examine the way in which service recruiting centres have operated, and may operate in future, and consider what changes might be made.
If I might make one constructive criticism, it is that regimental headquarters should have a little more support in keeping the Army in the public eye. My hon. Friends on the Front Bench know full well that I disagree totally with the merger of the Gordon Highlanders and the Queen's Own Highlanders. Perhaps they will take on board some constructive criticism now that it is water under the bridge. If we change the method of recruiting, we must ensure that the regimental teams have sufficient petrol and vehicles that work to get them round the countryside. When my hon. Friends consider the vast areas of Scotland that have to be covered, they will understand that I am making a constructive point.
§ Mr. Soames
My hon. Friend has raised an important point, and I share his concerns. He will acknowledge that performance of different regiments is extremely varied. Some regiments do well; others do not. The Chief of the General Staff and the Army Board are considering what guidance they can give individual regiments to establish a more standardised process, not in terms of tying them up, but to help them get the very best out of the resources that are available for recruitment. My hon. Friend is on to an extremely good point.
§ Mr. Banks
I want to follow the example of other hon. Members. to whom I am grateful. and be brief in order to allow those who want to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to have the opportunity to contribute, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks.
968 It is 12 months since we last debated this subject. While there is no direct threat on our doorstep, there is still considerable risk in the world. The nature and direction of that risk is fluid and unpredictable. At the beginning of the decade, it lay in Baghdad, but we can now identify risks in the Balkans. I am conscious, however, that we may be receiving intelligence reports that suggest that there is a further build-up of forces within Iraqi borders, about which we should all be concerned. My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and others who drew attention to that were entirely right to say that we have to be careful about cost savings. The defences of the United Kingdom and of our allies are vital.
Much discussion has focused on the institutional and bureaucratic mechanisms by which the European Union might implement policy decisions involving some sort of military action by member states. Our contribution to European security has been, and will remain, unique and substantial. As long as nations have experience of working together in some context, such as NATO or the conventional forces in Europe talks, they can work together in another organisational context.
Any attempts at reorganising European defence purely for political reasons, therefore—especially any fanciful notion of equalising the importance of NATO and the Western European Union—must be subordinated to the continuing examination of future challenges and to the proper equipment of our forces with the necessary hardware at the best possible prices. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will remember those comments, come the intergovernmental conference later this year.
There will soon be more than 13,000 British troops stationed in Bosnia—the largest contribution to the peace effort after the United States. They form part of NATO's first land operation in almost 50 years of existence and are led by a British General, Sir Michael Walker. Their objectives seem to be clearer than was formerly the case in Bosnia. They are there primarily to help and persuade, by their very presence as well as their actions, the warring factions to stick to the Dayton agreement.
I hope that no military action will be necessary, but our troops should be given every chance to defend themselves, within the NATO rules of engagement, from any attack. They are not going to Bosnia to fight a heroic battle or to fight other people's battles. They will leave their mark on military history. After all, as Milton wrote:Peace hath her victories No less renowned than war.I do not believe that we have heard anything about Labour's plans for the future. All we have heard about is the defence review. For a number of years, we have heard Labour party conference motions for£4 billion-worth of cuts—equivalent to some 40 infantry battalions.
§ Mr. Banks
Well, £4 billion is a lot of money and troops are expensive. It is about time that the hon. Gentleman started to pick up on one or two simple points of arithmetic.
What is the point of having a review? To hide the fact that the Labour party has no policy and that it is interested only in making further and deeper cuts. I wish I had time to pursue that point, but I must end by saying that, listening to Opposition Members tonight, particularly the 969 hon. Member for Motherwell, North, I have no doubt that the defence of this country is still not safe—nor would it be safe—in Labour hands.
§ Dr. Charles Goodson-Wickes (Wimbledon)
First, I must apologise for the fact that other commitments have made my attendance at this debate intermittent. May I also say how much I enjoyed the exposition of defence policy by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces—both the content and, to echo the words of my colleagues, the style to which we have become accustomed. It was in marked contrast to the essentially parochial concerns expressed from the Opposition Benches.
