§ [Relevant documents: Minutes of Evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 29th July (Gulf War Illnesses), HC 222-i, and 30th July (Strategic Defence Review), HC 138-i, and the First Special Report from the Defence Committee (Government Replies to First to Sixth Reports of Session 1996–97: HC 94 (Sale of the Married Quarters Estate), HC 211 (The Army Terms of Service (Amendment) Regulations (S.I., 1996, No. 2973)), HC 142 (Defence Medical Services), HC 127 (Defence Spending), HC 233 (Heavy Lift) and HC 158 (Gulf War Illnesses: Latest Developments)), HC 153.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]
§ Madam Speaker
I inform the House that, because of the great number of right hon. and hon. Members seeking to take part in the debate, I must restrict Back-Bench speeches to 10 minutes.
§ The Minister for the Armed Forces (Dr. John Reid)
I approach this speech with a mixture of pride and humility: pride not in myself, but in the accomplishments, professionalism and sheer dedication of the British armed forces, which I have been temporarily asked to represent in this Chamber; and a sense of humility when confronted with both the admiration that they enjoy world wide and the daunting nature of the tasks that lie ahead.
At the same time, I am clear that those of us who have the privilege of being appointed to the Ministry of Defence realise that it brings with it no mundane or simple challenge, for this Department is charged with providing the fighting power to discharge one of the primary tasks of Government—the protection of our fellow citizens, our country, our freedoms, our dependent territories and our wider interests in the world.
Under this Government, the Department is charged with a second task, for, as the Prime Minister has made clear, the Government believe in taking an active part in international affairs. We accept that just as the citizen at home has responsibilities as well as rights, so, too, in the international arena we as a nation have an obligation to contribute towards making the world a better, safer and more secure place. This is not just because of our international standing in the UN, NATO, the European Union and the Commonwealth—though that would surely be enough in itself—and not just because of the self-evident self-interest of a more secure world, but because if there is to be an ethical dimension to our foreign policy, it will surely require positive action in resisting aggression, protecting civilians, seeking to prevent genocide, terrorism and enforced starvation, assisting evacuees and tackling the world wide scourge of the drugs trade. That will encompass peacekeeping and peacemaking, and the many other tasks in which our armed forces are a primary or important instrument of action.
Those tasks would be challenging enough in normal times. However, we live not in normal times but in an epoch of rapid, profound international change. A mere decade ago, the cold war presented grave dangers, but the two great glaciers held in check in their hinterland a multitude of potential problems, frozen in relative stability.
A torrent of new risks has been unleashed, in the form of border disputes, ethnic enmities, civil wars, arms proliferation, mass illegal migrations and international 725 criminal opportunities. The relative simplicity of the old threat has gone, and with it, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, the comfortable certainties that marked yesterday's security strategy.
I was struck last night by the large number of hon. Members—some long standing and distinguished, and others relatively new—who wanted to speak in this first defence debate of the new Parliament; it is a reflection of the abiding interest of the House in the defence of our country.
I regret that I was unable to deal with all the myriad points made by hon. Members. I will, however, touch on the substantial points raised by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), a distinguished former Secretary of State for Defence, whom shortage of time, rather than discourtesy, prevented me from answering.
Our strategic defence review—which, I reiterate, is policy led, rather than resource driven—will ensure that we have clarity in our objectives and coherence in our planning as we move into the 21st century. Resources obviously matter and, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said yesterday, we are determined, as part of the review, to undertake a ruthless search for greater efficiency in defence spending within the present budget, to create the space to redeploy towards perceived inadequacies and any newly identified roles, capabilities, missions and tasks. We want not only to deliver value for money but to ensure that Britain has flexible, high-capability forces, able to meet tomorrow's challenges.
As far as possible, we want to build consensus. That does not mean quiescence, or a lack of criticism or vigour in debate. There will be disagreements—we, like all other Governments, will make mistakes and we fully accept that it is the duty of the Opposition to point them out, preferably before they are made—but we believe that the grounds exist, as the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) said last night, for all of us to work together to build a framework for the future, putting national security and the national interest above party politics.
§ Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)
Those are fine words, but where is the foreign policy base line for us to discuss? It would be easy to achieve consensus if there were a Green or White Paper on the foreign policy base line for the strategic defence review, but, as there is not, we have to conclude that the base line will appear in a final document after the Treasury axe has fallen, and it will be a reverse justification.
§ Dr. Reid
That relates to another point made last night by the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife. This debate will contribute to the formulation of ideas, so we would not want to prejudge it. More importantly, I commend to the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) the speeches of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to the Royal United Services Institute and the English Speaking Union and his articles in a number of publications. The hon. Gentleman will find in them a range of assumptions which address high-intensity and low-intensity warfare, peacekeeping, geographical dispersion of threats, risks, capabilities, sustainability, and concurrency of operations. There is no shortage of views put out by my right hon. Friend to inform the debate. 726 In addition, we have of course had seminars and submissions. We have had as much open discussion as possible. We have put the emerging thinking into the public domain, but we genuinely wish the House to contribute to that thinking.
I listened with interest to the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife last night because almost every issue that he mentioned has a resonance with the issues raised by my right hon. Friend, with the exception of the merging of the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, which I believe has not been done anywhere else in the world.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)
It seems to command some support among former Foreign Secretaries. On the substantive point, there are issues about, for example, the extent to which the United Kingdom's defence should be integrated with Europe or whether the primacy of NATO should be maintained in all circumstances. Those are political judgments. The Minister knows my view. I believe that there should be much more integration of British and European defence. So far, we are not sure what the Government's view is.
§ Dr. Reid
In that case, I commend to the hon. and learned Gentleman that elementary document, the Labour party manifesto, which was endorsed by 95 per cent. of Labour party members and, overwhelmingly, by the people. NATO is the cornerstone of our defence. Yes, we wish to develop the European security and defence identity, but within the framework of NATO. That is not a matter for discussion in the defence review. The other matter that was written into our manifesto was the retention of the minimum deterrent through Trident. We have made our views plain on that issue, as on all the other issues that have been mentioned.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
May I press the Minister a little further on the foreign policy base line? May we assume that in the strategic defence review, the three primary roles of the armed forces—the defence of the realm and its dependent territories, defence against an external aggressor, and full ability to take part in recognised international defensive and offensive forums such as NATO—will be fully maintained and that our ability in those respects will not be significantly reduced?
§ Dr. Reid
The hon. Gentleman may take it that those three roles are encompassed by the aims of the review, but if it was as simple as wrapping the matter up in those three roles despite the changing world and our changing commitments, we would not need a defence review or debate; we would merely write down the roles. We are not going to abandon the defence of Britain. We are committed to NATO and to common protection and security. I have already made it plain that we are committed to the defence of our dependent territories and, of course, to discharging our international obligations to the world. I say yes to the three roles, but the matter is slightly more complex, as the hon. Gentleman knows.
If we are to make a rigorous analysis, we must begin by analysing the base from which we start. I believe that we do not start from a very firm base in all areas. Thinking back to the discussion last night, it is not only that defence expenditure has been cut by 29 per cent. since the mid-1980s or that personnel numbers have been 727 cut by 32 per cent. or that tanks, frigates, destroyers and the surface fleet have been cut. It is that we believe that the manner in which those cuts were made was too arbitrary.
The arbitrary nature of the reductions and the apparent lack of coherence has left us with a sorry legacy—an inheritance which is now manifesting itself in a number of inadequacies. I want to mention only three as examples. This need not be a point of party political contention. I do not suggest that the previous Government intentionally designed the inadequacies, but, before we start to deploy resources, we have to backfill the inadequacies to meet our most basic tasks. The first is the inadequacy of strategy. Clear direction must be given so that everyone involved, including service men and women, who ultimately have to bear the task that we place on their shoulders, knows the direction in which we are moving.
Secondly, mention was made last night of the parlous state of the defence medical services. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that it is now obvious that the defence medical services are in a sorry mess, and that those Members will support me when I say that I have instructed that an urgent reassessment take place, and that proposals for action be formulated without waiting the five years suggested by the Defence Select Committee.
The third example will be recognised by hon. Members throughout the House. There are chronic inadequacies in personnel numbers. Published figures showed a shortfall of more than 5,000 men in the Army alone when the new Government took office. Whatever their intent, the previous Government's redundancy programme, the implementation of which I fully accept was complex, has created a serious shortfall. We aim to redress that as one of our major priorities.
§ Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)
I seek clarification. Is the Minister saying that the previous Government cut too much, cut too little, or got it just right?
§ Dr. Reid
If we are running 5,000 men short or, on projected figures for next year, possibly a great deal more than that, no one can suggest that the previous Government got it just right, whatever their intent. They got it badly wrong. However, it is not a simple matter of replacing soldiers made redundant with new soldiers. The matter is not open to simple solutions. It involves a range of problems not only of numbers but of culture, retention, the nature of the modern armed forces and the nature of the community from which they draw their raw material. I do not suggest that the previous Government simply should not have handed out redundancy notices, but, whatever their intent, they got it badly wrong. All of us will now wish to put it right.
§ Mr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)
While I accepted the reprimand given to me yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when I raised the case of Major Eric Joyce, may I say to my hon. Friend that the recent highly publicised cases of bullying and sexual discrimination against young recruits will act as a severe deterrent to the recruitment of young men and women to our forces? I remind him as a Scots Member of Parliament that there have been two cases of bullying 728 of young Scots recruits in infantry regiments. I suspect that those cases will act as a severe deterrent not only to young men and women but to their parents. My hon. Friend will have to do something about it.
§ Dr. Reid
My hon. Friend raised a specific case last night. He will fully understand that I cannot and will not comment on a specific case which is an operational matter, any more than he would intervene in a case in the civilian courts. On the general matter that he raises, I make two points. First, the Government recognise the convention, which has served the country well, that the armed forces and their personnel do not get involved in politics, but that does not mean that I and others are not well aware of the point that he raises. I have made it plain in words and deeds that we will not tolerate bullying.
The Government have been in office only six months. On questions of gender, harassment, treatment of ethnic minorities and meritocracy, I ask my hon. Friend to judge us by our deeds. I make the personal point that, while I find it of interest that people—not my hon. Friend but others—seek to enlighten me with philosophical tracts about the benefits of opening opportunities to people from working-class backgrounds, I and other Labour Ministers do not need to read the tracts. We have lived the experience. We value it because we come from that background.
We have made plain our intention to ensure that accessibility to our armed forces and promotion within them will be open to the widest possible reservoir of talent in our nation. Our armed forces will maintain their admired international position only if pathways to progress are open to the brightest and the best. That applies irrespective of ethnic origin, gender or social class. We know that that presents a stiff challenge in a changing age and we are under no illusions, but we are determined to give the issue the priority that it deserves.
§ Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)
Does the Minister suggest that what he describes is not the case at present and that there is active prejudice in career progression in the armed forces? I think that the armed forces may be rather surprised and disappointed to hear him say that.
§ Dr. Reid
The Chief of the General Staff held a press conference on Monday of last week in which he announced the Army's view that there was a perception of racism inside the Army. The Chief of the General Staff—not politicians—made it plain that he would not tolerate it. We applaud the Army for taking that initiative. We fully back it. It is not a matter of political correctness. The Army understands that if it is to maintain the reputation and admiration that it has won, it must respond to the world situation and the expectations of our people at home. I applaud the Army for its initiatives on racism and other matters.
Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State put into practice the Government's commitment to extending opportunities for women in the armed forces. Today's armed forces must be seen as somewhere where women can make progress. Yesterday's announcement has taken us one stage further in that direction.
We face a greater challenge in recruitment from the ethnic minorities. The armed forces have until relatively recently remained distanced from the progress in racial 729 awareness made in other areas of society. It is regrettable—I let the facts speak for themselves—that only 1 per cent. of service men and women state that they are from an ethnic minority background. Ethnic minority recruiting has remained stubbornly low, despite intensive efforts. The Government and the armed forces are aware of our responsibility. We are examining the image of the services among ethnic minorities to see what more can be done to unlock barriers and remove misconceptions. We must also satisfy ourselves that there is no scope for discrimination or exclusion, and that we create a culture in which all personnel value, respect and learn from one another.
In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Mr. Godman), I say that I made it clear in my first days of office that we would not tolerate racism, bullying, sexual harassment or intolerance in the armed forces. In answer to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), I say that the service chiefs are equally determined that those things should not be tolerated. It will take time, but we are united in our resolve and determined to succeed.
I give the House a number of examples of what we are doing. We are striving to improve recruitment from our ethnic minority population. Exploratory talks have already taken place with local officials in Newham, east London, and the borough of Sandwell in the west midlands to examine how best to introduce recruiting drives in those areas. As I said, earlier this month, the Chief of the General Staff launched the Army's equal opportunities strategy. We do those things not only because they are just, although they are, not only because the Commission for Racial Equality has said that we must, although it has, but because the extension of opportunity is not only a moral imperative but a matter of effectiveness and efficiency for our armed forces.
If we are to ensure that the widest possible array of talent and the best possible quality of leadership are available to our armed forces, ability rather than gender, social class or ethnic origin must be the criterion according to which recruitment and promotion to leadership takes place.
When people raise the subject of racism with me and ask whether it is a matter of political correctness, I remind them that the most glorious hours of the British armed forces were spent when they stood alone against the most poisonous regime ever to emanate from the European continent. The poison at the heart of that regime was racism. There is no place for racism in the ethos of the British armed forces.
§ Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)
The Minister talked about consensus. I hope that he will agree that his Government are continuing the previous Government's policy. He will recall serving on the Select Committee that considered the Armed Forces Bill, which I chaired, where we gave the Commission for Racial Equality four years to report back so that when the Committee sat again in the year 2000 it would have a report that it could get its teeth into should it be necessary.
§ Dr. Reid
I willingly agree with that. I have made no allusion to any previous Government. What I have done, and what I hope that the House will do, is to identify those areas where we need to make improvements that are for 730 the benefit of our armed forces and of the country. I do not lay complaints at the door of any previous Governments.
The efforts must not stop at the recruiting office. Once service personnel have joined the armed forces, we must ensure that we retain and develop their skills. In the last financial year, nearly 9 per cent. of our service personnel volunteered to leave the armed forces prematurely. That is unsustainable and it shows that something is wrong. The new Government are well aware of their responsibility to provide a stable and comprehensive structure to support service people in their work. Some of the key retention issues are being addressed through a comprehensive review of pay, allowances and charges following the independent review.
A new allowance package is being introduced on 1 December, designed to target resources where they can be most effective. For the future, we shall be introducing a new, more flexible pay system that will provide everyone with the opportunity to increase their earnings within their rank in recognition of experience and qualifications. That continued throughout the deliberations of the previous Government.
We are also committed to bringing service housing up to the highest standards. We are actively examining the complex and unsatisfactory range of death and injury benefits and our resettlement procedures. Those measures should help us to make a start in delivering the right quality of life, geared to the needs of the 21st century.
All those measures are directed at our most precious resource in the armed forces: our people. Of the three elements of fighting power—which include the conceptual element of doctrine, strategy and tactics, the physical element of tanks, battleships and aircraft—it is the third element, the moral element of purpose, kinship, direction, belonging and motivation, which is most often forgotten. It is forgotten because it is the hardest to define and to quantify, or to illustrate in learned books or accountants' ledgers. But without it the other two elements of fighting power are as nothing.
That is why my very first action as a Minister was to demonstrate clearly this Government's recognition of the duty that we owe to those men and women who serve their country, by responding to the concerns of Gulf veterans. The House will recall that we have doubled the financial resources allocated to dealing with that issue, enhanced the medical assessment programme and instituted a new programme of research. I am glad to be able to inform the House that almost half as many concerned veterans have been through the medical assessment programme in the past six months as had been through it in the previous four years.
§ Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)
I congratulate my hon. Friend and I am grateful for the measures that have been taken in relation to Gulf war syndrome. May we have a similar sort of sympathetic review of the circumstances relating to the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association whose members gave similar sterling service to this country and who finished their engagements in difficult circumstances? They have suffered over the years, not only from personal disability, 731 but because some of their offspring have been born with severe disabilities and have died early. Could we have a similar review for those people?
§ Dr. Reid
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, who has been handling that issue, will be referring to that subject later, so my hon. Friend may want to wait for that contribution.
At the time of my earlier announcement, I instructed that a report be compiled on the scientific basis on which medical counter-measures—vaccines and NAPS tablets—were used in the Gulf, and I promised to publish it in full. I am pleased to tell the House that the report has been published today and a copy placed in the Library of the House.
When British troops are engaged in conflict, it is the duty of the Government of the day to make the best available choices in order to protect them. Those choices are not made in an ideal world, but involve hard judgments, and some risks often have to be taken. Speedy action was essential in 1990, as it has been on every other occasion.
As the House may already know, and as I confirmed today, some of the medical counter-measures used at the time were not licensed in the UK. The House will be aware that the fact that a medical product is unlicensed does not in itself mean either that it is untested or that it is inherently unsafe, but I thought that the facts deserved to be confirmed and made public.
One specific issue that the paper addresses is the simultaneous use of anthrax vaccine and pertussis, commonly referred to as whooping cough vaccine, which the Ministry of Defence envisaged with the object of increasing the efficacy—accelerating the effects—of the anthrax vaccine. In late 1990, the Department of Health notified the Ministry of Defence of anxieties over such simultaneous use, based on the preliminary findings of tests on laboratory animals. Despite my efforts and those of my officials, it has not been possible to establish whether the Department's anxieties were taken into account when formulating the final decision to use pertussis vaccine.
§ Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)
I thank my hon. Friend for seeing my constituents, Mr. Robertson, Mr. Doyle and Mr. Turnbull, within weeks of taking office and I thank him for putting the information before the House. In what way can my constituents and many other veterans receive the most up-to-date treatment and medicine available in the light of the knowledge that my hon. Friend now has? Is it not astonishing that that potent mix of vaccines was put into the veins of our soldiers? Surely, something can be done on health grounds.
§ Dr. Reid
With regard to the latter point, I said at the beginning of my speech that it is the primary duty of every Government to protect their service men and women. Our world is less than ideal; when a war was thrust upon us, I have no doubt that the Government of the time were motivated by a desire to protect our service men and women. We have extended and widely advertised the assessment facilities and I hope that my hon. Friend's constituents will take advantage of that.
732 I should emphasise that the use of pertussis vaccine in that way is not a common factor linking UK veterans who are ill with those from other coalition countries, particularly the United States of America. Only British troops were given this particular combination of vaccines, but it is not only British troops who are ill.
The information that I am making available today is as complete as we can make it. I hope that it will help Members of the House, Gulf veterans and the general public better to understand the background to matters which for some years have been a source of confusion, misunderstanding and mistrust.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell
The Minister knows that the subject of Gulf war syndrome occasions great anxiety on both sides of the House. He knows that in the previous Parliament the Select Committee on Defence wrote a stringent report about what it believed should be done. In the light of what the Minister has said and of all the other information that is now available to him in his new capacity, does he believe that it is time that we decided to award compensation on a no-fault basis to those who can establish that their present condition has arisen as a result of their service in the Gulf?