There has been so much good news on the wide deployment and effectiveness of our forces, on the respect in which they are held and on their operational ability and flexibility, that I hope that it will not be considered churlish to highlight one or two concerns, which are held by several Conservative Members, that have already been expressed. I hope that, against a background of the inadequacy or absence of any Opposition policy, such observations are constructive.
The equipment situation is admirable. A progressively higher proportion of the defence budget is being spent on the highly sophisticated weaponry about which we have heard so much today. Our men have been given the kit that they want, to an extent that is the envy of the world. Indeed, we now have the world's best professional soldiers with the best professional kit. I doubt whether any socialist-run economy—overlaid with its particular political priorities—could possibly have achieved that.
I am sure that my hon. Friends agree, however, that the manpower situation is far from satisfactory. We have gone through all of the arguments about the right size for the Army, and the original "Options for Change" figures were—thank goodness—revised upwards, so that battalions earmarked for amalgamation were saved. The fact remains, as my hon. Friend the Minister said today, that there is a shortfall of around 2,000 men now, which is expected to increase to around 4,000 in 1997. That is a slow but alarming haemorrhage.
The Government may have been victims of their own success in reducing unemployment generally, thus decreasing the pool available for recruitment to the armed forces. My hon. Friend the Minister will be making sterling efforts to discredit the ridiculous myth that redundancies at the latter end of a military career mean that there is less need for young recruits to the Army at the outset. My hon. Friend will be educating the public about that obvious fallacy in the advertising campaign that he has announced today.
I understand that the trend towards closing recruiting offices is being reversed, and I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that there is no substitute for a recruiting sergeant, who is suitably sponsored and self-motivated, to gain recruits for his regiment. Indeed, the regimental system depends on geographical links and personal contact. I also believe that there are moves to reinstate the concept of junior leaders, but I am not certain that that subject has been addressed in today's debate. After all, it is probable that very few regimental sergeant majors did not start their career in that way. I would welcome my hon. Friend's advice as to the form and timing of any proposals—which I believe would he enlightened ones—to bring back junior leaders in one form or another.
970 One factor that detracts from the quality of life of service men is the emergency tour interval. I do not apologise for bringing up the issue again. Ever since "Options for Change", the confident aspiration has been for the interval between tours to he 24 months. In 1992, it was described as the minimum, but later it was described as a target for 1995–96. Today, my hon. Friend admitted that, owing to extra commitments, 20 months is more likely to be the figure that we can achieve for infantry battalions.
The House will recognise that someone who is motivated to be a soldier expects to put his skills to good use and does not want to he kicking his heels in a barracks. For single young men, the attractions of service life in a variety of theatres and roles is obvious. The problem is that wives, young families and regular girl friends understandably find such separations intolerable. I doubt, and have always doubted, that the 24-month tour interval is ever achievable. It certainly will not he if the manning problem continues, and I wish my hon. Friend every success in the measures that he has announced today to counteract that problem.
In some specialist units, such as the sappers, the emergency tour interval is as low as 12 months and, in some individual cases, soldiers with a particular expertise have been working on a back-to-back basis. The problem is magnified when we have such an enormous percentage of forces who are either training, on operations or retraining. The House will know that the percentage involved in such activities is the highest since the end of the second world war.
May I broaden the debate to a slightly more international basis? While history will mark down NATO as the most successful military organisation ever, the fact that it has achieved its ends owes precisely nothing to having been undermined for years by Opposition Members who were members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, even if they now choose to forget or hide the fact.
Shortly before the end of the cold war, I visited the newly formed Franco-German brigade at Böblingen. I assumed that it was only a political gesture but, in eulogies to the late President Mitterrand that we have all read recently, it was perceived as one of his and Chancellor Kohl's greatest achievements. I find it difficult to disagree, for it has developed into the 50,000-strong Eurocorps, no less, based in Strasbourg. That was no political gesture, but an affirmation of a Franco-German axis.
The traditional balance of power might be better served by developing the entente cordiale. We now have a bewildering proliferation of military organisations, for which one almost needs a glossary. Eurocorps has been joined by EUROFOR, now EUROMARFOR, and the rapid reaction corps, and now the Western European Union aspires to become the defence arm of the European Union.
As we approach the intergovernmental conference, I trust that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will resist precipitate pressure for a common security and defence policy. According to Commissioner van den Broek, whom I challenged on the subject the other day, such a policy is compatible, first, with the neutrality of countries such as Ireland, Finland, Austria and Sweden, and, secondly, with enlargement of the 971 European Union to up to 30 members with qualified majority voting. The only slight morsel that he tossed me was to say, in a patronising way, that countries with a colonial past would have certain exemptions.
That is political, let alone military, nonsense. I am confident that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will get the priorities right. He will get our armed forces trained, equipped and motivated as this nation wants them. Only then will we be in a position to co-operate with other countries, in that national interest, as circumstances arise in this uncertain world.
§ Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)
Every time that I prepare a speech for a defence or foreign affairs debate, I prepare one of Palmerstonian proportions, because I know that the House looks forward to everything that I have to say. Tonight, as always, I shall compress my remarks into the few moments left to me so that others may have an opportunity to speak.
Normally, I am entertained by the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid), who gives a good wind-up speech. Sadly, this evening, he made his after-dinner speech before tea and it lost much in the telling.
In the few moments available, I wish to make some positive points. First, I want to praise the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Much as I should like to, I shall not give the House a Cook's tour of my travels over the past 18 months, although I would have done so had the Palmerstonian rule applied. Instead, I shall briefly mention some of the units that I have visited, and sing their praises.
I visited 24 Air Mobile Brigade in Colchester, which contained elements of the first battalion of the Royal Anglians, my constituency regiment. It is an excellent line regiment, which has done valiant service in both Bosnia and other theatres. I also visited 5 Airborne Brigade on a logistics parachute exercise on Salisbury plain. My visit was interrupted because the brigade had suddenly to be transported to Rwanda, but that demonstrates the versatility of our modern armed forces in war and in peace.
I was lucky enough to go to Northern Ireland, where I visited the headquarters staff. I also visited the first battalion of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment in Omagh. Again, that was an excellent experience for an overweight barrister such as myself. I went to the Falklands where I met members of all three services, who were doing excellent work in the south Atlantic—a long way from home—without complaint.
I have been to the military corrective training centre at Colchester most recently. It is an excellent place which will shortly be able to receive civilian young offenders, where they will learn much and benefit from the advice and training provided by the military staff. Perhaps most esoterically, I deliberately went to the Defence Animal Centre in Melton Mowbray, which is a few miles from my house. There, I practised my mounted sword drill. I challenge my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces to bring his charger to New Palace Yard and we will compare our abilities with swords on horseback.
§ Mr. Garnier
It might well sort him out.
972 At the Defence Animal Centre, or the Remount Depot as it used to be fondly called, I discovered the Prime Minister's Azeri stallion. That may he of interest to my hon. Friend the Minister.
§ Mr. Garnier
I thought my hon. Friend had. It is an excellent animal and, in the event that it is available for sale, it would suit my daughter very well.
From the parliamentary armed forces scheme, I have learned about the tremendous range of abilities, from good to excellent, that we find in all ranks of the armed forces, from the youngest private soldier to the most senior starred rank. All ranks are imbued with excellent common sense, an attribute that we cannot always claim in the House.
The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) mentioned the vexed question of homosexuality in the armed forces. My impression, from the many soldiers to whom I have spoken, is that their common sense tells them that it would not be a good idea to alter the arrangements for homosexuals in the armed forces, especially in the Army. I ask the Government to listen to the soldier, because he is the man who has to live with their decision.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces mentioned national vocational qualifications. They are an excellent idea. There are far too many good soldiers leaving the Army after five or 10 years, 20 years for NCOs, who have nothing to show for their time but their years of experience. Of course, many of them will have medals for gallantry and all of them will have good conduct reports, but to impress the potential civilian employer, they need some form of educational certificate to demonstrate that they are not only good soldiers but good future employees.