§ Dr. Reid
First, the hon. and learned Gentleman knows that compensation is already available in the form of a war pension, which is not insignificant when translated into a capital sum. Secondly, the problem is not only that no fault has been established; no cause has been established. If it were within my power—which it is not—to say exactly what the Gulf war illnesses are and what caused them, I, like many others in the House, would do so. The reality is, however, that a cause has not been established and no responsible Government—no matter how sympathetic—can pay compensation when no fault and no cause have been established without opening the floodgates to anyone who wants to claim on any occasion.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth
I appreciate the Minister's concern and his positive approach to this issue. My question is simple, because I understand the concept of no fault. Some veterans have not yet had back their medical returns; these are taking so long that the veterans might run out of time for making claims. Have there been inordinate delays in getting the returns back? Will it be permissible for the veterans to go beyond the time span?
§ Dr. Reid
The hon. Gentleman will understand that the assessment for war pensions is not carried out by my Ministry, but by the Department of Social Security. If we can do anything to speed up the process, we will do it.
I should have mentioned that I am also publishing today a further memorandum about the circumstances in which Parliament was misled concerning the use of organophosphate pesticides during the Gulf war. It includes details of an investigation carried out earlier this year which could not be published at the time because disciplinary procedures were contemplated. The paper also reports the outcome of those disciplinary procedures, 733 which are that three service and civil service personnel are the subject of formal action in respect of their conduct in relation to the events set out in that report.
I place great emphasis on bringing these matters to the House, not only because of the debt of honour that we owe to those who have served their country, but because of the wider obligations to the people of this nation to explain the actions that were taken. I hope that we can now follow up on the fresh start by the new Government by drawing a line under past events and concentrating on future action to help veterans, which should be the focus of our attention.
The great achievements of our services should not be a well-kept secret. The only way to keep the faith of the nation and to build on the trust that we have with the people is to be as open as possible. That relates not only to service personnel issues, but to what our services are doing, and it may help to increase the knowledge of the sterling work our forces do. That is why we have increased the number of places on the armed forces parliamentary scheme from eight to 20 per annum. I am pleased to tell the House that we are over-subscribed this year, so any hon. Member who wishes to apply for next year should get the application in now because there is a big queue for places on detachment to our armed forces.
Defence is not a stand-alone activity. The armed forces and the tasks that they carry out are part of the fabric of our national life. Defence is a major employer—not only in the Ministry and the services, which sustain some 340,000 jobs, but in the defence industry and in the wider community. The armed forces are also linked to our wider community through the volunteer reserve forces, who continue to make an important contribution—none more so than the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. I am delighted to announce that, following the successful trials at RAF Benson last year under the former Minister for the Armed Forces, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), the RAF intends to create a further four role-support squadrons. Those will provide regular RAF units with support in a variety of roles in peacekeeping and crisis management. I hope that the House will applaud that welcome boost to the opportunities available to reservists, which shows how seriously we take their role.
§ Dr. Reid
No, I have given way enough and I must make progress.
It is on operations that the courage and professionalism of our armed forces are best seen. I have had the opportunity to visit our troops in Northern Ireland. Despite the welcome progress in the political sphere, it is our troops who still stand vigilant against terrorism in that unhappy province.
Increasingly, the tasks of our armed forces are overseas, supporting the maintenance of international order. In the skies over Iraq, in the Gulf, in Cyprus, in the Adriatic and in Bosnia, the RAF, the Navy and the Army stand sentinel for the international community. The tragic conflict in Bosnia has engaged our complete attention and we are well aware of the role played by British troops, but I should like to mention that the British forces serving with the stabilisation force performed with great courage and skill when, earlier this year in Prijedor, they acted in support of international law and order to detain persons indicted for war crimes.
734 As our forces answer the challenges put before them, others escalate in scale and import. We put the global fight against the drugs trade higher on the priority list than it has been for many years. The West Indies guard ship merits particular mention in that context and its conspicuous success is highlighted by involvement in the seizure of more than £150 million worth of drugs. New agreements with the United States are now being finalised, which should improve further the effectiveness of our combined anti-drugs efforts.
New challenges emerge, as do new opportunities. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said yesterday, defence diplomacy must be another emerging area to which our armed forces can contribute greatly, not only through NATO and other international organisations, but through our extensive bilateral defence relationships. Nearly 1,000 activities took place during 1997, ranging from joint exercises to visits of specialist training teams to secondment of senior officers and civil servants—1,000 activities involving the British armed forces contributing to a safer, more secure world.
The challenges and the opportunities continue to grow, but we must not forget the importance of matching resources to commitments and I have made plain the Government's commitment to seek benefits for the taxpayer by ensuring that every penny that is spent is spent wisely. In an increasingly uncertain age, our armed forces are being asked to fulfil a wider range of tasks than ever before—not merely in our defence interests, but in support of the promotion of the common good, both in our own country and throughout the international community.
I believe that the service that those men and women offer this country—a service which, in its ultimate form, embraces the potential sacrifice of life and limb—is matched by the inescapable duty of the Government, on behalf of the country, to provide leadership, care and resources commensurate to that commitment. That is a duty which the Government readily undertake and a pledge which I willingly give.
§ 5.7 pm
§ Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)
Our annual two-day defence debate always generates a remarkable breadth and depth of discussion, ranging from international and strategic affairs and perspectives to the erudite examination of the merits of procurement decisions. That is all right and proper. In opening for the Opposition on the second day, my first duty is to put on the record our thanks and admiration for the dedication of the hundreds of thousands of people who are the prime asset of our nation's defence—those in uniform and in the scientific and industrial civil service, agency staff and contractors' staff.
Since 1 May, it has been said time and again by Ministers that defence was not an issue in the general election. If the Government really believe that, we are living in dangerous days. Hon. Members who take even a passing interest in defence know that defence is a live issue. Anyone travelling abroad, be it to France or to the far east, knows that defence is an issue. The United Kingdom's military will probably see more active service in the next two or three decades than in the five decades since world war two.
I shall now comment on what the Minister for the Armed Forces said about progress in research on Gulf war illness. Undoubtedly, hundreds of men and women who 735 fought in the Gulf are ill. They need help, which is available through their general practitioners and the wider national health service. The challenge for the medical and scientific community has been to identify a syndrome or common theme with a common cause and then, if they meet that challenge, to discover whether there is a common cure. The previous Government therefore asked the Medical Research Council to design and commission appropriate research. Ministers emphasised time and again that they had an open mind, and we must all continue to have an open mind while doctors and scientists explain to us what has happened over the years.
In the previous Parliament, the Defence Select Committee discovered serious failings in the way in which the Army had administered substances and recorded—or rather, not recorded—who had been given what, but we welcome the latest initiative to piece together that very distressing jigsaw.
People who understand freedom know that if we want peace we must prepare for war—high-intensity war. In Britain, we understand that the end of the cold war brought more, not less, instability. We know that to keep the peace in Bosnia we need the AS90 gun and the Challenger tank, as well as friendly soldiers in shirt-sleeve order and election observers.
Then there is Trident. When Labour Members were lining up to support the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Conservative position on Trident was solid—and so it is now. I genuinely welcome the Labour Government to this common ground of hard and realistic defence policy. They have come in from the cold, but they have not even taken off their overcoats, let alone sat down to talk about their conversion. We are a bit suspicious. Are they about to try and tiptoe out again? Will the coats that they leave behind turn out to be ours after all, returned as MOD surplus to requirement now that they have won the general election?
The Government have bought the planned extra missiles, but they are going to reduce the warheads. They have decided not to scrap the fourth Trident submarine, but we understand that they might tie her up alongside the other three. If our entire nuclear deterrent fleet is berthed, crewless and effectively mothballed, what does that say about the seriousness of our deterrent? What signals does it send about our role in the world under Labour? What does it say about the relationship between the Secretary of State for Defence and the Foreign Secretary?
In paragraph 203 of the Ministry of Defence performance report published yesterday, we read:"Trident already provides a continuously available sub-strategic capability. This will become fully robust when Vigilant joins the operational cycle later in 1997. The four boat Trident fleet will ensure that such patrols can continue to be maintained throughout the lifetime of the Trident force.That is what we signed up to.
In paragraph 243, we read of a remarkable Royal Navy deployment, Ocean Wave:The Royal Navy embarked on a seven month deployment to the Asia Pacific region in January 1997. The deployment, known as OCEAN WAVE 97 and comprising some 20 ships, aimed to demonstrate the UK's commitment to the region, to test the Royal Navy's ability to deploy an operationally effective and self-sustaining force out of area and to underline the UK's continuing interest in promoting international peace and stability. 736 There were numerous major and minor exercises together with an array of goodwill visits to further these aims. The Task Group returned in August 1997.That proud report will be a matter of history, never to be repeated, if the Government will not send Trident to sea and if they cut naval capabilities—perhaps even decide not to replace our three aircraft carriers. There is not much hope for consensus down that route.
§ Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)
I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Will he tell me, first, the Conservative party view of the non-proliferation treaty and the duty of the Government to ensure that they do not breach it and, secondly, whether any Conservative Defence Minister ever gave details at the Dispatch Box of a Trident mission?
§ Mr. Key
Of course not, because it has rightly always been a matter of convention in all Governments that deployment of our nuclear deterrent remains a secret. On the first point, the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that our position was laid out by our Defence Ministers year after year after year to the House, and our position remains as stated.
Into our homes, and into our hearts and minds, television brings not only sanitised "defence" as soaps and documentaries, but the reality of death and destruction, maiming and killing. It also brings images of peace enforcement, peacekeeping on land and sea and in the air, and the hope of millions for normality and freedom.
The world has probably understood for longer than us the value to our nation of soldiers in khaki who, in a good cause, fight and win when others fail, and can then don red tunics and gently bear a princess to her funeral before the eyes of the world. Who says now that pomp and ceremony have had their day?
Defence may not have been a party issue in Hamilton, South. I suspected that the Labour candidate who is now Secretary of State for Defence never mentioned it in his general election address because he had hoped to be Secretary of State for Scotland. I checked, and he did not mention defence in his election address. Next door, in Hamilton, North and Bellshill, I assumed that the Labour candidate's election address would be very strong on defence, because he hoped to be Secretary of State for Defence. I was wrong; the present Minister for the Armed Forces did not mention defence even in his election address.
However, defence certainly was an issue in Hampshire, North-West, as it was in the Salisbury constituency. In our constituencies, the military of all three services and all ranks did not forget that new Labour's architects and masters had fraternised with CND in the cold war years. All our constituents knew what it was like to sustain men and women who, as well as being prepared to die for their country in war, made the peacetime sacrifices of difficult, often dangerous and usually repetitive service away from home, in some obscure place, and in pursuit of what they perceived to be someone else's problem. "Overstretch" became a household word.
While Labour dithered and demonstrated, in the 1980s, Conservative policies won the day. The cold war ended. Changes in defence were inevitable. The past decade has witnessed review after review of the military. The previous Secretary of State, Michael Portillo, at last 737 promised a period of stability. In Westminster, one could almost hear the sigh from Salisbury plain. Last year, the Defence Select Committee, of which I was a member, produced a unanimous report declaring that, as a percentage of gross domestic product, the defence budget had reached 1930s levels and must fall no more. The names are recorded.
In the most recent general election, Labour prayed that defence would not attract the media's attention. Labour did not fool its old Labour left wingers. They held their breath long enough to win the election, but by July they had found their wind again. Of course we have not heard from them in this debate—although we may still—but we heard them over the weekend in the media. They are alive and well.
In Bosnia earlier this month, a soldier in a remote camp told me that he had just received a letter from his wife in England. She was worried sick that she would not make ends meet until he came home. Her husband explained that she was a good manager, but, like most service wives, did not have access to the charge card or credit facilities that most people now take for granted. This is certainly not a party political issue.
Did you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that men and women serving in our forces are denied store cards by excellent establishments such as Marks and Spencer, Waitrose and many others? I only mention those because they were specifically complained of to me. I shop at both, so I hold no prejudice against them. Why does this happen? First, the credit raters classify as a bad risk a person who moves house within less than three years. That includes most service married quarters. Secondly, credit rating databases often record bad debts by address, not by occupant. On moving from one service married quarter to another, it is possible to inherit a bad address.
I commend the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute's financial services department for understanding the problem, but I hope that Ministers will join us in urging the financial world to treat forces families fairly. I hope that we can all agree on that. There can be little risk in offering modest credit to men and women in uniform, subject to the discipline of the chain of command. The Army Families Federation told me last week that military personnel returning home from abroad can be sure of a BT phone line only if they pay by direct debit because they are regarded as a bad-debt risk.
Another issue that can impact heavily on service families is eligibility for benefits, including jobseeker's allowance. We want our forces to "follow the flag". We recognise that times have changed and that many wives have their own careers and earnings expectations. When a spouse is posted, a hard-won job must come to an end. The Department for Education and Employment, however, deems all wives to have made themselves voluntarily redundant.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Spellar)
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
§ Mr. Key
I shall give way when I have finished the point.
Wives must throw themselves on the mercy of adjudication officers; otherwise, they may lose benefits. I raised the matter with Ministers in the previous 738 Government earlier this year and on 7 April the then Under-Secretary of State told me that the Ministry of Defence would establish how the system was working in practice. I should be grateful if Ministers would now tell us what progress has been made in respect of a phenomenon that arose after the new system was introduced. Naturally, it is important that Departments work together and accommodate each other's changes. I am not making a party political point, but it would make a real difference if the Ministry of Defence would ensure that Army wives' point of view was heard in that respect.
Those are the everyday problems faced by forces families. We must never forget that those people are not just part of our military community. This is not just a behind-the-wire issue. Pay and conditions, the state of married quarters, problems of the defence medical services and the much improved world of service education focus on the Ministry of Defence. Forces families are, however, also part of all our communities. We are proud of them and grateful to them.
Yesterday, the Secretary of State announced a modest increase in the number of opportunities for women in the Army. That is fine. It is an unsurprising extension of the equal opportunity policies put in place by the Conservative Government. Any hesitation on our part—any caution—is born of practical problems and experience, which the new Ministers lack. As with the issue of homosexuality in the armed forces, it is no good forcing political correctness on the Navy, Army and Air Force if they are not ready for it and if it would impair their front-line effectiveness. Politicians and campaigners alike must recognise that the ethos of service life is different from civvy street. We expect military personnel to live their lives by higher standards and different codes of behaviour. Change is slow because it must take place for the right reasons. The enforced and repeated separation of husbands and wives in the forces leads to great tensions. Many wives will worry about an increase in the number of women in the forces. That is understandable; I hope that it will be groundless.
In July, I wrote to the Minister for the Armed Forces about another problem. Each of our three services has its own codes of conduct, traditions, prejudices and sanctions. The Minister and I know, and there is now wide recognition, that moral or social behaviour that is apparently acceptable in one service is not acceptable in another. He and I know of at least one case where an officer in one service has had his whole life ruined while the other party in a different service remains undisciplined, with his or her career unscathed. More joint service operations and more women close to the front are likely to exacerbate that problem, which can and should be addressed. We must not allow another decade to slip by without consolidating into a single Act the Navy, Army and Air Force discipline Acts.
I also pay tribute to the many thousands of scientific, industrial and administrative civil servants on whom our fighting forces depend. Those dedicated men and women are too often taken for granted until some crisis calls for their years of training and experience. We then know that we can count on them and that they will give their all, too. The first contractorisation of industrial civil servants took place at Boscombe Down in my constituency more than a decade ago. Since then, Ministry of Defence personnel have endured shake ups as great as anything in the private sector. Generally, they have been beneficial.
739 We shall examine in great detail the Government's proposal for a defence diversification agency. We shall need to see vision and purpose in their plans for a defence evaluation and research agency before agreeing another shake up, but we shall give it positive consideration.
Occasionally, one must draw a firm line in the interests of national security. One such case that we are watching closely is the impact on the work force of Royal Ordnance in Bridgwater as well as the impact on national security of the proposed merger, or joint venture, under consideration between Royal Ordnance's owner, British Aerospace and the French company, SNPE. We understand the concerns of the Royal Ordnance work force and those expressed last night by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) about the importance of maintaining a British capability in the manufacture of ammunition explosives.
Have the Government decided whether to allow that joint venture to proceed? As we had no direct answers from the Government yesterday, I should be grateful for some answers later this evening.
§ Mr. Godman
The concerns voiced by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) on behalf of the work force in Bridgwater are shared by the employees of Royal Ordnance in Bishopton in Renfrewshire. I, too, would like some satisfactory answers concerning their continued employment in both establishments.
§ Mr. Key
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. His intervention gives me an opportunity to put on record the fact that the trade unions, who prepared excellent briefings for Conservative Members, are clearly not opposed in principle to the commercial success of their enterprises. Nor are they opposed to the internationalisation of the production process. They rightly fear for their members' jobs, however, and have a commendable concern for the national interest when it comes to defence. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will get the news that he wants tonight.
The Royal Ordnance work force is an important part of the 400,000-strong UK defence industry. We salute our defence industry. The British defence manufacturing industry is not just world class, though it is; it is not just the world's favourite, though it is; it is a world-beating industry. It is probably the most heavily regulated industry in Britain today. Literally every bag of screws—let alone Land Rover—is subject to interminable scrutiny by at least three, sometimes four or even five, Departments of State and to United Nations, European Union and British Government export criteria and conditions.
The Conservative Government had no hesitation in accepting the moral and ethical dimensions of exporting defence equipment. Conservatives believe in article 51 of the United Nations charter—the right to self-defence—with all its implications for the purchase of defence products. The UN charter is indivisible. Some Labour Members want to pick and mix. The question is not whether Britain had an ethical foreign policy before 1 May—of course it did. The question is: how ethical is it for the Government to put at risk the jobs of 400,000 of our citizens to appease their own moral vanity? That 740 new vanity is interpreted by friendly countries as moral imperialism, and they say so. New Labour—new imperialism.
§ Mr. Blunt
My hon. Friend will be interested to know that the first evidence of the cost of that new morality to British interests and jobs has already been made clear by Vosper Thornycroft not winning a substantial contract for Malaysian patrol vessels, which went—in as yet unexplained circumstances—to a German competitor, despite the fact that Vosper thought that it was doing extremely well. The Turkish Government are now warning the British defence firm—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)
Order. The hon. Gentleman is supposed to be making an intervention. He cannot make such a long intervention. He can make a comment to the Front-Bench spokesman, and that must be the end of that.
§ Mr. Key
I fear that we shall hear many more stories like that. My hon. Friend is right, and I shall refer to further examples of the changes that have taken place in the past six months or so.
The practical implications of that new vanity intrude in two ways: first, through the strategic defence review, of which my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) spoke yesterday; and, secondly, in procurement terms. It has been drawn to my attention that not just hundreds of millions but billions of pounds worth of defence procurement programmes have been destabilised by the incoming Labour Government. My fax has been red hot with tales of disbelief and woe by the bucketload.
When my right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) winds up the debate for the Opposition, he will have something to say about restructuring the European defence industry, the importance of this country's relationship with the United States and the dangers of a fortress Europe attitude to procurement.
§ Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
While the hon. Gentleman is discussing arms sales abroad, and especially possible arms sales to Turkey, should he not use his position to say something about the systematic abuse of human rights in Turkey, the incursion into neighbouring countries by the Turkish armed forces, and the deaths of thousands of Kurdish people in the war going on in the east of that country? Does he not think that we have a role to play in not providing arms that can be used to kill so many civilians?
§ Mr. Key
Of course we have a role to play, although I dare say that Mr. Deputy Speaker would say that that is for a foreign policy debate rather than this one. I have no doubt of the defence dimension of it, and I have no hesitation in pointing out that any export to any of those countries is subject to the range of inquiries that I described a few minutes ago. There is nothing new in the so-called ethical foreign policy. It has always been there.
741 The Conservative Government ensured that our forces would be better equipped than ever before. There was a sea change in the way in which the Ministry of Defence made its contracts. The Labour Government will be lucky if smart procurement achieves half as much as the Conservative reforms. There is nothing smart in new Labour slithering back into its old bureaucratic ways by imposing new copy-in-triplicate, buck-passing, time-wasting procedures, while Defence Ministers wait by the month to hear whether the Foreign Secretary approves and wait until next year to hear whether the Chancellor will allow them to defend our nation as it should be defended.
The stress that the strategic defence review is causing the procurement industry is unjustified. The list of projects concerned about the future is long: Bowman, ASTOR, COBRA, Skynet 5, EH101, Apache, multi-role armoured vehicle, future engineer tanks, future large aircraft, aircraft carrier replacements—the list is endless. Even Eurofighter is not sacrosanct if the Treasury will not pay or if it modifies the spending profile. It was the commitment of the Conservative Government to Eurofighter that convinced our partners to proceed with that project. We need Eurofighter.
Before and after the general election, we were promised that the strategic defence review would last six months, starting on 2 May. Now we are told that it will be another six months. There is no consensus across the Floor of the House on that.
Meanwhile, the people who form the greatest part of the nation's defence are kept in the dark. The foreign policy base lines are secret. The Minister of State for the Armed Forces wriggled around on this point a few minutes ago. Until the foreign policy base lines are made public, we are in no position to make a judgment, and we will not hear that until after the Treasury has decided whether the Ministry of Defence can have what it wants. There is no consensus on that between the parties.
In the short term, while we wait, thousands of long-term jobs are being put at risk. Most of the defence equipment exported from the United Kingdom by most of the companies involved is pretty uncontentious. That is why the Department of Trade and Industry export licensing unit has committed itself through its code of practice to achieve a target for obtaining licence approvals of 20 working days from receipt of the application.
The unit was not doing badly until April. According to the DTI, in April 93 per cent. of straightforward licences were being cleared in 20 days, and 70 per cent. of those that had to be circulated to other Government Departments were being cleared in 20 days. By September, under Labour, the rate for simple applications had slipped back to 60 per cent., and joint decisions had slumped to just 48 per cent. achieving target. The DTI receives more than 1,000 applications a month, and is clearing less than half.
I remind the House that the vast majority of those export orders are for products already manufactured for Britain's forces and help to keep down the cost to our taxpayers. Above all, they keep British people in British jobs. British firms are sympathetic towards harassed officials in Government Departments who have had a new regime imposed on them, with no increase in resources or manpower. This is a new problem entirely created by this Government—new Labour, new problem.
742 I know that the main problem lies with the DTI, not the MOD, but let me explain why it matters to the entire Government and to our nation. Not only are British firms suffering lengthy processing delays, but it is now virtually impossible for them to obtain a reason for a delay or a date by which a decision will be made. Many of those companies have been trading in the same products with the same countries for years. Labour has imposed lengthy delay and query, even on non-lethal repeat business.
Customers—usually overseas Governments or their agencies—place worldwide competitive bids against demanding terms and conditions of supply, including performance bonds supported by irrevocable bank guarantees, liquidated and consequential penalty clauses for late delivery and, of course, the final sanction—disbarment from future tenders.
§ Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)
In speaking about the increased competition that British companies face, and recognising the importance of the ethical dimension to our defence export sales, has my hon. Friend noticed the interesting report that President Mandela is to go to Saudi Arabia in two weeks to seek to achieve substantial defence exports for South African companies? One does not imagine that President Mandela would be involved in anything the least bit unethical, but that puts into context some Labour Members' inclination to criticise any defence exports, and draws attention to the threat that our companies face from increasing overseas competition.
§ Mr. Key
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that telling point. He is right. The South African defence industry is a worldwide industry and is very good indeed. It is tendering for many of our traditional markets and winning in some of them. We must be fully aware that the competition that we face from sources that we hitherto considered beyond the pale is now making a great inroad into our potential business.
Time is of the essence when responding to contractual delivery dates. Once the capital outlay for the prime contractor capital system or equipment has been purchased, it is crucial that the supply of expendable goods and services be available on demand. Our defence export industry has been winning new export orders in the face of fierce international competition. The Government's dead hand on export licences has already resulted in serious damage to UK exporters' credibility to contractually perform as a reliable quality supplier. Export orders have been cancelled because of late delivery caused by the lack of a licence.
Substantial costs have been incurred by British industry for liquidated damages and additional shipping costs. US and European competitors have moved in very fast on our export markets. How much longer are Ministers prepared to sit on their hands and see British exports lost and British jobs lost? More quickly than I expected, unemployment will rise in this sector. It is still true: Labour is not working. There is no consensus.
§ Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that during 18 years of Conservative government, hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost in the defence industry, and particularly close to home, 10,000 jobs were lost in my constituency and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, 743 East (Mr. Brown) at Rosyth naval base and Rosyth dockyard, as a direct consequence of the hon. Gentleman's Government's decisions?
§ Mr. Key
I should like the hon. Lady to speculate on what those figures would have been if a Labour Government had been in place. I remind her that although all of us who have defence-oriented constituencies saw dramatic changes in employment patterns, we ended up with hundreds of thousands of new jobs, economic activity rates in this country higher than anywhere else in Europe, and unemployment lower and falling.
Yesterday my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State laid out clearly our position on land mines. I shall merely emphasise one point and make one other. If the Government want consensus, they are more likely to find it on the issue of anti-personnel land mines than on many other issues. The new Government must realise that, as any infantryman will tell them, mines save lives as well as taking them. Used properly, they can be an effective, efficient, time-limited deterrent and defence.
The British Army felt that it was bounced by the new Government's announcement on mines, in respect of both details and timing. That was neither wise nor competent. Further progress can, will and should be made. It will succeed if it has the full agreement and support of the armed services down the chain of command and heeds the advice of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency.
§ Mr. Frank Cook
Will the hon. Gentleman accept from me a copy of the paper written by the former Engineer-General Sir Hugh Beech, in which he makes the case that the military purpose of anti-personnel mines has been long outlived? He says that they are redundant and that sensors are available with sufficient range and accuracy to draw direct and indirect fire to any kind of incoming incursion force, thereby making APMs unnecessary for the safety of our own people and providing support for his view that in the past our APMs have killed more of our own men than enemy forces.
§ Mr. Key
I am aware of those views, and of course I respect them. I should be delighted to see the paper: I think that it is important to be as well informed as possible about such issues. I warmly welcome the promise of money and training facilities for mine clearance work. However, what will be the impact on the Royal Engineers in terms of deployment, recruitment and retention? That issue must be considered.
I issue a word of warning to Ministers, who are prone to photo opportunities that they regret later. I propose to make a deal between Front Benchers on the issue of land mines: no more stunts. The issue is too serious. We must stand back and leave it to the experts.
The image of the late Princess of Wales in an Angolan minefield will stay with millions. Back in the United Kingdom, I know that many thought it undignified—or even stupid—for a role model such as Her Majesty's Secretary of State for International Development to dress up and smilingly wave about weapons responsible for such carnage. That stunt did little to help the cause—it simply was not worth it. As for the Secretary of State for Defence, I will spare his blushes.
744 A couple of weeks ago—right on cue before the return of Parliament—the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced his first raid on the defence budget. How did the Secretary of State for Defence respond? He invited the pop group Verve to rent disused MOD property for concerts. That is good news for fans of Verve and good news for the Treasury. It may work when looking for small change, but it will not do as a serious response when defence coffers are empty, when the cupboard is bare and when the Treasury is no longer the MOD's flexible friend. I fear that defence Ministers will then be the Treasury's flexible friends.
British defence costs increased greatly after the inception of IFOR in December 1995 because of the doubling in size of the British force in Bosnia. The costs totalled £244 million to the end of March 1997—that is £60 million for 1995–96, £160 million for 1996–97, and a separate £24 million in 1996–97 for the cost of the RAF contribution to the air component of IFOR, Operation Decisive Edge, based in Italy. The Ministry of Defence was reimbursed for the total sum of £244 million from the Treasury contingency reserves. The MOD would seek to recoup the additional costs from the reserve should it not be able to absorb themwithout detriment to the rest of the defence programme".—[Official Report, 25 November 1996; Vol. 286, c. 29.]In July this year, when responding to a parliamentary question, the Minister for the Armed Forces stated that the cost of Britain's military contingent of IFOR, including its air support component, was estimated at "something over £200 million" in the 1997–98 financial year. That would be about 1 per cent. of the overall defence budget. Given that the size of the British force in Bosnia has fallen significantly since the early days of a direct NATO role in that country—it now stands at about 5,300 men—the £200 million plus might include some of the £120 million mentioned in November 1996 as being additional costs for repair and restocking.
I can find no reference to any commitment by the Treasury to fund the costs of United Kingdom peace implementation in Bosnia from the reserves in this financial year. Has the Ministry of Defence conducted negotiations with the Treasury on that matter? Has there been a settlement? Will defence lose 1 per cent. of its budget in addition to the 1 per cent. fine given to health—£168 million? Are the Government getting careless? Have they lost 2 per cent. of the defence budget since May?
By summer 1996, Conservative Defence Ministers and the then Defence Select Committee were showing not just inflexibility to Treasury pressure but a new steeliness in their approach to defence expenditure. I pay tribute to Michael Portillo, whose instinct for defence won him many friends in all three armed services as well as in the Ministry of Defence. I was grateful to hear the Minister pay tribute to him last night. As a former Chief Secretary, Michael Portillo would spot a weak spending programme better than anyone—but he also knew a bottom line when he saw it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) knew his business as Minister for the Armed Forces inside out. He made it his duty to understand what was going on at the sharp end of the services. It is no secret that his frustration with the Treasury attitude to defence brought him, with great honour, close to resignation.
745 My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) was ruthlessly inquisitive about the procurement programme for which he was responsible. It was not very smart of the incoming Government to claim credit, after just a week or two, for fundamental improvements and new approaches that were put in place during my hon. Friend's term of office. My noble friend Lord Howe proved as a defence Minister that his blood flowed not just blue, but royal blue, light blue and khaki as well.
The previous Defence Select Committee was unanimous in its view that the defence spending plan for this nation had reached rock bottom. Many members of that Committee have been replaced by the electorate or by the mysterious machinations of the appointments process in the House. I was very pleased to see the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) elected as Chairman. He has a proud record on defence and a deep knowledge of his subject—unlike the Minister. In view of all that the hon. Member for Walsall, South has said over the years—on the record and off it—we would not want to see him resign his chairmanship of the Defence Committee. Yet we know that he would not flinch from that decision if he were pushed too far.
Similarly, we do not want to see the Minister for Defence Procurement pushed off his perch. Only last year, he said:I also happen to think that this country does not spend enough on defence".—[Official Report, 14 October 1996; Vol. 282, c. 506.]Quite so. The Opposition need Lord Gilbert, even if the Government do not.
What about Defence Ministers? Without fear of contradiction, I assert that they are all nice men—more than that, they are thoroughly decent and honourable. They are delightful and hard-working opponents. I think that they honestly went to the recent general election and accepted office believing that the strategic defence review would be just that. However, where is the beef? Labour sneered before the general election that its approach to defence is fundamentally different from that of the Conservatives, yet now the Government are begging for consensus. They might get it—on our terms.
Innocents that they were, Labour Members did not imagine that they would be rolled over, first by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and then by the Treasury. The muggings began, and the parliamentary answers became more defensive and more opaque. Labour Members were bound hand and foot, with rope to spare. Gordon marched them up to the top of the hill and he marched them down again. They sailed away for a year and a day—it will be that long before we know the real outcome of the SDR.
I hope that Defence Ministers are not in office for long—but I hope that they enjoy their tenure. While they are in office, the nation will expect them to fight new Labour in the Treasury. I fear that prospects are not good and that it is time for us to know where the beef is. I suspect that Ministers will need divine intervention—at breakfast, lunch, dinner and at tea. Given their ministerial record so far—and to remind them what we are on about—I recommend that Defence Ministers say grace before every meal: the politician's grace, "God bless our food and God bless our words in case we need to eat them later."
§ Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill)
We have heard a fascinating speech by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). I thought the best part was his claim that the Opposition need Lord Gilbert. They need anyone who can make a better speech than the hon. Gentleman. If that is the extent of the criticism that the Opposition can make of the Government's defence policy, anyone could do better—perhaps even the Liberals.
It is often said that the problem with Defence Ministers and military commanders is that they are always fighting the last war: they base their decisions on the last war rather than the next. We heard the hon. Member for Salisbury refight the last election and, in many of his allusions, refight the 1979 general election. Looking to the past is not the way to establish a sensible defence policy for this country.
I have some sympathy with the hon. Member for Salisbury and his colleagues who said that we need to base our defence policy on foreign policy. The hon. Gentleman said that we need what he called foreign policy base lines. He is absolutely right about that, but he and his friends have not been listening. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has spelt out the basis of our defence policy—the Government's defence review—in several speeches. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Salisbury is interrupting from a sedentary position. I suggest that, instead of researching my right hon. Friend's election address, he would do better to research my right hon. Friend's speeches.
§ Mr. Davis
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman needs not only to read but to reread them. He would then see that my right hon. Friend has spelt out several times the basic policy guidelines of our foreign policy in relation to our defence policy.
A surprising omission from the speeches made by Opposition Members today and yesterday has been any welcome for the Government's emphasis, which was spelt out clearly at the beginning of the Secretary of State's speech yesterday, on defence being cost-effective. That notion is welcomed by every Labour Member.
I entirely endorse what my right hon. Friend said, but I hope that I may presume to make one suggestion: perhaps he could ask one of his junior Ministers or a parliamentary private secretary to read the National Audit Office's reports and the Public Accounts Committee's reports of the past 10 years and to make a list of their recommendations and findings. On the basis of that list, my right hon. Friend could then ask what has happened as a result of those reports, because if there was one Government Department that wasted a colossal amount of money under the previous Government it was the Ministry of Defence. Every NAO report presented to the House contained a scandal in terms of the Ministry of Defence not getting value for money.
I commend that suggestion to the Secretary of State. We have all seen the Treasury minutes—the bland and banal assurances that action would be taken—but it would be worth looking back over published information to ascertain what is happening to ensure that the Ministry of Defence achieves value for money.
747 Another aspect of getting value for money is the emphasis on the fact that this country's defence is now based on collective defence. We are in alliances; the days have gone when we could rely solely on our own resources and efforts and on the ability and professional skills of our armed forces to defend the United Kingdom. We are into collective defence, a change which has occurred over the past 50 or 60 years.
I found my right hon. Friend's references to working with our allies in NATO very encouraging. I was, however, a little disappointed that he made no reference at all to the importance of the Western European Union as the European hard core of NATO and the need to work closely with our allies in the rest of Europe through the WEU to ensure the defence of this country in the widest sense.
§ The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Robertson)
§ Mr. Davis
I see that my right hon. Friend is nodding, so I think that he has taken the point.
We congratulated the Prime Minister on his success at Amsterdam, where he achieved an objective that was common to the Government and the Conservative Opposition. When the positions were reversed, the Labour Opposition supported the Conservative Government in arguing that the WEU should not be integrated into the European Union but be kept as a separate entity. Only the Liberal party thought that it should be integrated.
What happened at Amsterdam, however, means that there is an obligation on the British Government to ensure that more is now done to sort out the working relationship between the European Union and the WEU. We cannot simply sit back and say that Amsterdam was successful; we have an obligation to ensure that that relationship, which is crucial to any European security and defence policy or identity, is sorted out. I see very little being done in that respect, but it is something which we should take into account in the next few months, and especially when the United Kingdom holds the presidency of the Council of Ministers.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State goes to Russia next week to meet his counterpart there, and it is significant that a delegation from the Russian Duma is coming in the opposite direction to meet representatives of the WEU Assembly so that we can discuss at parliamentary level the development of a common defence and the implications for Russia, Russia's neighbours and the WEU of common objectives and arrangements.
I greatly welcome the openness with which my right hon. Friend has approached the strategic defence review. It is a genuine effort to involve as many people as possible, to take advice and suggestions and to listen to what is said in many quarters. On the other hand, we can perhaps consider whether the trend has gone far enough, in that, if we believe in collective defence and are basing our policy on an alliance or alliances, it would be sensible in the course of the review to take account of the views expressed and the contributions made by our allies. The extent to which the Government are doing that is not clear. It may be happening, but I would appreciate some 748 clarification in the winding-up speech of the extent to which the review takes account of our allies' views and contributions.
The Secretary of State made another important point yesterday when he said that our enemy is instability. Members of all parties have paid tribute to the contribution of our armed forces in Bosnia, but there has been one outstanding example of instability in the past six months to which the United Kingdom has not offered assistance—Albania.
I appreciate that the problem in Albania erupted before the general election, so crucial decisions would have been taken before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State took office. However, the Government could have contributed to the efforts made in Albania by other WEU countries and, I think, some central European countries because there was a period after the election when it was still possible to do so. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary would clarify our reasons for not assisting our friend and allies. Perhaps we did not want to get involved, or perhaps we wanted to get involved but could not do so because we did not have the resources. In any event, we must be clear about the Government's rationale for not joining a number of countries, which played a major part in bringing stability to Albania at a very important time.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State also said that ethnic disputes were a major threat to this country's security. I am sure that he is right, but if we are to do something about instability and ethnic disputes in areas such as the Mediterranean, it is time to question the relevance of nuclear weapons in dealing with such a threat. If we have to make choices based on priorities, surely it is time to ask whether it would be better to spend money on aircraft and ships to get our armed forces to the Mediterranean to deal with disputes and bring peace to that troubled region rather than to spend it on nuclear weapons. It is quite reasonable to ask such questions about priorities within the constraints of a defence budget. Again, I should welcome some clarification from Ministers on that important point.
§ Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak. I warmly welcome the new Minister for the Armed Forces to the Dispatch Box for the first time. I am sure that he will enjoy the job every bit as much as I did—indeed, I am green with envy at the idea that he should hold that post. I am grateful for his kind words about me in the past. I also welcome the Secretary of State and congratulate him on an assured start at the Dispatch Box yesterday.