Much has been said about Army recruiting centres. The security risk in Northern Ireland and Great Britain is now much diminished. From my experience in over 43 years of life, I know that the careers offices were good shop windows for the armed forces. I hope that the tri-service careers offices will be able to make their mark so that civilians and the Army can meet and so that the Army can become an ordinary item in the high street. The mystique of the Army must be removed, so that citizens can see it at work in the high street.
I trust that my thoughts have not been too garbled. On the subject of procurement, many hon. Members have mentioned the military ambulance order and Land-Rover. I wish to make a constituency point on behalf of King Trailers, which manufactures trailers. The company is capable of manufacturing military tank transporters and other towed vehicles for military use and, indeed, for civilian use. I urge the Government to keep an eye on that excellent company, which produces goods for the domestic and export markets and is a major employer in my constituency.
We have had a long and interesting debate and I have played only a small part. I trust that the Government will keep in mind the importance of the armed forces and understand that we Conservatives know that the Opposition are unfit to govern and to have any say in the way that our armed forces are run.
§ Mr. John Spellar (Warley, West)
This has been a wide-ranging debate, which my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) opened by dealing with the broad issues facing the Army. I shall concentrate more on procurement issues. First, however, I should like to deal with some of the points raised in the debate; I apologise in advance to hon. Members whose points I do not mention.
The Minister entertained us with the exploits of Corporal Coull. I was uncertain as to whether he would offer that as an example of how to settle disputes in political parties—perhaps he would pass it on to his colleagues. There was also some debate about the jobseeker's allowance, and a welcome intervention from the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot). It would he useful if he passed on his comments to the Department for Education and Employment, so that they could be sent out as advice and so that any dubiety or lack of clarity could be removed.
At one stage, discussing the ambulances order, the Minister came under friendly fire from the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), who seemed wholly disoriented by the defection from sycophancy of her previous employer, Express Newspapers—but she will, I am sure, get over it.
The right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton) repeated the party line about abuse from my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North. It did not seem justified by my hon. Friend's speech. The right hon. Gentleman went on to imply that retired officers who criticised the Government are senile, which seemed to dilute his message somewhat.
We are pleased to welcome back the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), Chairman of the Defence Committee, and to hear his points about the excellent report produced by that Committee on the Gulf war syndrome—points echoed by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen).
The hon. and learned Gentleman then drew attention to problems of redundancy. It is important to stress them, not just because of the costs involved but also—this came into the speech by the hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir J. Spicer)—because the best recruiting agent is often someone who has been in the forces and enjoyed a fulfilling and constructive time there. Equally, it is not a good advertisement for youngsters looking for a career to see someone who has been given his P45 for compulsory redundancy from the forces. That should be taken into account when the plans are being drawn up. As the hon. Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) said, the closure of careers offices and compulsory redundancies send out all the wrong signals.
The hon. Member for Wyre also rightly drew attention to the value of the cadet movement, pointing out the disparity between the money spent on that movement and the positive results that it achieves, and the huge costs when youngsters go wrong and have to be put in secure accommodation. Unfortunately, he then felt the need to offer an officially approved soundbite. It often seems that, once Conservative Members have made some sensible points, they feel the need to create a diversion so that their activities will not be reported back by the Whips. They therefore throw some abuse around—but we understand why they do it.
974 My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton rightly drew our attention to the position of war widows. The Ministry of Defence deals with them extremely well in the main, and with great care and consideration. That does not mean that we should ignore cases when it seems to have fallen below its usually excellent standards. I am sure that the Minister took the point on board and will refer to it in future.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) drew attention to the death by a thousand cuts to which the forces have been steadily subjected, contrasting that with some of the more outrageous statements made by Tory Members. It was of value to the House to hear him draw on his considerable experience in Bosnia.
The hon. Member for West Dorset also drew our attention to an article in today's Daily Express. I was slightly surprised that he stopped the quotation where he did, because it went on to say of the Secretary of State:But we can, I hope, also expect him to show a wider sense of history than his Prime Minister and some of his historically ignorant colleagues.The hon. Member for West Dorset went on, rightly, to draw attention to the training role of the Army. Some of his proposals are worthy of examination because there should not be only a single route to training. In the past, the Army has provided, especially for technical training, valuable experience for many youngsters. We took on board his point about the ability of the armed forces to draw the attention of children in schools to careers in the armed forces.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves) also went in for the soundbite, but at the end of his speech mentioned the Army field ambulances. He went slightly over the top in his attacks on the Labour party and Labour Governments. I gently remind him that it was a Tory Government who, before the last war, ran down defences—against the advice of the grandfather of the Minister of State for the Armed Forces—a coalition that won the war and Labour that took us into NATO.
The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) rightly drew attention to the excellent work of the defence research establishments. We all want to pay tribute to those as centres of excellence and welcome their increasing dual-use for civilian and military technology, which as the hon. Gentleman knows, works more fully in both directions than it has in the past as technology has developed.
The announcement today of the orders for Land Rover was good news for British industry and in the case of the ambulances, it was a welcome climbdown by the Ministry of Defence. On a matter of detail, I ask the Minister to reply now, or later by correspondence, as to whether any of the new vehicles are replacements for the ill-fated RB44, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden).
More generally, why did it require hon. Members from both sides of the House, some of whom are here tonight, to create uproar for the MOD to recognise the qualities of Land-Rover? The decision would have been self-evident in other countries.
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
Today's announcement about Land Rover vehicles does not replace the RB44. They are steadily coming back into service as they are repaired.
§ Mr. Spellar
I thank the Minister for that clarification.
975 The argument over the Army field ambulance is a symbol of what is wrong with the Government's unbalanced general procurement policy. I am pleased that the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will reply for the Government. We thought that there would be some movement when the previous Minister, the right hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), gave evidence to the joint Select Committees on Defence and Trade and Industry in May, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside. The right hon. Member for Kettering said:the Ministry of Defence needs to continue to give due consideration to the possible consequences of procurement decisions for the defence industrial base and I am happy to affirm this once again.We also hoped that there would be a positive response to the joint report of the Defence and Trade Industry Committees, which drew attention to many of those points. I am afraid that our hopes were misplaced. In a parliamentary answer on 9 January, the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, in talking about the white vehicles contract, stated:the criteria for the selection of the winning bid is based on best value for money, which includes technical and commercial competence"—[Official Report, 9 January 1996; Vol. 269, c. 104.]Such an attitude is widespread throughout Whitehall' because on 11 January the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim), said of the field ambulance order:contracts … will quite rightly be based primarily on value for money and operational considerations."—[Official Report, 11 January 1996; Vol. 269, c. 295.]Those are, of course, important considerations, but they are incomplete. The Government are trying to construct a two-legged stool. There is an important third leg, the maintenance of Britain's defence industrial base. It is recognised by the Labour party, in our document, "Strategy for a Secure Future" and by the joint report of the Select Committees on Defence and on Trade Industry, "Aspects of Defence Procurement and Industrial Policy", which states:We recommend that MOD endorse the view that National Security depends on a strong economy as well as strong armed forces and that it has an important role in contributing to that economic strength. We further recommend that MOD make the maintenance of the technology base of the UK defence industries a priority, and that consideration of this factor be built into the procurement process from the initial stages right through to the decision to order the equipment".That is recognised by defence industry firms and their employees. In its evidence, the Defence Manufacturers Association said:MOD's procurement policies are seen as verging on the hostile to the indigenous industrial base and there is no clear defence industrial policy against which British industry can negotiate R&D co-operation from a position of strength.It is the practice, formally or informally, of our major industrial competitors and the minor players to operate in that way. It is this Administration, with its time-warped, dogmatic approach, that is out of step. The Government are dominated by far-right dogma, conducting their theological debates to the exclusion of the country's real problems. It is very reminiscent of the Labour party in the early 1980s.
976 We must ask: when will the Government learn from the successful countries and companies in the real world, where partnership between supply and customers is the increasing pattern'? The Government seem to take an almost Orwellian stance on the issue: two legs good, three legs bad. We do not expect them to change completely; we will offer them a way out. The Government may say, "Two legs good, three legs better." They will then have a balanced procurement policy.