I pay a brief tribute to the previous Chief of the Defence Staff, Field-Marshal Sir Peter Inge, with whom I had the honour to serve and who left the Ministry of Defence in May. He was a very distinguished CDS at an extremely difficult time. I welcome the new Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Charles Guthrie, who has made a confident and assured start. I am sure that he will do a good job.
Since I stopped being the Minister for the Armed Forces—a job which I miss every day—I have been reflecting on why our armed forces command such tremendous respect and affection in this country. Indeed, 749 their standing has increased during the summer. We all have our own theories about that. Undoubtedly, the past triumphs of the Falklands, Bosnia and the Gulf have a great deal to do with it, but I believe that the issue goes further than that. The public have come to see the British forces as highly professional, versatile, can-do organisations whose people are fiercely proud to be associated with them and are determined to give their best.
The services elicit profound admiration because of their strong emphasis on the importance of training, the priority that they place on the interests and welfare of individuals, their relentless pursuit of all that is truly excellent in life and their continual willingness—even appetite—to update, upgrade and modernise their methods of operation. There is no scope for a hideous, new Labour, modernising project.
There were some matters of great concern to me when I left the Ministry of Defence, which I should like to talk about briefly. I remain extremely anxious—as I know the Minister is—about the recruitment difficulties faced by the services in general, and the Army in particular. We are fishing in a pretty small pool for men and women of considerable courage, fortitude, determination and strength of character, with the versatility to turn their hands to anything. Such people are not easily found. When they are found, they must not be wasted.
My next great concern is the increasing difficulty that the services are having in doing their business as more and more restrictions and regulations on issues such as health and safety at work are forced down their throats. The consequences will soon show. With all those rules and regulations and the introduction of longer-range, more lethal and more mobile weaponry and equipment, it is becoming increasingly difficult to carry out realistic military training. We must overcome that, because only through the full rigour of military training and careful preparation for war will our services be able to undertake the tasks expected of them.
My next concern is how the services are coping under the microscope of hysterical media attention. With the full range of the magic hypocrisy at their command, the press pretend to adore the services, but rejoice in every opportunity to shaft them, sometimes very seriously, when things go wrong. Things do go wrong, of course, but such events are only truly shocking in military life because they happen rarely.
My greatest anxiety is the challenge that we all face in convincing the general public of the need to devote substantial sums of money to defence. The Government have the important task of continually reminding the nation of the reasons why we need strong, highly trained and well-equipped forces. That is not an easy task for a Government who include many pacifists and past and present activists of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, who care nothing for defence and despise most of the qualities that make our armed forces unique.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) for his excellent speech. Ministers have already discovered, as we did, that the Treasury is wholly unconcerned with the capabilities of our armed forces. Ministers must learn that the Treasury is their enemy and must be fought accordingly for every inch of ground. The other major problem that they will have with the Treasury is its profound ignorance of defence matters and all that goes with them. It was always my considered 750 opinion, when working at the Ministry of Defence, that those at the Treasury worked for the Russians. Nothing has since persuaded me that I am wrong.
There is little scope for a substantial reordering of priorities in a strategic defence review, or any other major reduction in our core commitment. I very much hope that it will be a serious and, above all, credible exercise. If new thinking emerges, we shall need to study it carefully.
Past and present commitments were never the result of a honey-eyed view of Britain's role in the world. The unmistakeable truth is that we are one of the world's greatest trading nations. Our exports account for approximately a quarter of our gross domestic product. Of all the European Union members, Britain is by far the biggest investor overseas. We have a vital interest in ensuring a stable environment in which to trade and do business. I hope that the strategic defence review will point the way to greater flexibility in the way in which we deploy our defence assets and, possibly, greater realism about the scope of our capabilities. If it is a genuine review, it will make the military more open and honest about where the problems lie and what is achievable. Operational audit must continue to play a big part in such assessments. If it enables us to get away from the self-defeating trickery of double, and sometimes even triple, hatting, it will serve a good purpose and I shall support it. Clearing away some of the smoke and mirrors is not a bad ambition and we should support it.
I wholly agree with the point made by the Secretary of State yesterday about the use of the military in furthering British foreign policy objectives. I hope that the Foreign Office is making a positive contribution to the strategic defence review, but I must warn the Minister that there will continue to be problems with the Foreign Office over military matters. Those in the generation who served in the Army through national service or as regular soldiers are coming to the end of their careers. The instinctive understanding of matters military between the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence is waning. I hope that the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence will get together to ensure that there is a constant exchange of officials at all levels between the two Departments, so that clear understandings remain. I always wanted more Foreign Office officials on the commitments staff, and the Foreign Office could clearly benefit from having more service men and women on attachment to it.
If the Foreign Office has done its stuff, it will acknowledge that the armed forces are a glittering, golden asset for the promotion of our interests abroad. We need to make sure that we have the full array of places at all the military colleges. I did all that I could to encourage the staff college, in particular, to make more places available. That will be difficult as the joint services college comes on stream. The ties thus created are of profound value to foreign students and to us. I hope that the wider use of military training overseas will be addressed in the review as a critical issue.
When I was Minister for the Armed Forces, it was my great pleasure to travel extensively in the middle east and Europe. I was always greatly struck by the extraordinary regard and respect for the services that those countries had. Bahrain is a good case in point. The crown prince of Bahrain and I did our officer cadet training together and jointly shared the horrors of Mons officer cadet school 30 years ago. Many other Bahrain service men have done 751 a great deal of training in our country. The military ties that bind us are strong. The Minister for Defence Procurement will chair joint defence talks with Bahrain in November. I hope that we shall do all that we can to further our overseas links, because they make our life much easier abroad and they are an important and impressive way of promoting British foreign policy.
§ 6.8 pm
§ Laura Moffatt (Crawley)
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech in this defence debate. I shall begin with a few words about the former Member of Parliament for Crawley, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). He brings colour to the House, and he is a jolly and courteous character. As we have just heard, he is an honest man and I wish him well in his new constituency.
It gives me great pleasure to tell the House a little bit about my constituency. Crawley is a wonderful town and I believe that it is the best of the new towns, although, like me, it is getting on a bit. This year, we are celebrating our 50th birthday with a variety of events throughout the year.
Back in its early years, Crawley attracted the pioneers from London—people such as my parents who wanted to raise a family in a house with a garden and to work close by. Crawley has now grown to a population of almost 100,000, but we still have lots of open spaces, sports facilities and cultural facilities second to none. Only last week, the Minister for Sport opened our new football stadium and he was warmly welcomed by the town. Crawley is a good place in which to live.
Even in the early days, politicians understood that families need good-quality housing with gardens and they resisted high-rise buildings, for which we have a lot to thank them today. For most of this time, Crawley has had a fine Labour council which has always been guided by sound principles of good financial management and has always insisted on the very best facilities and services. In turn, the council has been rewarded by the support of the town.
The wise and principled leadership of Alf Pegler, known as "Mr. Crawley", was tragically ended last year by his death. I can only say how sad I am that he died before his dream of a new Labour Government came true. His work goes on in Crawley and it will not be forgotten.
Crawley is a very lively town, with the majority of economic activity in Sussex. We have Gatwick, a major international airport which now handles 25 million passengers and is expected to handle 40 million passengers on a single runway—an enormous technological feat. It takes a lot of co-operation by all involved to cope with such a demanding resident as an international airport. We work together to reduce aircraft noise and we absorb 32,000 workers on and off the airport, with all the special challenges of having such an exciting activity within the constituency and the influences that that has on the economy.
The House may remember the "boom town to gloom town" national headlines about Crawley in the late 1980s. I am glad that this Government are tackling head-on 752 boom-bust economics and that they are facing issues of training and education so that we are equipped in Crawley to take on the fantastic job opportunities there.
Many companies are involved in our town, some of which are involved in the defence industry, mainly in simulation and communications equipment. These companies which, incidentally, always said to me on visits before the election that they had thrived and prospered under previous Labour Governments, provide the very best in the world and compete with the best in the world. They provide our forces with the new technologies they so desperately need to play their part not only in defending the realm, but in peacekeeping, the early detection of conflict, fighting crime and dealing with natural disasters.
We must have up-to-date forces who are able to take on the many different roles asked of them. The strategic defence review should properly take account of those differing roles and we should not allow our forces to be overstretched and under-equipped. I believe that the review is taking proper account of those factors.
What the Prime Minister said to the new Labour conference earlier this month about the United Kingdom must surely be true of our armed forces. He said:We can never be the biggest, we may never be the mightiest but we can be the best.With being the best in every sense of the word goes a determination to be fair and to treat those in our armed forces decently. That is why I shall devote the rest of the time allowed me to the plight of those suffering from what we have come to know as Gulf war syndrome.
During the previous Parliament, United Kingdom Gulf war veterans felt that they were being ignored and that their condition was not taken seriously. There is, however, no doubt that they are ill. Many are suffering a great range of symptoms, families are breaking up under the strain and people are becoming sicker and sicker. During the previous Parliament, sufferers felt that they were no nearer the truth. People who, before the Gulf conflict, were fit and well are now reduced to shadows of their former selves. We have a duty to do our utmost to understand why this has happened. Why has it happened to United Kingdom troops and to United States troops, but not to French troops? We must have some answers.
Much of the work undertaken by eminent epidemiologists was rubbished by some during the previous Parliament. It is now time to work in complete co-operation with other nations involved in the Gulf war and to pull together all the information and studies. Every aspect of life before and during the conflict, such as diet, levels of stress, types of clothing worn, and chemical and inoculation exposure, needs to be included. We must also collate successful treatments from GPs caring for veterans, and establish efficacy and good practice for care. It is vital that this information is shared between all agencies.
There is a need for the utmost urgency and our Minister for the Armed Forces has made an excellent start. I believe that he has a real understanding of the issue. The Ministry of Defence published a document in early July, entitled "Gulf Veterans Illness—a new beginning", which offered hope to hundreds of veterans. Funding for research has doubled and, in July, the Minister for the Armed Forces met veterans once again. The Defence Select Committee quickly resumed its work in the new 753 Parliament by questioning the Minister on the issue. He had a superb grasp of it and, with the publication of the new report today, we are making real progress.
The search for answers is to be stepped up. Fairness is the watchword for the new Labour Government and our record in six short months has borne this out. People are suffering long-term illnesses that they could not reasonably expect. Our mission in the House must be clear—to ensure that the nation can have confidence that the very best efforts are being made to find answers, not only for justice for the veterans, but for the prevention of such suffering again. We can now have that confidence.
§ Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) on a splendid maiden speech. I am sure that her sentiments about the victims of Gulf war syndrome will be echoed around the Chamber and around the nation. Justice for them and for their dependants is long overdue.
I also take this opportunity to pass on the good wishes of many of the service men whom I represent in Portsmouth, and of those who live in Hampshire, to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) for his efforts to get a fair deal and greater understanding of Ministry of Defence problems. I thank him for his efforts on their behalf.
I also congratulate the Ministry of Defence team on its performance at Defence Question Time. It was certainly the most enjoyable Question Time in my short time in the House in this Parliament and in my previous time in the House. Ministers' responses were the most positive that I have heard for a very long time.
We are, however, talking about a review of our defence capabilities. When the Minister for the Armed Forces introduced the debate, he said that the review would be policy led and not resource driven, but he did not go on to talk about what would happen if the policy was driven by a lack of resources and reversed its aims. Listening carefully to what the Minister said and to what the Secretary of State said in his excellent speech yesterday, we heard them talk about the 29 per cent. less expenditure and the 100,000 fewer personnel available to the armed forces. What they did not say was that resources would be made available to secure the strategic defence of the nation if the review suggested greater commitments than we have at present.
We have had no clear commitment that there will be no reduction in expenditure. We need cast-iron guarantees because otherwise the defence review is a meaningless exercise. Many who have spoken in the debate have rightly celebrated the quality of our armed forces and I also pay tribute to the many men and women I have met during my time representing in politics the city of Portsmouth and the county of Hampshire. I know from travelling around Europe and elsewhere of the high esteem in which our armed forces are held, whether they are members of the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, the Army or the Royal Marines who have a splendid reputation wherever they serve because of their tough role on behalf of the community.
Recently, I visited eastern Europe, where the contribution of the British Army was greeted with widespread admiration and support. Nobody had anything but a good word for the performance of our troops in 754 Bosnia and the way in which they behaved, handled problems and developed the technique of responding to difficult circumstances in many different parts of the world.
We also need to pay tribute to our reserve forces in the Territorial Army, the RAF and the Navy. They should be considered to be a national asset. They are flexible, available and we can count on them. We need to understand that they play a continuing and vital role in the defence of the nation and share the responsibility of our defence capabilities.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) pointed out yesterday the many deficiencies in the starting point for today's debate on defence capabilities. He talked about the lack of foreign policy objectives and the fact that we still have not clearly established our priorities.
Many hon. Members have rightly and traditionally used the debate to raise constituency matters. The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and others spoke about the Royal Ordnance explosives factory. Let me pass on to the House the support for his campaign and that of others who wish that resource to be retained of my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and my hon. Friends the Members for Taunton (Mrs. Ballard) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). They are committed to that cause and support the need to maintain an explosives production unit in the United Kingdom. We should not make ourselves vulnerable by allowing a bad decision to be taken.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) who made a thoughtful speech yesterday. He spoke about the worthwhile Astor project. However, the issue is not quite as straightforward as it appeared from his presentation. I represent many people who work for Lockheed Martin, which is based in the city of Portsmouth. That company and its work force have assembled a rich cocktail of expertise and commitment to making the project work. It could be a real asset for the defence community of the nation. I would not want any Minister to rush headlong into a decision without considering what was available.
As I represent the home of the Royal Navy, it would be wrong of me not to mention the city of Portsmouth and its commitment to the Royal Navy. The local newspaper, the Portsmouth News,has recently been running a petition, which I am delighted to say the Secretary of State has agreed to receive in a few weeks' time. Signatures were not collected door to door, so people had to make the effort to go and sign the petition. It was signed by thousands of people and it concerns the very subject that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex spoke about—getting people to realise that we get nothing for nothing and defence has to be paid for. It urges the Government to provide resources to give the Navy the right capabilities to fulfil what the nation expects of it. Many people in Portsmouth have witnessed at first hand the run down of the Royal Navy which has affected civilian jobs as well as the service personnel who go to sea on our behalf. It is important that the Government take seriously issues such as those raised by the Portsmouth News. The people of that city have responded magnificently in support of our armed forces.
What are the armed forces for? Many hon. Members have challenged the Minister to explain that. Those who go to the cinema regularly will have seen the 755 advertisement that shows how our armed forces help such laudable causes as famine relief, clearing up after earthquakes and other natural disasters and supporting communities affected by them.
Last week, I heard the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office tell the Oxford Research Group that he wanted the armed forces to do more to combat the threat of drugs particularly in the Caribbean. For the first time, a Foreign Office Minister had said that the review had a distinct responsibility to produce some solutions that would give greater flexibility for our armed forces to be used in the defence of communities against drug addiction. However, there was no announcement in the House. We heard nothing from the Foreign Secretary or the Secretary of State for Defence about what the policy guidelines should be.
The two-day debate on defence policy is a bit of a hit and miss. Is it meant to be suggestion box days where we put all our proposals in a hat in the hope that someone will pick them up and run with them? We have not been given sufficient information to make the review the substantial exercise that is required to take our armed forces into the next decade with any degree of surety about where they will be in 10 years' time.
Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting Gibraltar with other hon. Members. The strategic necessity of that base is clear. We need to consider it in connection with the threats that were discussed yesterday and have been well documented. The base at Gibraltar and the two sovereign bases in Cyprus are key issues in the long-term defence of the nation, yet no Foreign Office statement has been made.
Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Defence was challenged to name the enemy. I supported him whole-heartedly when he talked us through an eloquent presentation on where he saw potential enemies. I urge any hon. Members who have not yet done so to read the document recently produced by the North Atlantic Assembly on the state of Russian forces. It describes a horror story waiting to happen—in some cases, it has already happened—posing threats across eastern Europe and beyond. There is the opportunity for someone to go out of control. We need a quick response to the real threat resulting from the collapse of the old Soviet armed forces. How right the Secretary of State was to make that issue plain and simple to understand in the House.
The review should have started to address some of the policies that the Ministry of Defence has recently put into practice, such as the number of agencies that have been set up. I read with interest questions that were asked by hon. Members towards the end of the previous Parliament concerning the role of those agencies. There has been no proper evaluation of whether any of the targets set are capable of being achieved or whether the setting up of 40 or more agencies within the Ministry of Defence has produced real value for money. The review should have been given the opportunity to examine their role and the way in which they are to be developed over the coming years in the defence of our nation.
Let me touch on an issue that many hon. Members have mentioned. We have heard a great deal about procurement—pieces of metal, fabric, computers and everything else that we need for the defence of our nation. 756 Some hon. Members have spoken about the other important commodity that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key)—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I think that the hon. Gentleman might be referring to the 10-minute limit on speeches, which does not apply to Front-Bench Members.
§ Mr. Hancock
I am grateful for that response, Mr. Deputy Speaker, although I am sure that it comes as a disappointment to the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers).
§ Mr. Hancock
I am sure that the hon. Member for Gosport is heartened by the support of the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Mr. Godman). I shall do my best to speed up so that other hon. Members have the opportunity to speak.
Let me talk about the courage, dedication and loyalty of the armed forces—their human side. The immediate concern must be the retention and recruitment of Army personnel. Those of us who represent constituencies where the military are based will hear first-hand accounts of the problems that they face almost every day and the issues that confront their families.
Yesterday, we heard some comments about Major Joyce and his role in trying to expose some of those deficiencies. One of my constituents who has two children in the armed forces wrote to the Daily Mail setting out her defence of Major Joyce's position. She did so using some of the very words that he had used. She put them into the context of her family. Her daughter, who wanted to be promoted to sergeant and was subject to a promotion review, became disillusioned when she was told by a senior Army officer in Germany that he did not believe that there was a place in the Army for women. After serving for a considerable time, my constituent's son-in-law recently left the Army because he had become extremely disillusioned and disappointed at the way in which the Army had responded to various needs.
We need to take seriously the sort of suggestions that Major Joyce attempted to make. How wrong the Secretary of State was to say yesterday that whether a court martial was the end of the story was simply an Army matter. That was not a satisfactory response. Major Joyce was making a stand which many of his fellow members of the armed forces would have liked to have made. Ministers have a right and a duty to respond to it.
§ Mr. Hancock
Although I am sure that that point comes as a disappointment to the hon. Gentleman, I assure him that, from talking to members of the armed forces in Hampshire, there is a considerable amount of support for the stance that Major Joyce took.
In her maiden speech, the hon. Member for Crawley referred to Gulf war veterans and their problems. I ask the Minister to consider seriously the civilians who went to 757 the Gulf in the service of the Crown who, unlike in the Falklands war, were not enlisted. They suffered the symptoms of Gulf war syndrome, too.
I have constituents—sadly no longer working—who served on ships in the NAAFI. Service personnel on those ships will benefit from any review and are entitled to other benefits that are already available about which the Minister talked. Many civilians who served the three services are not being given the option of being included. Sadly, many of them have had a very swift brush off from the MoD.