The Land-Rover example provides another major lesson. The Rover group, its employees and their unions have worked together increasingly as a partnership to compete in the global market. That partnership is replicated in many other defence firms across the country. Their message to Government is the same as the message from the Select Committee: partnership at industry level must be matched by long-term partnership between industry and the MOD. That is how we shall ensure that our forces get the equipment that they need and deserve, that taxpayers get value for money and that Britain's defence industry can punch its weight in the international marketplace.
The ideological approach that is adopted in so many areas is leading to some interesting, if extremely perverse, conclusions. In pursuit of the holy grail of the free market, the MOD is putting at a disadvantage the now private sector Royal Ordnance compared with some of its overseas competitors. In the words of the Select Committee, those competitors arenationalised or otherwise subsidised with protected home markets and thus frequently able to quote for UK orders at or below marginal cost".That is without the activities of Mr. Gordon Foxley and his corrupt cohorts, who made the situation worse. That led to the purchase of duff ammunition and to disaster for the Blackburn ordnance factory. The Minister will also be aware of the considerable disquiet about the below-cost order for target ammunition from Portugal for Bisley. That has again had an effect on one of our ordnance factories.
We understand that the 81 mm mortar order, worth £100 million, is just around the corner. The product was sold previously to 40 countries, including the United States in the face of a "buy American" policy. Yet our firms must face a "sell Britain short" policy. Its prime architect is the Secretary of State's pal, David Hart, whose philosophy was summed up in a line of his article which appeared in The Spectator on 6 February 1993. In the article, he talked about purchasing F15s and fitting new avionics in Britain, so thatBritish Aerospace can stay in business, if it must".What a dismissive attitude to adopt to Britain's top exporter, and what a revealing comment about Mr. Hart's attitude to Britain's industrial base.
The Government's policy is also adrift of reality in relation to the sale of the married quarters estate. The current indications from mortgage companies point towards some level of upturn in house prices, which will continue into next year. We know that they do not have the best prediction record, but it would be a bold Minister who would go on the record tonight as forecasting a further decline in house prices—especially in light of the Prime Minister's assurances on Tuesday.
If we are to believe the Evening Standard, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces has not been too successful in his efforts to sell his flat, so he knows the problems 977 that abound in the property market. However, at the possible bottom of the price cycle, the MOD is rushing at breakneck speed into a sale of its housing. If a company did that, the pundits would view it as a sign of impending bankruptcy.
The situation is worse than that. The MOD is also committed to an open-ended contract, whereby it will pay either a fixed sum or an aggregate of total market rents—whichever is the higher—while the rent assessment officers and the tribunals are pushing up rents well above the rate of inflation and the increase in the cost of housing. We do not even know whether NAPNOC—no acceptable price, no contract—will apply. It is the give-away sale of the century.
Who will benefit? The forces will not benefit. They are known to be very concerned about the disruptive effect of the scheme, especially for relocation of troops in future. The service men would probably do far better under the discounted sales scheme. It appears from a parliamentary answer to me today that the scheme is at risk. The answer reads:The future of the scheme is being evaluated in the context of the proposals to transfer the married quarters estate to the private sector.As the answer makes clear, the scheme has been popular with service personnel.
People who are looking for rented homes in the area will not benefit. Even local builders may be undermined if faced with possible release of property in the area. We are faced with a dogma-driven exercise, probably pushed by the right-wing guru, David Hart. The prospectus of the MOD for purchases makes that clear. It reads:The Government is determined to sustain"—
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
Is the Labour party committed to the married quarters estates sale? Would it reverse it? What would it do about it?
§ Mr. Spellar
I thought that I had made it clear that the last thing anyone would do now would be to sell property at the bottom of the market and then put it out on the basis of market rents, as they increased—[Interruption.] The Minister is trying to shout me down. It seems that he is desperate to sell now and pay later. He is not even—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Spellar
I think that the Minister did not like the thought of what the next passage would be. We are told that the Governmentis determined to sustain the revival in the private rented sector that deregulation has achieved. We will encourage more investors into the market, legislating to allow investment trusts to be created, making institutional investment in rented housing more attractive. We shall further deregulate private renting to reduce the burdens on small landlords.That is what it is all about. These matters are driven not by defence needs but by Tory dogma. To paraphrase the words of the hon. Member for Wyre, it is the needs of 978 estate agents, not those of the defence estate, that arc driving the policy.
We have dwelt, inevitably, on our criticisms of the operations of MOD and of Ministers in matters that divide us. We should not, however, let our criticisms obscure the matters that unite us. There is a determination on both sides of the House to ensure the defence of the United Kingdom and to ensure that the men and women who undertake that task have the best training and equipment possible. Finally, there is our pride in the record of our troops as they fulfil their duties at home and abroad.
§ The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. James Arbuthnot)
It has been a privilege to take part in the debate. With the exception of one speech, it has been a debate of exceptionally high quality. Accordingly, I do not want to waste too much time on what must surely have been one of the most small-minded speeches made by the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) that I have heard in the House. He demeaned himself and, sadly, with it, the House. I hope that he will not re-read it. If he does so, he will feel that he has not done himself justice.
The debate has raised a tremendous number of issues. Inevitably, I shall not be able to cover them all this evening. I shall ensure that either I or my hon. Friend the Minister of State will write to hon. Members to whose points I have not been able to respond.
We have heard many speeches of distinction, including those of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter), the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) and my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir J. Spicer), who made some constructive points about recruitment, as did my hon. Friends the Members for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes) and for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves). I am particularly sad that I shall not be able to reply in detail to the excellent points that were made, on a wide range of matters, by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), but time does not permit it.
It is has been a helpful debate because it has given me the opportunity to say something about defence procurement policy, which has attracted a good deal of interest recently, and rightly so. It is the key to ensuring that the Army and other services have the equipment that they need to carry out the many tasks required of them and to obtain the best value for the taxpayers' money.
The 1995 public expenditure survey settlement reflects the Government's firm belief in strong defence and the rigorous management of money provided by the taxpayer. The new plans affirm our determination to maintain a period of stability in defence planning, which is vital to the long-term decisions that are necessary for defence. My hon. Friends the Members for Southport (Mr. Banks) and for Wyre (Mr. Mans) were quite right in what they said about the need for stability.
But we cannot be complacent about what will happen over the next few years, because a healthy and technologically advanced defence industry is an important national asset, and I will not allow the Labour party to suggest that we think otherwise. We do not take its continuation for granted. As a Government, we take a 979 keen interest in the health of the United Kingdom's defence industry, although we do not share the protectionist and dirigiste tendencies of some of our allies, or of the Labour party. We monitor the effects of our procurement policies and have regular contacts with industry at all levels, and we listen to the concerns of industry.
An important contribution to the debate in that area has been the recent joint report by the Select Committees on Defence and on Trade and Industry, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) referred. The report was thoughtful, wide-ranging and extremely constructive. My Department and the Department of Trade and Industry are considering it carefully and the Government will respond to the Committees shortly. I do not want to pre-empt that response, but it might be useful if I say a few words about some of the current issues.
First, on equipment collaboration, as the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) said, in a thoughtful and considered speech, the rising cost of defence equipment and reductions in defence expenditure have made collaboration in equipment procurement an increasingly important means of keeping costs down. It also provides opportunities for UK industry to enter new' markets and to create new alliances. That is underlined by the large number of current collaborative equipment programmes with our European partners. We are involved in some 25 projects with France; 22 with Germany. Other significant European partners include Italy and The Netherlands.
I met my German opposite number, Herr Jörg Schönbohm, in London this morning to discuss areas of co-operation, and we discussed yesterday's announcement by the German defence Minister of Germany's intention to increase its commitment to Eurofighter from 140 to 180 aircraft, which we very much welcome. We agreed that that resolves the question of production work sharing, subject to the settlement of some details by officials of the four partner nations, and it will provide a firm basis for planning by industry and the partner nations for the commencement of future phases of the project. I know that the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre will agree that that is excellent news for the Eurofighter project and for British industry.