What about the Chinese laundry men who worked on Her Majesty's ships who, with a cavalier sweep, have been dismissed? [Laughter.]
§ Mr. McWilliam
I hope that Opposition Members who are laughing have the opportunity to visit the war memorial at Fitzroy in the Falklands to see the names in Chinese of the Chinese laundry men who were killed unnecessarily in that place.
§ Mr. Hancock
I represent 40 of the 80 chinese laundry men who currently work for the Royal Navy—and I am proud to do so. Many of them wear three or four medals on their chests in honour of the service that they have given the nation. Many of them feel very bitter about the way in which, sadly, they have been dismissed as if they are no longer important since the MoD has taken on contractors who would rather employ retired Gurkha soldiers or others. If we are to care for our service personnel, we need to care for all the service family.
Asbestos victims—civilian and military—have been talked about many times in the House. Over a long period—I am not directing these comments at current Ministers—cases of human misery and suffering have arisen. Lives have been tragically cut short or ruined in the service of this country. We have heard the case of nuclear test veterans. I hope that in his winding-up speech the Minister will, as promised, comment about the way in which we can address their problems. For how long was their case ignored or treated with disdain in the House?
I cannot conceive that it is possible for senior or middle-ranking officers and NCOs not to know of the bullying that goes on. It is impossible in some close-knit units not to know what is going on. Yet they seem totally amazed when such stories start to emerge. We hear disclaimers that the incident is isolated. There are too many such incidents for that to be so. Bullying is a real problem—as is racism and the apparent distaste among senior officers and others for people who are continuously questioned about their sexual preferences. If we are trying to create an environment in which the public are encouraged to join our armed forces, such behaviour is totally wrong.
It was interesting to read today on the front page of The Timesan article entitled:Army wants to recruit homeless and jobless".The Army is going to homeless hostels in the north-east to recruit soldiers. It is already in night clubs. It will not be long, if we are not careful, before the welfare-to-work programme will—possibly—carry an obligation that one has to consider military service. Perhaps we are not too far from new-style press gangs being brought into operation to persuade people to join the armed services. If we really want to encourage people to join the armed 758 forces, we have to make the services transparent. They have to be seen to be fair and seen to respond to the promotion needs of men and women. We need to be fair to recruits and look after their families, especially when they have problems in the armed forces.
I had hoped that this two-day debate would give Ministers enough to think about to prompt them to say that there are too many unanswered questions. I am delighted that they are going to take a little longer to come back with answers to the review. I hope that they think long and hard about the many points that have been made in the debate and the 500 or more comments that they have received. This issue is far too important to be pushed aside. As the Minister said, it comes back to whether it is policy led or resource driven. If resources are not available, some of the commitments will go, some of the kit that is needed will not be provided, some of the personnel needed will not be trained and some of our obligations will not be fulfilled. That would be a disaster for this nation. Hon. Members should fight tooth and nail against it.
§ Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) on her first speech in the House. She graphically outlined the consequences for both sides of the conflict of so-called "clean wars" such as the Gulf war. The onset of Gulf war syndrome is one more product of the use of chemicals in any form in war by either side. Perhaps more consideration should have been given to the arming of Iraq in the early 1980s, which was a major component in the provocation of the Gulf war.
I welcome the fact that the Government are undertaking a review of the country's defence strategy, and particularly welcome the introductory remarks in the Ministry of Defence's paper on the defence review in which it is stated that the review is foreign-policy led. The first statement of the new Foreign Secretary after the election was on the human rights dimension in foreign policy. I hope that that will run through all aspects of our defence policy, including the defence industry and the question of arm sales.
This country spends well over £20 billion a year on armaments of one form or another. We spend considerably more on defence than any other European country—apart from Greece and Turkey—as a proportion of total Government spending. Indeed, if we reduced our defence expenditure to the European average of about 2.2 per cent., there would be an overall saving of £6 billion a year. Although that would not all be realised immediately—it never could be—it could be realised over a longer period.
I was pleased that, in his opening remarks yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State drew attention to the question of the establishment of a defence diversification agency and pointed out that an announcement is due to be made—presumably when the conclusions of the defence review are put forward. I look forward to that. Clearly, if we are to harness the undoubted skills of people in the defence industry, they should not be thrown on the scrap heap of unemployment. As hon. Members who represent areas with considerable naval, Army, Air Force or defence-related ship-building 759 interests will know, those highly skilled workers ought to be given something more socially useful to do. That is surely at the heart of the question of cutting defence expenditure: not wasting the skills but putting them to some good use. Goodness knows, there are enough needs around the world to benefit from such good use. I am especially pleased that the Secretary of State announced yesterday that he will publish all the submissions to the defence review, if the contributors wish that to be done. That means that I do not need to send Opposition Members a copy of my lengthy submission, because they will be able to read it in the Library. I am sure that some of them will wish to do so and, in fact, some of them are nodding sagely.
We face issues that confront the entire planet and that is the context in which we should undertake the defence review. We live in a world with an ever-growing gap between the richest and the poorest, with the systematic and constant abuse of human rights in many areas, and with a serious threat of environmental destruction and disaster. The ghastly cloud that has hung over Indonesia, Singapore and other parts of south-east Asia should be a warning to us all that there are limits to growth and to what we can do to the environment. We should recognise that many military conflicts around the world have roots in poverty, human rights abuses and the fight for natural resources. The Gulf war was really about oil, and the background to the Falklands conflict also contained an oil dimension.
We should look to a world in which we can reduce the possibilities of conflict and the amount of the world's resources expended on military matters. We should concentrate on the alleviation of poverty, as the Prime Minister said this afternoon in his report on the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Edinburgh. The defence review could give us the chance to do so.
It is worrying that in the aftermath of the cold war—with all the attendant problems in central Europe and the former Soviet republics, including enormous ethnic tensions and the war in Chechnya—one of the proposals advanced by the western nations, including Britain and the United States, is the expansion of NATO to embrace several central European countries. It is hard to believe that in five years' time the Polish people will be happy to see their defence expenditure double while schools close—because there is no money to keep them open—and welfare and hospital services are cut.
I notice that American arms manufacturers expect to sell many F16s and other aircraft to Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary and to undertake joint military manoeuvres with the Ukraine. If that is not a recipe for future conflict, I do not know what is. To expand NATO to the borders of Russia will create great political pressures in that country to expand military expenditure and research to deal with the perceived threat of NATO expansion.
We should concentrate on disarmament and demilitarisation, instead of the militarisation of the whole of central Europe and the conflicts that will result. Otherwise, a big bill will have to be paid by the people of central Europe and by taxpayers in Britain and the United States to fund rearmament programmes.
760 As well as thinking seriously about the possible results of NATO expansion, we must address the consequences of the arms sales programme that has been conducted in the past. In the 1980s, many Labour Members criticised the regime in Iraq and the policy of selling arms and equipment that could be used for the manufacturing of arms to the Ba'athist regime. We were told that our criticisms were nonsense and that Britain's economic interests came first. What happened? A super-armed regime systematically abused the human rights of its people and, eventually, provoked an enormous military conflict. That should have been a lesson to us, but the sale of arms to Turkey continues, despite the attack on the Kurdish people, as do arms sales to Indonesia.
I do not have much time left in which to make two further points. This debate gives us another opportunity to reconsider the question of the holding and maintaining of nuclear weapons by Britain. There is a fundamental moral case that we should not hold any nuclear weapons. I have always held that view and I always will. It is inconceivable that we should hold weapons that threaten the very existence of the planet. Nuclear weapons have not brought security or peace: they have meant the abuse of human rights, the invasion of civil rights and untold damage to this planet. Mordecai Vanunu tried to blow the whistle on the Israeli military experiment and he has been in solitary confinement for more than a decade. In his name and those of people like him, who have campaigned systematically for peace, we should reassess our possession of nuclear weapons and their cost.
The real cost of nuclear weapons has been systematically hidden by the Ministry of Defence and I suspect that it is £1.5 billion a year. However, the cost is not the real issue. We should address the principle involved. In a world in which there is no obvious enemy or threat to this country, why on earth do we have those weapons, other than to threaten people who may challenge our economic interests? Public opinion polls suggest that 59 per cent. of the United Kingdom population would feel more secure without nuclear weapons. We should, on this occasion, listen to public opinion.
Oxfam, which has long campaigned for the elimination of poverty in the world, has produced an interesting booklet called "A Safer Future: Reducing the Human Cost of War". It lists some of the causes of conflict and I shall mention four:deep ethnic or religious divisions … intense inequality and competition over the means to earn a living … no democratic rule of law or institutional framework to allow peaceful change … a ready supply of small arms and ammunition.Conflicts abound around the world, fuelled by inequality and the profiteering of arms manufacturers. The defence review gives us an opportunity to reassess our defence commitment to try to contribute to a safer, more sustainable world. The expansion of NATO and the increase in military expenditure in central Europe and other places can only increase the danger of serious conflict. It is time to reassess those issues and to enter the next century with a more peaceful intent than we have managed to achieve this century.
§ Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton)
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak, and I wish to add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Crawley 761 (Laura Moffatt) on an excellent maiden speech. She clearly had a much easier time than I did in framing the appropriate compliments to her predecessor.
Am I alone, because I do not represent a party, in believing that we should not play party politics with the defence of the realm? I made it my objective when I became, almost by accident, a Member of Parliament to make only short speeches on subjects that I knew something about. I had the privilege of serving in uniform with the 7th Armoured Division in the Gulf and, out of uniform, alongside British troops in Bosnia. I know from both experiences that we have the best little Army in the world. I know, too, that unless it changes at least as fast as circumstances are changing, it will no longer be the best little Army in the world. We have to go back to first principles and renew them. I shall make some brief suggestions.
I have argued in my previous life, as well as this one, that any defence review must take as a starting point the welfare of service families. That issue is not ancillary to the enterprise: it is central. It is good to know that the Secretary of State has heard about overstretch directly from service men in Split. I can add more. I know of units that were sent on almost back-to-back, six-month unaccompanied tours in Bosnia. It was not uncommon for a battalion's casualties to include not only the dead and wounded—and there were such casualties, because the soldiers risked their lives to save lives—but 10 per cent. and more of its marriages. Soldiers would return to find that they no longer had a functioning home. They had gained a medal and lost a marriage. What kind of a deal is that?
Let us match commitments to resources and resources to commitments in the defence review. We should change our attitudes to operations and active service, which tend to be thought of as a cycle. Troops train for the operation, carry out the operation—whether fighting a war, or peacekeeping and enforcement—and the cycle resumes. In fact, the process is a continuum, involving pre-conflict, conflict and post-conflict.
We should not forget the lessons that have been learned in Bosnia and Rwanda about pre-emptive deployment. A pre-emptive UN deployment prevented war in Macedonia and, in my judgment, saved thousands of lives. Kofi Annan believes that a pre-emptive deployment of one armoured brigade in Rwanda at the beginning of the emergency would have held off genocide and saved hundreds of thousands of lives. One does not have to be a super-power to field an armoured brigade.
We must welcome the Government's initiative on mine clearance. A war does not end with a ceasefire or a peace agreement, and mines will blow up for generations and kill and wound children yet unborn. I can think of no better use of our taxpayers' money than that our soldiers should continue to train children in many countries in the identification of mines.
Finally, I wish to refer to rank and privilege—not the functions of rank, but its privilege—and the gap that exists, certainly in the Army, between officers and other ranks. We are privileged to have listening to this debate my friend Major Eric Joyce, a soldier of distinction who has risked his career and now faces—
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order to refer to Strangers during a debate in the House?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)
It is not strictly in order, and I advise the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) not to do so.
§ Mr. Bell
I stand corrected. Major Joyce faces a court martial or an administrative dismissal, or he may have to resign. I hope that Ministers will make a distinction between the disciplinary action being taken and the merit of his ideas. Here is just one—that a sergeant should find a fast-track promotional route into the Royal Military academy at Sandhurst which, at the moment, he cannot do four years after signing up. That route is closed. The proportion of soldiers who are now officer cadets at Sandhurst is 0.2 per cent. For me, that is an indictment of the rigidity of the present system and we must surely change it.
We live in revolutionary times. Great changes are taking place in society. Some of us find ourselves as Members of this House because of those revolutionary changes. We know that the Army will have to change, and this is the appropriate time to be looking for the appropriate ways in which it should change so that it can continue to be the best little Army in the world. One thing we know for sure—what it cannot do is mark time.
§ Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)
It is a significant privilege to follow the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) and, for the first time in 20 years in this House, I can say that I do not disagree with a word that an hon. Member sitting opposite me has said.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) on an excellent maiden speech, and I look forward to working closely with her on the Defence Committee. In particular, her medical expertise will be of great benefit to the Committee as we study Gulf war syndrome. I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate also the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who is on the Opposition Front Bench. I hope that he continues to do so for a long time, and I shall miss his company on the Select Committee, at both the evidence sessions and our informal evenings when we are away. I should add to my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley that on many occasions—although not today—the most colourful thing about her predecessor was his socks.
I wish to say a few words about our armed forces. I have served on the Select Committee and as a defence Whip, and I have been associated with the armed forces since I was chairman of the Edinburgh military tattoo policy committee. I have seen our armed forces in the Gulf, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Turkey and northern Iraq. I am utterly at a loss to explain how they can continue to display such professionalism and commitment, to be so effective and to show such compassion and humanity under the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves, given the pressures to which they have been subjected in the past 15 years.
If I had suggested when I was first elected to the House that we cut our armed forces by a half of what the previous Government did, I would have been subjected to the most terrible ridicule. The previous Government cut our armed 763 forces by more than was called for by the most lunatic resolution passed by conference in the old days of the Labour party—and, believe me, there were some lunatic ones.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) has just left the Chamber. I respect his pacifism, but I stood for election on the Labour party manifesto. We all stood for election on that manifesto, but it was not the one for which my hon. Friend was arguing. I shall always protect his right to be a pacifist, but I hope that no Opposition Member is under the impression that the majority of Labour Members are pacifists—we are not.
I wish to express my gratitude to the people who have made the ammunition, guns, aircraft, uniforms, boots, tents and everything else that our armed forces have needed. If it were not for the defence manufacturing industries, we would not have succeeded in the Falklands and we certainly would not have succeeded in the Gulf.
§ Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)
I am delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman has repudiated pacifism. Has he also repudiated his membership of the parliamentary Labour party Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament group between 1982 and 1986?
§ Mr. McWilliam
It seems to me that 1986 is a long time ago. When I joined the CND, it was multilateralist and I could not get it to change, which is why I left. I will accept no more interruptions. If that is the standard I can expect, it would not be worth while.
If the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) reads the joint report of the Trade and Industry Committee and the Defence Committee, published during the previous Parliament, he might gain more insight into what we ought to be doing in terms of defence procurement. I am deeply worried by the proposal to form a joint company between Royal Ordnance and SNPE of France. Not that long ago—I am sorry to say—the previous Government gave away our ability to manufacture FH70 ammunition for our main field howitzers. The Belgian company that ended up with the contract refused to supply 155 mm ammunition to our forces in the Gulf. We cannot and must not allow the SNPE-Royal Ordnance joint company to go ahead, and we must continue to have the ability to manufacture military explosives in this country.
A review must address overstretch. Nights away from home, extended tour intervals and shortened periods between tour intervals are having a distinct effect on the morale of our armed forces. We must do something about that. The previous Government cut and cut and let the situation worsen without any thought for the consequences. My colleagues on the Select Committee—the majority of whom were Conservatives—felt the same as me and were prepared to produce critical reports. I can assure the House that as a member of the current Defence Committee, I shall act in no way differently from the way in which I acted on the previous Committee.
There are serious problems with procurement projects, particularly where there are high levels of system integration. We have failed in all sorts of areas—from airborne radar aircraft to frigate command and control systems and the tactical weapons system on nuclear submarines—because of one problem. The Ministry of 764 Defence cannot cope with high levels of system integration—which is strange, because our industry certainly can. We have one of the best information technology industries in the world, and it is capable of dealing with contracts with high degrees of sophistication and integration. It is only when the MOD's procurement process gets involved that it goes astray.
I shall give my hon. Friends on the Front Bench a piece of advice that I used to give when I was city treasurer in Edinburgh. I used to say to officials, "If you want to have unplanned works added to a contract, please bring me your proposal together with your resignation—it will save time."
I congratulate the Government on the progress on Gulf war syndrome since the general election. The Select Committee on Defence in the previous Parliament was extremely critical of the then Government for their failure to move and their assertion that the only research that was needed was psychological and, frankly—I blame not the Government but certain individuals—for trying to mislead the Committee as to possible causes. Those who were responsible have either resigned or been disciplined, but I resent the fact that it happened; if it ever happens again, I promise that I, for one, will cause trouble.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to the defence medical services, as did my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces. When I visited the defence medical services last year, I was shocked by the demoralisation; by the state that they were in; by the fact that the three services, although it was supposed to be a tri-service system, had different arrangements; and by the discovery that the nearest officer from whom an aircraftman or aircraftwoman could get help would be a surgeon squadron leader or a surgeon group captain, and that often there was no officer they could refer to on their base. The different conditions of service for members of different services doing the same job cause resentment, and that must be dealt with.
I shall now resume my seat before another Conservative Member makes another stupid intervention.
§ 7 pm
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam). I can at least join him in the tribute that he paid to British industry and its contribution to the success of our defence forces.
Those who 10 years ago called on the Government to turn their swords into ploughshares are today queuing up to demand ever more defence expenditure. That is indeed an encouraging sign. The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), who represents the home of the nuclear submarine, declared on 30 May 1987 that Labour wouldend the madness of our reliance on nuclear weapons",adding that thearms race has brought us to the brink of total destructionand that the Conservativesclaim that these weapons of mass destruction make us secure. The truth is that they do not.Greater joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, and even greater joy if the entire parliamentary Labour party repenteth, with the exception of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn).
765 The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness is now calling for more aircraft carriers, so we can take great encouragement from that.
§ Mr. Howarth
There may be constituency interests there, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is also acting on principle.
The Labour party cannot claim great insight, because even the Russians are going for competitive tendering; the Labour party is not in the avant garde of change. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) said yesterday, it is a tribute to the Conservative party that Labour has been forced over the years to change its posture on defence, and our debate in the past two days is testimony to the fact that we have won the argument that strong defence leads to peace and to freedom.
The Secretary of State said yesterday that we live in a more complex world following the fall of the Berlin wall. We would all agree with that. The certainties of the cold war have been replaced by uncertainties. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) may be interested to know that I was not in the Treasury, but I worked for the Russians. While not in the House, I spent a year working for the Russian aircraft design bureau, Sukhoi, manufacturers of the Su-27 fighter aircraft; and a fascinating time it was.
I met Konstantin Marbachev, the chief designer of the Su-27, arguably one of the most potent aircraft in the world, and asked him, through the interpreter, "If we are all friends, who is the enemy?" He looked up and said, "Mussulmanski." [HON. MEMBERS: "Who?"] Mussulmanski—Islamic fundamentalism. That is only one potential threat. There are others, such as Russia itself, should it implode—we should not take a return to Russian nationalism lightly—and China.
We face a complex and difficult world, and it is important to prepare our armed services not only for humanitarian action but for hostilities. It is right for us to deploy our troops where they can play a humanitarian role, but we should remember what they are there for in the first place: to defend the realm and our interests throughout the world. I fear that the decision to extend the role of women in the armed forces smacks more of political correctness than of a need to deal with a recruitment problem.
The Minister faces a problem, because if we are to prepare for myriad possible eventualities, he will have to retain a nuclear capability and continue to invest in the smart weapons that made all the difference in the Gulf war and kept casualties to a minimum. He will have to invest in air superiority and in the troops who will be able to hold the territory. It is hard to see how all that can be maintained without additional resources. I agree with much of the rhetoric of the new Defence Ministers, and I think that they are men of honour, but they will be judged not by their rhetoric but by their deeds.
Many hon. Members have referred to British Aerospace's proposal to sell its Bridgwater Royal Ordnance factory to a French company, SNPE. The trade unions have produced an interesting briefing on the matter, which says:
Unless Government intervenes to protect strategic capacity … Britain will, in future, have to depend on France to meet the needs of our armed forces, including in times of crisis.766 Ministers face a difficult decision. Sir Dick Evans of British Aerospace has said that the restructuring of defence industries throughout Europe is a vital priority and urged the Government to speed it up. He recognises that there is a political dimension.
The Government will have to grapple with the issue, because they will find it hard to rationalise the industry in Europe—which probably has to be done—without risking the loss of some critical strategic capability, which no one in the House, not even the Liberal Democrats, great federalists though they are, wants to surrender to France. We must look not only to co-operative agreements with our continental partners but to the United States, and France finds that unacceptable.
The Minister will have to deal with the Foresight programme, promoted by the British aerospace industry. He knows that the President of the Board of Trade has given her support to that programme of technological research, which is vital because we are living off yesterday's investment: today's export sales of defence equipment are based on past investment. The Government keep banging on about investment, so perhaps the Minister can tell us what they intend to do about the Foresight programme.
I bitterly resent the imputation that the Conservative Government did not have an ethical defence sales policy. We had a strict licensing regime. Ministers must understand that defence sales enable us to support our allies and to get value for money from production runs that we could not afford if our only marketplace was the United Kingdom. The Government will have to think hard about that. They must stand firm in support of defence sales, which are important to British industry and to the execution of our foreign policy. Saudi Arabia is an ally, and made more strongly an ally by its defence ties with us.
The royal yacht Britannia has a part to play in promoting not only defence sales but all British exports. I am very sorry that it has been dropped. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young)—my former boss, to whom I was parliamentary private secretary—was far too gentle yesterday when he mentioned all the press reports on Sunday 3 August about how the Government were going to reinstate the royal yacht Britannia. The reports were designed to ensure that the Foreign Secretary's adultery with his secretary was driven off the front pages of the newspapers. It is no good the Under-Secretary shaking his head; he knows that that was why it was done.
In the few moments left to me, I wish to raise one or two local matters because defence is a key issue for my constituency. British Aerospace has made much of the need to use the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency and tap into its resources. I stress to the Minister that we already have a defence diversification agency in the form of DERA, which employs 2,700 people in Farnborough and 8,000 scientists. It is being used; please continue to use it. When the Secretary of State comes to the centre of mine expertise at Minley, at the Royal School of Military Engineering—
§ Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces on their excellent speeches, on their rapid reaction approach to tackling the multitude of problems left to us by the previous Government and on implementing some of the commitments made in our election manifesto. I particularly the welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister today on Gulf veterans and the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt).
After a mere six months of government, we are already undertaking tasks that the previous Government dodged and shied away from not for months but for years. Even Conservative Members spoke in favour of the strategic defence review and said that the previous Government's policies had led to severe overstretch and falling of morale in the armed forces.
Listening to some speeches from the shadow defence team and from Conservative Members, I was reminded of some of the quotes I saw in 206s. For those who are not familiar with them, they are officer fitness reports which are scathing in their comments and decide whether an officer should continue in his role. I shall quote two or three and leave my hon. Friends to decide which ones apply to Conservative Members.
The first says: "This Officer"—or hon. Member—is not so much of a has-been, but more of a definitely won't-be.The second states:He would be out of his depth in a car park puddle.I see that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) appreciates that one.
The third states:Since my last report he has reached rock bottom, and has started to dig.The fourth quote reminds of the shadow Secretary of State, who spoke about spinning yesterday, and states: "This Officer"—or hon. Member—reminds me very much of a gyroscope—always spinning around at a frantic pace but not really going anywhere.I see that I have the approval of Conservative Members for introducing fitness reports for the shadow defence team.
Our strategic defence review needs to go back to basics and ask what role Britain wants to play, what sort of military we want in the 21st century, and what are the real and potential threats to our national security and interest. The review gives us an opportunity to shape our future and that of the world we live in. It could be no better timed as we approach the millennium.
I agree with Government and Opposition Members who remarked that defence is often regarded as the least attractive area of Government policy and the prime place to make savings. We can too easily forget that the prime role of a Government is to provide their people with security and freedom. That came across to me forcefully recently when I had the honour of attending a North Atlantic Assembly plenary session in Bucharest. I became aware of how keen Romania and many central and east European countries were to join NATO because they thought that it would provide the security and freedom that they have lacked for so many decades.
768 The cold war may have ended, but it has been replaced by a more diverse range of security challenges. We must reject an island mentality and continue to recognise that our defence and security interests mean that we should remain in NATO and the United Nations, and support NATO enlargement.
I should like to mention the excellent reports that were prepared for the North Atlantic Assembly by my hon. Friends the Members for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) and for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen) on "Partnership for Peace" enhancement and on the cost comparisons of NATO enlargement. The Secretary General of NATO made a good point in his speech to the NAA in Bucharest when he said:
The costs of enlargement will pale in comparison to the costs we have to pay when peace breaks down like it did in Bosnia.NATO enlargement means that our forces will continue to be called on to deal with a far more diverse range of security challenges. Their peacekeeping role in Bosnia is essential; they have performed excellently in IFOR and now in the stabilisation force, SFOR. We must debate more fully our involvement in peacekeeping and consider what position we are prepared to take and in what parts of the world we are prepared to operate in that capacity.
NATO should be recognised as having given us the framework for dialogue with Russia, for all the tensions that that creates. I support the Secretary of State in his vision of greater partnership and co-operation.
Despite improvements in Russian control over nuclear material, there is continuing concern about the safety of the Russian nuclear arsenal and the leakage of technology and material to unstable regimes in the middle east and elsewhere. There are also major concerns about the storage and disposal of decommissioned submarines, for example, and their environmental impact. Those considerations should play a part in our strategic defence review.
The force with which I have had the pleasure of dealing most is the Royal Navy, because I undertook the armed forces parliamentary scheme with the Navy. I recommend the AFPS scheme to hon. Members. I hope that the role of the Royal Navy in our future defence interests will be recognised. I urge that we debate fully and consider carefully the future role of the aircraft carrier. Having been on both HMS Invincible and HMS Illustrious during sea war exercises, I have seen the flexibility, range and capability that they offer.
The Minister for the Armed Forces would be surprised if I did not mention the importance of maintaining our shipbuilding and ship refitting skills, particularly at Rosyth dockyard in my constituency. I know that staff at the dockyard eagerly look forward to playing such a role.
I join others in praising and expressing my support for the reserves, especially as Dunfermline is home to one of the best air training corps in the country.
Our defence industry plays a crucial role in providing us with a capability. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to support some of the comments that have been made. I welcome the smart procurement. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement to examine the savings that can be made in the bureaucracy that still exists in procurement.
769 I join all hon. Members in praising our armed forces. They make us proud to be citizens of the United Kingdom. I finish by quoting Admiral Collingwood, who said of Trafalgar, but his remark applies to all forces today:When all exert themselves zealously in their country's services, all deserve that their high merits should stand recorded.It is our task to ensure that our armed forces are able to continue to serve our country with such excellence.
§ Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)
The defence review was couched in grand and sweeping terms. In his announcement on 28 May, the Secretary of State said that the review wouldprovide Britain's Armed Forces with a new sense of clarity, coherence and consensus. The review will be foreign policy led … the review will look afresh at all aspects of our policy and programmes.However, events since then have demonstrated the failure of the Government to live up to their promise. I shall demonstrate that the Government's defence policy is defeatist, blinkered, doctrinaire and unimaginative.
In the summer, shortly after their election, the Government found for the first time, not surprisingly, that they faced a funding crisis in the national health service. I say that it was not surprising because the Government kept to the spending targets of the previous Government, but did not allow for inflation so there was a shortfall of some 2.5 per cent. What happened? The Secretary of State for Defence was mugged in Whitehall in broad daylight by the Treasury. The mugger demanded money with menaces. It had a knife and was prepared to cut, as the Treasury always is.
The Secretary of State had a foolproof evasion technique at that point. The Government had announced on 28 May, with all the authority of government, that there would be a fundamental review of defence with no holds barred. However, the Secretary of State did not dispute the matter with the Treasury. He gave in. His response to the threat was, in the immortal words of the Minister for the Armed Forces:One throws £168 million in the basket.I submit that those words deserve to be carved on a granite plinth and placed outside the Ministry of Defence to record the Minister's first brush with a hostile power.
§ Dr. Reid
I know that the hon. Gentleman would not wish to mislead the House. If he read the whole quotation, it would say:One takes £246 million. One throws £168 million in the basket. Whatever is left represents what was achieved during the negotiations."—[Official Report, 27 October 1997; Vol. 299, c. 678.]
§ Mr. Viggers
I attended more bilateral meetings in the Treasury when I was a Parliamentary Private Secretary than the Minister or, I suspect, any hon. Member present has. It is possible for Ministers to stand up to the Treasury, which does not divide capital and income. Ministers can take a line. On this occasion, the Ministry 770 of Defence was rolled over. That shows that the role of current Ministers, as we shall see increasingly in the years ahead, is to put a good face on failure.
§ Mr. Viggers
I am sorry, I cannot give way again, even to the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have the greatest respect.
So the Government's defence policy is defeatist. It is also blinkered. The Government said that they wouldlook afresh at all aspects of our policy and programmes",but the review will not examine two aspects. One is Trident. That is correct, because Trident is a unique nuclear deterrent. The second is the Eurofighter, which has a fixed number of 232 purchases. Why Eurofighter? It was initially an air-to-air combat aircraft in the production of which four nations participated. After delays and cost increases, it was redefined to have also a ground attack role with anti-armour missiles and stand-off air-to-surface missiles. Those will inhibit the air-to-air role. One does not need to be a pilot to see that Eurofighter is dull. The Mig 29 Fulcrum aircraft has performed unbelievable feats of aerobatics at air shows in the west for a decade. The Sukhoi 27 Flanker and its derivatives are a generation ahead of Eurofighter in agility, even though they are a whole generation older.
Eurofighter looks what it is—a conventional 1980s air frame with poor stealth characteristics and limited range. It lacks thrust vectoring and it needs afterburners to sustain supersonic flight. At a cost of £15 billion, it will take an enormous amount out of the defence budget, so why is it excluded from the defence review? The answer is that the Labour Government have excluded Eurofighter to protect jobs. As in so many cases, the Labour party is showing its true colours. It believes that defence is a job creation agency. Just when we need flexibility and mobility, we are locked into the old inflexibilities of the cold war. So the defence review is blinkered.
The defence review is also doctrinaire. Despite the promise in his announcement of 28 May, the Secretary of State has taken one more issue out of the review—the opening of more posts to women, which was broadly welcomed by Labour Members. I saw many of them nodding happily yesterday. I wonder how many of those who were nodding had been in a trench, a tank or a spy bunker. Very few hon. Members now have experience in the armed forces, and many also lack experience of the armed forces. It is the duty of those who have experience in the armed forces to point out the stresses, pressures, space constraints and interaction of loyalties in the armed forces and to say that the presence of women will complicate them. I do not take sides on the issue. I should like to discuss it with those in the armed forces and hear their views.
However, if we are to have a fundamental strategic defence review, surely the Government should have had the courtesy to discuss with the House of Commons the opening of posts to women rather than announcing it in the opening speech of the two-day debate. Exactly the same applies to homosexuality in the armed forces. It is a serious issue. I remember the fluent and powerful speech that the current Minister for the Armed Forces made in support of the status quo at the end of the proceedings of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, which I chaired.
771 It was a sufficiently important issue to be the subject of a free vote. It concerns me that the issue is also part of the strategic defence review. The fact that the Government have announced that there will be another free vote shows that they are more interested in political correctness than in military efficiency.
The strategic defence review is also unimaginative. It does not deal with the great issues of British foreign policy, our place in the world and how we can make ourselves and others more secure. As the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) reported, countries in central and eastern Europe are racked with internal and external problems. How can we help them? They are hopeful, fearful and very uncertain. Where is the foreign policy framework within which the strategic defence review will take place?
Important developments are taking place in foreign affairs. NATO is expanding to take in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Other countries are making forceful demands for further expansion. I should like to see the "Partnership for Peace" expanded, rather than NATO.
We should consider what encouragement we can give through the Ministry of Defence to countries in central and eastern Europe, many of which are uniquely geared to the military-industrial combines that produced weapons in the past. In removing those combines, we remove from those countries an important part of their industry. Could not the Government produce a new initiative on arms procurement, to use the skills of companies such as Sukhoi, and Antonov in Kiev, which I visited recently? Antonov's design centre has produced the Antonov 70, which has many of the characteristics that we need for our heavy lift capability. Why are there no initiatives with other European states, especially those that most need help?
Looking outside Europe, why was the Secretary of State so vague about our involvement outside the NATO area? Would not this debate have been an ideal opportunity to put forward new ideas for discussion? Do the Government have a view on the United Nations developing its own international military staff? Do the Government think that they could contribute more to peacekeeping, perhaps by promoting the idea of a staff college for peacekeeping here in the United Kingdom, as we have unique qualifications owing to our special information on civil defence and aids to civil power?
We have heard little new in the debate. The so-called review is unimaginative and a missed opportunity. Of course, we know why the two-day debate has been held now. The Select Committee on Defence is always pleading for the two-day debate on defence to be brought forward. It has been brought forward now because Ministers can simply reply to every question by saying that everything is under review. I hope that Ministers have enjoyed their time in office so far, as that enjoyment will not last. The next time that we see them here they will have to come and give us the bad news.
§ Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)
It may be of some help to the House if I put it on the record that I no longer serve on the Select Committee on Defence. That is a 772 source of some disappointment to me, but I have been mollified to some degree as I have been elected vice-chairman of the defence and security committee—the main committee—of the North Atlantic Assembly. It has asked me to pick up the report that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) and is lying on the Opposition Front Bench. It is a report on the state of the Russian forces: I have been asked to develop it into recommendations for reform of the Russian forces. I am to do that in conjunction with Russian delegates, officials and military. If we do a decent job, we could write ourselves into the history books. All that is sufficient recompense for losing my seat on the Select Committee.
I have one or two points to make before I turn to the main thrust of my speech which is, as the House might expect, land mines. Comments have been made about NATO enlargement and its cost. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) said that he could not see the justification for NATO enlargement. Initially, I was also a little suspicious and wondered why, if NATO had been successful, we needed to improve on it.
The truth is that NATO's character is changing dramatically. I refer my hon. Friend to the comments of the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell), who, sad to say, has left the Chamber—I know that my hon. Friend took note of them at the time—about the pre-emptive deployment in places such as Rwanda and Albania. That illustrates the sort of character that NATO is developing. It has been assisted by the development of the "Partnership for Peace" formula.
The NATO nations—on a 16-plus-one basis—can bring in other nations, agree the semaphores and dialogue, and harmonise the equipment and disciplines necessary for participating collectively in peace maintenance activities. NATO is no longer the NATO that we used to know. I used to be an advocate of withdrawal from NATO, but if we do not learn day by day, we are defeated. The one lesson that I have learnt—and I have been a delegate since 1987—is that if NATO had not existed when the wall came down, we would have had to invent it. The people who are most grateful to it now are the central and eastern European nations, which are clamouring to join. I suspect that Russia, although it has not yet gathered the strength to knock on the door, is ready and waiting for the door to be opened.
We have heard much in the debate about the value of our personnel, both male and female. To those who are worried about women in our forces I say that women are already there and performing important work—it is a question of what role they fulfil. We have heard about their value, the importance of their families, the distress that can be caused and the stress to which they are exposed.
We have also heard about Major Joyce, the difficulties involved and the fact that the only response may be a court martial. Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway, which are all NATO allies, recognise and make provision for an organisation called Euromil, which is a form of military trades union that allows military 773 representatives to represent individuals without identifying them. Such an organisation for our British forces could—
§ Mr. Cook
No, I cannot give way as I have only 10 minutes in which to speak. If the hon. Gentleman wishes, I will engage in public debate with him—he can book the hall and I will pay for it.
A relationship between organisations such as Euromil—which exists for our NATO allies—and the Ministry of Defence could solve many difficulties. The Government have seen fit to reinstate the trade union rights at GCHQ. I hope—although I see that the Government Front Bench is empty of major Ministers—that they might consider the establishment of a similar sort of relationship in this area.
I hope that the review that is being afforded to the Gulf war veterans will also be extended to include the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association, which has, for many more years, suffered similar problems in terms of representation.
The Labour Government have taken firm action in Bosnia. I represent the Westminster Parliament in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and in the North Atlantic Assembly. Their attitude towards the British in connection with war crimes prisoners has changed dramatically because of the resolution that we showed.
On 2 July, I sent a memo to Ronald Lehman, the director of the Centre for Global Security Research at the Livermore laboratory in California. I also sent a copy of the memo to my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for International Development. The memo stated:This simple courtesy note is to alert you to recent exchanges between myself and Dr. David Eimerl of the Center for Global Security Research at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory when I outlined to him my ideas on the proposal to create an international organization to promote and accelerate measures to reduce levels of UXO pollution generally and APM contamination particularly, so facilitating the faster return of potentially available land to gainful use.I went on to outline how the organisation could put to good use serving officers, retirees and volunteers who want to train personnel in the 67 countries that have been polluted with the filth.
On 21 July, I received an answer from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence who said that he had read my letter with interest. I am pleased to see that the initiatives taken by the Labour party in its five-point plan go some way towards meeting the call that I made in my memo, but I do not think that they are sufficient. We need to go further and the Government need to enlist non-governmental organisations to complement and augment the clear programme that has been set out and which I welcome.
This morning, I went to a seminar on land mines at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies. I heard a lot about the difficulties experienced by researchers developing censors that can detect a pimple on a pebble half a metre below the surface 60 yd from an aircraft at 300 ft. The researchers are concentrating on detecting the land mine, which is important and needs to 774 be done, but the papers of General Sir Hugh Beach tell of the censors to which I referred earlier—censors that can detect human movement, and direct either indirect or direct fire on whoever is making the incursion.