Collaboration with European partners is often easiest to arrange. There are fewer problems when partners are of roughly equal size. But we also welcome opportunities to collaborate with the United States. As in Europe, successful collaboration is often rooted in strong commercial relationships between the industries concerned. The UK defence industry has many links with US companies, and we hope that these will continue to provide a basis for further co-operation. We certainly do not see. collaboration as confined to Europe. Nor do we see it as a goal in itself. It is only one means by which we aim to maximise what we can achieve with the defence budget.
Our major aim must continue to be to seek maximum value from the defence budget. That underlies all our procurement activity. Over the past decade, our policies have undoubtedly been highly successful in securing that. 980 They have also made a major contribution to turning UK defence industries into the effective and internationally competitive businesses that they are today.
Exports play an important part in the role of defence industries. The recent performance of the UK defence companies in achieving overseas orders has been excellent. Provisional results for 1995 suggest that, in a world market that has reduced in size by around 10 per cent. compared with 1994, UK export orders are up by around 10 per cent. to some £5 billion. That represents a welcome increase in the UK market share from under 16 per cent. in 1994 to some 19 per cent. in 1995. That is the second highest share ever achieved by the UK, and in performance it remains second only to the much larger United States defence industry.
That success is due not only to the growing competitiveness of UK defence companies, but it reflects the high standard of their products and the commitment of the defence export services organisation, the armed forces and Ministers in supporting companies in their efforts to win export business.
If we are to maintain that level of business in an increasingly competitive environment, industry and Government must continue to work together. To that end we have developed, with industry, a strategic plan. It identifies and prioritises the opportunities and sets out strategies for winning the available business, including finance and offset which are key elements in winning orders in today's market.
The Army's equipment has faced an extended and searching examination in recent years from the rigours of the terrain and climate of Bosnia. That has been referred to by my hon. Friends the Members for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), for Wimbledon, and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton). That equipment has passed with flying colours.
In last year's debate on the Army, my predecessor drew the attention of the House to the excellent performance of Warrior and our tracked armoured reconnaissance vehicles. Both they and the DROPS logistic vehicles have continued to perform extremely well. All types of armoured vehicle have been maintained at a high level of operational availability at all times.
Bosnia has also enabled my Department and industry to show their skill at responding quickly to urgent operational requirements. There have been many examples, but I want to single out the rapid development and deployment of the prototype HALO sound ranging equipment used for locating hostile artillery. The requirement was identified and agreed, a contract placed, and the system deployed within a matter of months. It made its first successful detection almost immediately. It is an excellent illustration of the speed and effectiveness of response by the MOD and industry working closely together with a common aim.
In opening the debate, my hon. Friend the Minister of State referred to our decisions on utility vehicles and ambulances. That matter has been raised by a number of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for South-West Cambridgeshire (Sir A. Grant), my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green, and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden).
981 As regards the utility vehicles, two companies responded to the invitation to tender—Land-Rover and Steyr Daimler Puch. It was concluded that the Steyr Daimler Puch vehicle was too expensive and it was ruled out three years ago. However, following trials the Steyr vehicle was selected to meet the more demanding truck utility medium heavy duty requirement, and is now successfully in service. We have announced today an order for a further 65 of those vehicles which have proved to be excellent.
The Land Rover vehicle, known commercially as Defender XD, has been subjected to extensive and rigorous trialling in order to ensure that it can meet the high standards of reliability which are essential for operational military vehicles. Therefore, I am pleased to have been able to announce earlier today that, subject to the satisfactory completion of contractual negotiations, I propose to place an order with Land-Rover for about 8,000 vehicles. That order is worth about £170 million. It will bring substantial industrial and employment benefits to Land-Rover, and enhance the vehicle's already excellent prospects in export markets.
The battlefield ambulance programme has particular importance for the services. That has been discussed at some length today. It was a close contest. Both vehicles demonstrated excellent technical qualities, but the reasons for our deciding in favour of Land-Rover and for placing. an order for some 800 ambulances with it have been well set out in the debate. The decision is good news for the armed forces and it will bring substantial industrial and employment benefits to Land-Rover and to Marshall of Cambridge.
We have heard of the pride of the United Kingdom in fulfilling its role in the world. The Government are determined to ensure that the UK will continue to earn the respect of others in all that we do, and that we will be well able to meet the challenges and changes that we must face.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.