Those sensors are freely and readily available now, but we do not seem to be applying the right levels of attention to the problem. If we did so, we could remove the military necessity of using anti-personnel mines to defend our fortifications and do the job more cheaply, cleanly and accurately, without the need to eradicate the damned things afterwards when non-combatants are maimed and killed. People talk about the costs of doing that, but I would point out the costs of not doing it—for example, the unquantifiable cost of the arable land in this country that is denied to agricultural use because we do not know whether it is mined and we have difficulty finding out. I appeal for thoughts on this matter to go further.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
I am privileged to have caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to be able to speak in this two-day defence debate. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook).
There is no doubt that our armed forces are among the most professional, if not the most professional, in the world. It would therefore ill behove the Government to stretch their conditions of service too far—a point to which I shall return later.
The strategic defence review is the sixth such review undertaken since the second world war and it takes place in a 15-year time frame. It is therefore important that we get it right. We must focus on our world role. In a brief intervention on the Minister for the Armed Forces I tried to elicit what the foreign policy base line actually is, and he gave me the answer I expected—one that was somewhat wide of the point and gave us no detail on which to hang a coat. Our armed forces are there to give us the choice as to whether we wish to take part in any of the world forums that we support so rigorously. I hope that no strategic defence review will ever take away that choice from the Government of this country.
With that choice available to us, we have taken part with honour in world conflicts and in world forums. We been able to participate so successfully because we have been able to equip our armed forces with some of the best equipment in the world. Whatever the previous Government did—I accept that, over the past 10 years or so, we cut the manpower of the combined services from 315,000 to 215,000—we always ensured that our armed forces had the best equipment in the world. I hope that that will continue under the strategic defence review and that we shall have the ability to procure the latest equipment.
I echo other hon. Members' comments about the Technology Foresight programme. There is no doubt that as we move into the next millennium the electronic revolution will gather pace. Every day, microchips become smaller, which means, for example, that rockets will be able to carry computers with increasing amounts of memory and that minor powers will be able to develop such strategic equipment far more easily. We have to be fast on our feet in our procurement programmes—we have to look at the latest equipment, but we must also look over the horizon to see what is coming along. That is 775 part of the problem with procurement costs: we look at a piece of equipment for procurement, but then find that technology has advanced, so we have to change the specification. We have to acknowledge that problem and consider counter-measures.
In the short time available, I wish to deal with one or two of the personnel issues. First, there is Gulf war illness, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) called it. I welcome the open way in which the Minister for the Armed Forces is dealing with this matter and I ask him to determine whether or not there is such a syndrome. Constituents have written to me on the subject and there is no doubt that people have become ill as a result of the cocktail of medicines administered to them during the Gulf war. Of course, the cocktail was administered during wartime and in a rapidly changing situation, so I am not necessarily attaching any blame, but if genuine mistakes were made, I look to the Minister for the Armed Forces to come clean, and compensation should be paid to families who have been inconvenienced.
I shall refer briefly to our territorial armed forces. An easy path to take in the strategic defence review would be to cut our volunteer forces, but they are absolutely essential. They do valuable work in signals units and, in this age of electronics, signals and communications will become ever more important. It is, therefore, incumbent on us to draw on our brightest graduates and recruit the best people from our universities so that they can provide the skills of tomorrow that our armed forces need.
The Minister for the Armed Forces does not appear to be paying attention, but I hope that he will listen for a minute. The strategic defence review is giving rise to uncertainty in the armed forces. The sooner it is completed, the sooner the armed forces will know where they are going and the easier it will be to implement a realistic recruitment programme, especially in the Army where personnel are desperately needed. I hope that the Minister will get on with the review and complete it as quickly as possible.
I return to the subject of our world role and re-emphasise the primacy of NATO in our defence planning. The Americans are prepared to deploy 100,000 troops outside their own territory in Europe and elsewhere under the NATO umbrella. We would be crazy to do anything to jeopardise that. Some of the anti-American noises coming from some of our European partners are astonishing at a time when they are all cutting their defence budgets as a proportion of gross domestic product. We should be encouraging and thanking the Americans for their contribution.
I warmly welcome any expansion of NATO to the east through peaceful means—through "Partnership for Peace", not through annexation into NATO. That is the way to go: we do not want all those future NATO powers to gear themselves up with military expenditure, but we want them to come under the NATO umbrella so that we can control their thinking on strategic military affairs.
This has been a valuable debate. I have some important defence industries in my constituency. I want our armed forces to continue their professionalism in the world. I do not want them to suffer administrative overstretch. I want them to be equipped with the latest equipment. I want us to maintain our position as the world's No. 2 defence 776 exporter—now well ahead of France. I want our brightest graduates to be involved in the Technology Foresight programme. I want some of our best equipment to be designed, produced and manufactured in this country.
Above all, I want the jobs in my constituency and elsewhere in the defence manufacturing companies, which are some of the best in world, to be retained here—or, if not here, maintained in collaboration with our European partners. To achieve that, we have to maintain a proper procurement programme. I do not want the strategic defence review to cut any of our options in the world. If in future we are invited to participate in NATO, the United Nations or any other world forum but are unable to do so because the Government have cut our defence forces, I shall hold to account the Ministers responsible for those cuts. If their words today and yesterday mean anything at all, they, too, will want to keep our armed forces in good shape.
§ Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford)
Our Army, Navy and Air Force are recognised as unsurpassed in their capabilities and record. They are truly professional in roles as disparate as Northern Ireland and the defence of western Europe through NATO. They are admired world wide for their skill and discipline and bring great credit to this country. Nevertheless, there is a need to look closely at what we are asking them to do.
Times have changed radically over the past 10 years. The Berlin wall has come down, the Soviet Union has fragmented and today's foreign policy sees Britain's influence projected around the world through overseas aid and trade and the vibrancy of our arts and sciences and not just by military capability and alliance.
The previous Government made several ad hoc cuts in defence spending in acknowledgement of all these changes, but they were financially driven. It was not clear that our resulting defence forces were consistent with the tasks that we asked them to undertake. The current defence review is the first time that there has been a comprehensive assessment of our defence forces since the defence of NATO Europe against mass attack across the north German plain ceased to be the central focus of our defence policy.
The aim of the review must be to define the nature of British defence interests in the context of the new Government's foreign policy and to ensure their consistency with the scale and allocation of defence spending.
With the exception of Northern Ireland, which we must hope will soon not need to be a defence issue, none of the scenarios defining potential defence operations will involve a vital British interest on its own. We are most likely to be acting in concert with some of our allies in NATO or the Western European Union or the Commonwealth or the United Nations. It is impossible to imagine circumstances in which British forces should or would be called to operate entirely on their own. Even humanitarian aid operations would require some support from a host Government.
One of the major questions that the review must address, therefore, is, what type of collaboration with allies may be envisaged? Will it be collaboration with self-sufficient units, operating side by side with allied counterparts but capable of operating independently? 777 Or will it be an operationally integrated force of land, air or naval forces under an integrated command structure, the individual national components of which would be unable to operate independently?
Operational requirements and national pride have favoured national forces that are complete in themselves, but that may not be either the most effective or the most efficient arrangement in future. There is a great deal of uneconomic duplication among NATO allies in providing the fiction of independence for armed services that will never operate independently.
Changed circumstances have different implications for each of the three services and raise different questions. I shall discuss the Royal Air Force first.
With future operations more likely to look like Northern Ireland or Bosnia than the Gulf war, the overriding question for the Royal Air Force is whether our potential spending on aircraft is consistent with future defence roles.
A commitment has been made to the collaborative development and purchase of Eurofighters, with hard-won German agreement. It will secure Britain's aircraft industry and consolidate the trend towards collaborative programmes in Europe. Both those aims are laudable, but where is the scenario of future operations that would require even half of the 232 aircraft that we are committed to purchase? Even an engagement such as the Gulf war would not justify those numbers if we are playing an equitable role with our allies.
The previous Government's 1996 defence White Paper outlined plans to replace 37 Sea Harriers in a possible collaboration with the United States of America. The cost estimates given for the collaboration, at $30 million to $40 million per aircraft, are less than those for the Eurofighter, but for a far more complex aircraft. Unsurprisingly, the Rand Corporation and the US Congressional Budget Office have questioned the credibility of those estimates. The scene appears to be set, therefore, for the most familiar of all defence scenarios—an expensive project that ends with costs two, three or four times the original estimates.
Feasibility studies with potential US partners are also known to be under way for the replacement of 85 Harriers and 142 Tornado strike bombers.
Where is the foreseeable operational need for all those aircraft? How is such a potential financial commitment likely to be proportionate to their defence role? Is there a way in which the large number of Eurofighters to which we are committed could be diverted to meet parts of the other roles that are being investigated?
I come now to the Royal Navy. There has long been no call to deploy the Royal Navy world wide. There is no plausible operation that it could be called on to carry out without the integrated or collateral support of allies.
In the cold war, the submarine threat to naval and merchant ships was there, but with the break-up of the Soviet Union, where does that submarine threat now come from? Likewise, in the cold war the Navy had major roles in operations to defend NATO's flanks in Norway and Turkey. However, there is now no threat to Norway and I question whether any potential threat to Turkey from Syria or Iraq could justify a significant naval force.
On what basis, therefore, can the present size of the Navy be justified? Amphibious forces, including amphibious ships and the Royal Marines, are undoubtedly 778 consistent with worldwide emergency and peacekeeping operations and obligations to some of our dependent territories. The ships can lie over the horizon without political commitment to an operation, but they influence events and provide for intervention at very short notice.
Amphibious intervention in emergencies or peacekeeping roles and the protection of North sea and Atlantic oil installations give a clear, firm basis for naval planning in the future. It seems unlikely, however, that those operations alone could justify a Navy of the present size, which, according to the 1996 defence White Paper, is 15 submarines, 36 destroyers and frigates and 44 Merlin anti-submarine warfare helicopters.
The Army is a service whose force structure, doctrine and training have been comprehensively defined by potential NATO operations in north-west Europe. It is here, therefore, that there is the greatest danger of things rolling on with the momentum of the past.
Tank battles across the north German plain are now the least likely operation imaginable, but quite recently they were a preoccupation of the Army in Germany. Heavy main battle tanks such as Challenger no longer fit into any future operational concept. The need is for flexibility and mobility and easy movement by air—all of which define a lighter tank.
The 1996 White Paper catalogues 386 Challenger 2 tanks on order and 350 to come. Although those may replace the unreliable Challenger 1 tanks, their overall role must now be in doubt. The weight of Challenger limits its deployment in most parts of Europe, including Bosnia, and expensive aircraft are required to move it anywhere by air.
In the new era, the Army will retain a central role in our defence, but it will need to revise its operational concepts and force structure to provide for a more flexible and mobile role. With that will come a need to rethink the equipment in a way that is compatible with greater movement and manoeuvre.
The defence review being undertaken provides for modernisation of the armed services—
§ Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)
I wish to make five brief points.
First, I believe that the decision not to replace Britannia is deeply regrettable and owes much more to political posturing than it does to sound judgment. It is much regretted in the New Forest, which is home to the CADLAND project.
Secondly, I add my voice to that of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) in calling for a Minister for veteran affairs. My constituency has a high proportion of retired officers, and the problems and anomalies that they bring to my constituency surgeries would be well served by such a Minister. Recently, the Royal British Legion at Milford-on-Sea asked me to raise that issue.
Thirdly, I should like to draw attention to the Secretary of State's statement on the opportunities available to women in the armed forces. I should have liked to address my remarks to the hon. Member for Thurrock, were he in his seat, because he expressed incredulity that my right 779 hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) could offer only a cautious welcome to the statement.
My welcome is only cautious because in my squadron I rely heavily on the skills of two female operators to maintain high frequency communications networks. They train with my squadron headquarters and are part of the team, but if we were to go into operations I would be denied their services. That situation has not changed as a consequence of the Secretary of State's statement because the Royal Armoured Corps is beyond its scope. That is why I am only cautious in my welcome.
Another reason for being cautious is that some people will use the successful integration of females into the armed services as an argument for going even further. I am glad that the Secretary of State ruled out the possibility of female soldiers serving in infantry regiments of the line. It would be operationally unsustainable and wholly repugnant if female soldiers were to fix bayonets and close with the enemy.
A third reason for exercising some caution in this respect is that, as the hon. Member for Thurrock must be aware, an administrative overhead applies to any attempt to integrate male and female soldiers as a consequence of the intimate circumstances in which they must serve and at the same time to maintain discipline. As St. Bernard of Clairvaux said:To be always with a woman and not to have intercourse with her is more difficult than to raise the dead.As one is not capable of the latter, one is certainly not capable of the former.
There has been some loose talk about cutting the Reserves to some 40,000 members or doing away with the Territorial Army altogether. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) that it is precisely because there is financial pressure on the defence budget that we should make even greater use of cost-effective Reserves. An argument that is being made against such an eventuality is the disappointing response in terms of volunteers for the high-readiness Reserves. I do not believe that that argument holds water. The effectiveness of the Reserves is much better measured by their outstanding contribution in Bosnia over the past few years. The disappointing number of signatures for the high-readiness Reserves is a failure on the part of the chain of command in its ability to inform soldiers and market the high-readiness Reserves.
To be effective, our Reserves must have adequate equipment with which to train. I draw the Minister's attention specifically to the decision to withdraw the series 3 Land Rover from service by the end of this year. I do not dispute for a moment the fact that the series 3 Land Rover should be withdrawn from service. It is extremely expensive to maintain. My squadron has two vehicles that are more than 18 years old, one of which was converted from civilian use and therefore has a limited range. I would have welcomed a decision to withdraw the series 3 Land Rovers as new vehicles were released. On 1 January, my light reconnaissance squadron will have no recce cars at all. To a light reconnaissance soldier, a Land Rover is as vital as a SA80 rifle is to an infantryman.
780 Furthermore, we have been told that only 60 per cent. of our establishment figure for those vehicles will be replaced, and as yet we have no timetable for that replacement. I can probably manage to train my squadron effectively with 60 per cent. of the vehicle establishment, although other squadrons in my regiment will have great difficulty in doing so. Nevertheless, it will be extremely difficult to train effectively at a regimental and battle group level with only 60 per cent. of the vehicles. Some units, by the nature of their tasks, will be able to function with less than 60 per cent. of their establishment, while others, by the nature of their role, will require 100 per cent. of their establishment. Undoubtedly, brigades and divisions will have their own priorities. My fear, however, is that even a division will have insufficient vehicles at its disposal to make those priorities effective. The matter must therefore be considered at Army level.
Those decisions need to be taken at the highest level and I urge the Minister for the Armed Forces to consider them.
§ 8.5 pm
§ Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)
The comments by the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) about working with women automatically leading to sexual intercourse sounded to me like defence of the rapist, and were patently nonsense, as are all such reasons for discrimination.
I want to raise six matters. As I have only 10 minutes, I shall do so quickly. The first is about the United States nuclear programme and follows on from the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis) about the influence of our allies on the strategic defence review. I remember sitting on the Committee on the Arms Control and Disarmament (Privileges and Immunities) Bill in 1987 with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence when the subject of nuclear testing came up. He said in Committee that a comprehensive test ban treaty would be useful as it would form a barrier to further weapons development. Now that my right hon. Friend is in office, will he tell the House whether that remains true? There are disturbing reports from across the Atlantic of new nuclear weapons being developed. In the post-cold war period, that seems unnecessary.
My second point is about Trident. My opposition to its expense, uselessness in practical defence terms and immorality is well recorded. However, in 1995 a commitment was made that, on coming to power, a Labour Government would put no greater a number of warheads on Trident than there were on Polaris. I hope that an announcement that such a policy has been carried out will be made soon. If missiles can be ordered outside the strategic defence review, that commitment can be confirmed.
My third point relates to "suitcase" nuclear bombs. Reports coming out of Russia that suitcase-sized nuclear weapons have gone astray are alarming, even if the source of those allegations has limited credibility. If nuclear weapons are truly the weapons of last resort, as the leaders of the nuclear powers keep telling us, what is the use of such portable weapons? The fact that the weapons are so portable makes them harder to control and easier to steal.
The Americans deployed equivalent weapons in the 1960s—their atomic demolition munitions—but subsequently withdrew them from service. I understand 781 that we have never had such weapons. Perhaps it is time to outlaw small nuclear weapons such as those. Britain will be in a good position to promote such a measure; it would remove a significant proliferation threat. The fear that portable nuclear weapons could be stolen and used for terrorist-style operations has been the source of film plots, such as in the film "The Peacemaker", which is showing in cinemas now.
My fourth point also relates to the Committee on which I served with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in 1987. I raised at that time, and have done so often since, the ratification of the 1977 additional protocols to the 1949 Geneva conventions. Those protocols apply the Geneva conventions to civil wars, and they should have applied to the war in Bosnia. I raise the matter in a defence debate as those are important documents on the laws of war and, as such, are in the defence sphere.
In recent years, I have been told repeatedly that we are on the verge of ratifying the protocols. Has anything changed with the new Government? The protocols were signed under a Labour Government, and it would be appropriate for them to be ratified under a Labour Government, but can we do that soon, please?
The fifth point relates to anti-personnel mines. This morning, I spoke at a United Kingdom defence forum meeting on land mines. I learned a lot about the difficulty of clearing mines from other speakers who had experience in the field. The moratorium announced shortly after the election has been widely welcomed. I welcome it, and I also welcome the new mines information and training centre at Minley in Surrey.
I am concerned, however, about the issue of use in "exceptional circumstances", which was suggested to the House by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State before the summer recess. That reservation should be removed once the international treaty on land mines is in force.
Things have moved on. More than 100 states have endorsed the treaty that has resulted from the final meeting in the Ottawa process held last month in Oslo. The treaty is due for signing in December. It will come into force six months after the 40th country ratifies it. That will probably take a couple of years to come about. The Ottawa treaty may not be perfect, but it is a substantial improvement on what was available in the past, and there seems no prospect of achieving anything better in the foreseeable future.
We should be an early ratifier of the treaty. The opt-out on use in exceptional circumstances could be withdrawn as soon as the Ottawa treaty is signed by us. That would send a powerful message around the world that the British Government are serious about the treaty. We have much credibility to rebuild on the international stage, after many years of Tory intransigence on the issue of land mines.
The sixth matter which I shall raise is that of the Fabian Society pamphlet published by Major Eric Joyce, "Arms and the man—Renewing the armed services". Major Joyce has done us and the Army a favour. I shall not refer to the disciplinary action against him, which I do not support, but some of the comments in the pamphlet should be put into the record. He states:
The role played by social class in the way we in the Army recruit and organise ourselves, and the centrality of outmoded Victorian values to our institutional ethos, are now acting as powerful inhibitors in our efforts to deal effectively with our dire 'manning' crisis. We should now take direct action to consign our inefficient and unfair social divisions to history.782 Major Joyce goes on to describe "three Victorian-style 'castes'" in the Army, which he calls
the Posh, an exclusively white, male, privately-educated elite which runs the institution and wholly dominates its culture… the Professionals, the middle-classes who provide the technical expertise and 'middle management'; and finally… the Plebeians, the working classes… the great 'use and discard' rank and file.Major Joyce states:The simple fact is that few school-leavers today wish to join an institution steeped in snobbery and where a glass ceiling will be placed upon their career prospects on account of their social class.Social class is not the only issue. He continues:
On gender… we enforced unlawful employment policies… long after it became clear that they were wrong. On race, we continue to fail those from ethnic minorities in spite of regular and severe warnings from the Commission for Racial Equality; and on sexuality we continue to fight a damaging and pointless rearguard action against homosexuality based more upon the moral views of some senior officers than any meaningful rationale about the impact a change in policy may have upon operational effectiveness.Those points need to be taken into account in the strategic defence review. They are about modernisation. That was one of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's central themes. We must bring modernisation to bear on those aspects in the strategic defence review.
I said in the last defence debate that I hoped that a change of Government would lead to a change in Government culture in matters of defence, with greater openness, fewer mistakes, much less money wasted and fewer immoral decisions. That is part of the modernisation process as well. I am pleased that Labour Ministers have made a good start in that respect.
§ Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)
In the time available, I shall speak about Trident, propaganda and security. I realise that the Government Front-Bench team has no formal responsibility for the security services, but I hope to speak about them nevertheless, because they have implications for the defence of this country. I shall not expect particular answers on the questions that I raise.
In a previous existence, I worked professionally as a counter to the unilateralist propaganda of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the early 1980s, and as the person at Conservative research department who had to investigate the Labour party's position on unilateralism in the early 1990s. It therefore brought a smile to my face to listen to so many hon. Members on the Government Benches saying, "What, us? Unilateralists? Never. Never heard the idea." It seems as hard to find an ex-CND supporter on the Government Benches as it was to find a supporter of Adolf Hitler in Berlin in 1945 or of communist Soviet power in Moscow after 1991.
Some people, however, stick to their former opinions. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) said that public opinion was in favour of getting rid of the bomb. That is news to many of us. Throughout the second cold war, when it was far more dangerous in nuclear confrontation terms, my colleagues and I commissioned opinion poll after opinion poll to ask whether people thought that Britain should continue to possess nuclear weapons, as long as other countries did so.
Time and again, we got the same answer, and we did so in subsequent years, too. Two thirds of people think that Britain should possess nuclear weapons as long as 783 other countries have them; one quarter want unilateral nuclear disarmament. It does not change, and I do not believe that it has changed.
I could not help but compare the behaviour of the Minister for the Armed Forces when I met him first a few years ago, when we were on a radio programme with a CND supporter. The Minister had at one stage supported unilateralism, but in frank conversations with him after the programme—I am sure that he will forgive my mentioning this—he admitted straight out that it had been a mistake, his party had got it wrong, and he would do his best to encourage the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) to take the appropriate attitude and learn the appropriate lessons from that. I applaud that, and I have never sought to exploit the fact that at one stage the Minister—
§ Dr. Lewis
No, I am not; I am applauding the fact that the Minister for the Armed Forces admitted that at one stage he was on the wrong side of the argument. I could not help but be amused, however, at the contrasting claim of the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) that, when he was in CND, it had been a multilateralist organisation.
I have the book that I wrote when I was working in Conservative research department, and I have the hon. Gentleman's entry. A measure of the multilateralism that he supported can be seen from two quotations. In 1982, the hon. Gentleman signed early-day motion 609 in which he saluted the "courage and determination" of anti-nuclear protestors at Greenham Common as indicatingthe deep revulsion of the British people to the presence of nuclear bases on United Kingdom soil.On "Newsnight", as late as October 1988, he said:We've got to negotiate them"—British nuclear weapons—away. If we can't negotiate them away realistically, we've still got to get rid of them.Never mind, the hon. Gentleman is on the right side now.
I turn to Trident. It has been suggested that money could be saved by reducing readiness through halving the number of warheads and taking the submarines off 24-hour patrol. Time does not permit me to examine that suggestion in detail, but I ask the Minister: does he think that he will save any money by removing warheads and putting a smaller number on Trident missiles? If he will not—and I suspect that it may cost money—it will be the most meaningless form of gesture politics.
By reducing the readiness of Trident or any other armed force, we run another risk. If we wait for a crisis to arise before restoring readiness, we risk intensifying the crisis by restoring readiness when the international scene has darkened. That is one of the reasons why, when Britain had run down our forces as a result of the appalling 10-year no-war rule which operated from 1919 to 1933—we finally got rid of it about 10 months after Hitler came to power—the Government did not feel able to campaign openly for rearmament until 1936. They were afraid of intensifying the crisis by rearming sooner.
784 We must recognise that Trident is a comprehensive deterrent against nuclear blackmail from whichever rogue Government or future super-power the threat may come. We have a great advantage over the planners of the 1920s who, as I have said in this place before, had so little idea of where the threat would come from that each of the three armed services made its hypothetical defence plans against an entirely different country. If I remember correctly, the Royal Navy made plans against the Japanese; the Army planned against the Russians; and the RAF planned against the French. I shall comment no further on the latter point.
We do not face that sort of dilemma with Trident because it will deter any possible nuclear threat from any identifiable future enemy. I remind those who ask from where the threat would come or who say, "If there is no threat today, why do we need it?" that the life span of our deterrent will be at least 30 years. It is worth remembering that the life span of the third reich was only 12 years, from 1933 to 1945.
We should remember also that Trident must constitute a minimum deterrent, not just at the beginning of its 30-year life span but at the end. Trident must retain flexibility so that it will be able to meet future minimum deterrence standards. I regret the fact that the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), said yesterday that we must abandon the Moscow criterion: the ability to get through a sophisticated anti-ballistic missile system. If we do that, what will we do if someone develops a sophisticated system during that 30-year period? People will jump up and down and say, "You must not raise your minimum deterrent, because you will intensify the international crisis."
I turn now to the security services. I am concerned about a report published in The Guardian that referred to the Minister without Portfolio—a gentleman who seems to have been almost as unpopular with MI5 as he is with his party colleagues. In the report headed "Mandelson wants MI5 files pulped", the Minister defended himself against the fact that an MI5 file on him had been opened, while admitting that he had indeed been an activist in the Young Communist League. He said:I was not a subversive or a threat to national security—I was a teenager holding ordinary leftwing views.I was a teenager at the same time as the Minister without Portfolio, and I assure him that his were not ordinary left-wing views; they were despicable views in support of a murderous totalitarian political system. Anyone who had held similar views about the Nazis would never be allowed to forget it.
§ Dr. Lewis
I agree. It is a disgrace that the Minister without Portfolio does not even have the shame to admit that he was wrong. He seeks instead to destroy the files that show that he and many others were wrong. In George Orwell's novel "1984", it is said:Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.
§ Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)
In yesterday's defence debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George)—who is now the excellent Chair of the Defence Select Committee—said that many new Members now sit on that Committee. I am privileged to announce that I am one such member. After my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), I am the second woman to sit on the Defence Committee. We are the only two women to do so in 17 years. I believe that that sends a positive signal that women not only are treated with respect in the House but are seen to have a role in the defence of the realm and in the armed forces.
I was also very pleased with the comments of the Secretary of State and the Minister yesterday. They outlined changes in opportunities for women in the armed forces. We are making a "quantum leap", and I am more than pleased about that. The move is not just valued or appropriate, but well overdue. I am delighted that the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) is in the Chamber to hear my speech, because I found his comments shameful and thoroughly unacceptable.
The Army's report into discrimination and harassment in the service has launched a very important drive. It requests that we eliminate harassment and discrimination, which I think is totally appropriate. From my experience as an equal rights officer for many years, I suggest that the path will be bumpy and the achievement very difficult, but nevertheless important. However, it is important for me to tell Ministers that I am disappointed that women are still excluded from certain roles within the armed forces: contact battle roles, the infantry and armoured regiments. I think that that is a problem, not because I believe that all women should take on combat roles—I do not believe that all men should do so—but because I believe that individuals have the right to choose. That is the absolute principle: individuals have the inviolable right to be treated equally. I believe that that should be the modus operandi of my Government.
I believe also that selection should be on the grounds of talent, not gender. It should certainly not be based—I make this point with great gusto—on prejudice. I found the comments of the hon. Member for New Forest, West shameful. There is no sense of political correctness in the Government's actions: we all wish to be part of Great Britain and part of the armed forces. We do not see you having an exclusive capability or an exclusive right. I am therefore disappointed that there are still only limited, albeit extended, roles for women.
The three services have used women in support roles on the front line, on warships and on RAF bases. How is it that we are good enough in support roles but somehow not good enough in combat? How dare you have the presumption to tell us that? We have the right to choose.
We all understand that it is crucial that we maintain a fully combat-effective Army. I have no problem with that, but I have a problem with the notion that, somewhere along the line, women need to be protected. I understand that concern and, much of the time, I respect it, but we do not need your protection—
§ Mr. Swayne
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It might not be my place to say so, but I feel that I ought to protect you from the hon. Lady, who is being rather unpleasant to you.
§ Ms Taylor
I have nearly finished what I want to say.
The Defence Evaluation and Research Agency states that women are not strong enough. Who says so? The physical tests involve a single lift, repetitive lifts, carrying, and a loaded march. My mother was 5 ft tall and worked as a nurse for 15 years, until she was 58, repeatedly lifting very heavy dead weights. She did it with concern and compassion. No one has the right to say that women are not strong enough. If we pass the physical test, we should be included. As I said, we have the right to choose. That means that we all have the right to be treated and selected fairly.
We are in the throes of a strategic defence review. A careful analysis is being made of our strengths and of our future needs. Like many hon. Members, I was appalled by the previous Government's treatment of the Army. There were expenditure cuts with no analysis—one badly thought-out act followed another. My constituency was at the raw end of those cuts. My predecessor, Tim Devlin, fought valiantly. He asked the Conservative Government to think again and not to remove the naval stores from Eaglescliff in the constituency. He failed. The previous Government were not prepared to listen. They were prepared only to cut—
§ Ms Taylor
No, I will not. The previous Government were cutting for one reason only—because public expenditure was out of control. They wanted to save money at the expense of the 600 jobs that were lost in my constituency. That is perhaps not as many as other constituencies lost, but the loss came on top of already high unemployment. I hope that my Government will never do that. We should never cut simply because public expenditure is out of control.
§ Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)
Most hon. Members have welcomed the strategic defence review. It provides an opportunity to influence future defence policy, first by examining Britain's commitments and interests and, secondly, by matching the defence requirements to sustain those commitments and interests. The Government have stated that they want strong defence forces, that they are committed to collective security through NATO and to being a major contributor to the peacekeeping efforts of the United Nations. We have many and diverse interests and commitments throughout the world, and our investments overseas are greater than those of any other European Union country.
In the past 10 years, our outstanding armed forces have been actively involved and deployed not only in Europe but in the middle east, the Falklands, the far east, central America and Africa. There is therefore a national imperative to sustain a strong Navy with a flexible, experienced and expert amphibious force as an integral 787 part of it. I sincerely hope that the Government will never underestimate the expertise and know-how required to conduct amphibious warfare. If we do not have amphibious forces, we shall be completely dependent on friendly ports and airfields when conducting expeditionary operations, including peace support, the evacuation of nationals and conflict itself.
Last night, the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) kindly allowed me to intervene on his speech to remind the House that today is the 333rd anniversary of the formation of the Royal Marines. For centuries, the Royal Marines, as an integral part of the Royal Navy have, with the Navy, built up an expertise, flexibility and efficiency in amphibious operations which is the envy of the world. However, that is not all that the Royal Marines have provided and will, I hope, continue to provide for our country. They offer an extremely wide utility over the defence spectrum. They are specialists in arduous and difficult climate and terrain conditions—for example, in cold weather, the jungle and the desert. They also provide excellent value for money and are eminently well suited to an era of co-operation with other countries. The Royal Marines' close links with the United States Marine Corps are well known. They also have links with many other foreign marine corps. For example, next May is the 25th anniversary of the United Kingdom/ Netherlands amphibious force.
I was therefore shocked during the recent recess to read press speculation of a merger between the Royal Marines and the Parachute Regiment. Press speculation can be a precursor to Government action. These formations have entirely separate and distinct cultures, histories and roles, and the speculation is bad for morale and for recruitment.
I hope that the Minister who winds up the debate will confirm the 1996 order for two new landing ships to be known, I understand, as Bulwark and Albion, replacements for the old Bulwark and Albion, and that he will acknowledge the vital importance to Britain's interests of having a specialist amphibious capability. Integral to that is the role of the Royal Navy and Britain's commandos, the Royal Marines.
§ Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)
I welcome the establishment of the strategic defence review and especially the Secretary of State's repeated assertions that strong defence is essential to winning public support. It is a message which is particularly relevant to my constituency which has a long and proud military tradition and was for many years the home of one of the nation's most distinguished regiments. I pay tribute to my constituents who served in the armed forces recently, especially in Bosnia, the Gulf and the Falklands.
I am delighted that the Government are reopening the issue of Gulf war syndrome and considering seriously the problems experienced by so many people who served in the Gulf. I hope that a similar re-examination can be granted to people who suffered debilitating illnesses as a result of their being nuclear test veterans.
I hope that regimental museums will be considered in the defence review as they fall within the Ministry of Defence budget. The cuts inherited from the previous Government are causing major problems for these important parts of our national heritage.
788 The most important point about the review is that it will be foreign policy led. There has been a concern for many years that Britain's defence policy has been the result of centuries of imperialism and historical accident rather than being the servant of a coherent foreign policy. It is critical that the foreign policy parameters for the review are well examined and clearly thought out. If that means that the review takes a further six months to complete, it will be six months well spent.
The debate is no longer about stronger or weaker defence, but about appropriate defence. That is why it is important to agree on Britain's role in the world in the last years of this century and the early years of the next. Our defence policy and our armed forces commitments must match our foreign policy responsibilities.
Many hon. Members have commented in the past two days on the implications of the end of the cold war. It is said that future threats to our security will come, not from global nuclear warfare but from a series of regional conflicts, from ethnic struggles and divisions, from international terrorism and from the increasing problem of the international drugs trade. It follows that the central issue for the defence review is whether our current military structures, systems, personnel levels and, above all, hardware are matched to the security threats of the future. I am thinking in particular of Eurofighter and Trident. It is interesting that questions were raised from the Opposition Benches about the appropriateness of Eurofighter for defence in the first part of the next century.
The defence review must also consider other issues. We need to re-examine the concept of security and insecurity and consider the causes of insecurity, which are rooted, as several hon. Members have already said, in injustice, unemployment, great inequality and the fierce struggle for a share of natural resources. We also need to consider our future relationships within NATO and its eastward expansion. Future generations will be astonished that the decision to enlarge NATO has been taken without any public debate. It is remarkable that in the United Kingdom, and perhaps also in the United States, there is almost no understanding, debate or concern about the implications of the eastward expansion of NATO. It may well be beneficial to United Kingdom security in the long run, but, on the other hand, it may be the precursor to a different kind of cold war in the 21st century. The issues must be clearly examined and there should be a thorough public debate.
Our relationship with the United Nations and the role of the United Nations—although that is a foreign policy issue—must be dealt with in the defence review. Our position as a permanent member of the Security Council gives us advantages in helping to change the role of the United Nations in the next century. Several hon. Members have pointed out the importance of early, pre-emptive strikes and the early use of military intervention to avoid greater military conflict later. The United Nations has a crucial role to play in that and our troops have a crucial role to play in the United Nations.
I welcome the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the defence diversification agency. It is vital that it should be introduced as soon as possible. Most employees in the defence industry understand that there cannot be a continuing expansion of military production. Basing our industrial production on ever-higher levels of production of ever-more complex 789 weapons is an unsustainable vision for the future of this continent and of the planet. There has to be an alternative. That alternative cannot be simply to throw the skills of defence workers out on to the streets. We must use those skills in more socially useful production.
The defence review should also consider our future defence policy with our European partners. One of the most interesting aspects of the Maastricht treaty—signed by the previous Government—is its commitment to a common European defence policy. There has been little public debate about that common European defence policy to which the previous Government committed us. The issue raises important questions about the role of Britain's independent nuclear deterrent in a future common European defence policy.
We are where we are with Trident. There are serious questions about the conditions under which Trident could ever be used. It is difficult to foresee a scenario in which it could be used without inconceivable damage to the global environment and without the permission of the President of the United States or our European partners.
The issue is crucial to the global development of nuclear weapons. If we accept that Trident is a legitimate form of defence, every other country in the world can realistically argue that it should also have Trident. Our position on Trident was clearly set out in the manifesto. Our intention to seek to eliminate nuclear weapons from the world is also clear. I believe that Trident has an important role to play in that. The Government should be strongly encouraged to consider ways in which Trident can be used to influence the elimination of nuclear weapons globally.
Some hon. Members have said that the best way to maintain peace is to prepare for war. I cannot agree that that presents a sustainable future for the planet. It was also pointed out earlier that defence was not an issue in the election campaign. The key issues were jobs, education and health. Those are crucial issues, directly related to Britain's defence policy.
Why do we spend significantly more than our European partners? I do not believe that it is possible or advisable to set an arbitrary target for defence spending. The level of defence spending has to be related to foreign policy commitments. However, we have to ask whether it is the case that, because Germany spends less on defence than we do—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat under the 10-minutes rule.
§ Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)
Unlike some of the hardened old cynics from my party who have argued over the past couple of days that the strategic defence review is entirely run by the Treasury and is based on no foreign policy, I intend to accept the Secretary of State's assertion that the review has no Treasury content, that there will be no deep cuts in our armed forces and that British defence will continue much as it has for the past 20 or 30 years. However, I sympathise in advance with the Secretary of State if, when the results are announced in April or May, there are deep, hurting cuts in the Army, the Navy and the Royal Air Force, when he will have to 790 consider his position, having given the House such categorical assurances that the Treasury had no part to play in the strategic defence review.
I should like to make a few remarks about the Territorial Army. I have substantial defence interests in my constituency. We have the Army in Colerne, Corsham and Hullavington and the RAF at Lyneham. Astonishingly for a land-locked constituency, North Wiltshire even has the Royal Navy in the form of RN Copenacre. My constituency covers the whole spectrum.
I intend, however, to devote my remarks entirely to the Territorial Army, with which I have some personal connection and which plays an outstanding role in my constituency. I am proud to be wearing this evening the Honourable Artillery Company tie. I do not say that through any claim to military distinction because I can almost certainly say that I am the least distinguished soldier in the history of the British Army. I joined the HAC as a grade 3, band 3 gunner. I then did my basic gunner's course and my basic driver's course, and I even did my officer cadet's course, although I was never promoted. I served for seven distinguished years at the end of which I left the Army as a grade 3, band 3 gunner. Without question, that was the least distinguished career in the history of the British Army.
I am, none the less, hugely proud of all that the regiment did. In France the other day, I went into a cemetery to discover that Honourable Artillery Company members died in their hundreds at the age of 18. They marched out of the barracks in London straight into war and they were killed instantly. I am immensely proud of that record not because of my personal distinction in the regiment, but because of the regiment in general. Similarly, in the second world war, we produced thousands of officers because we had by that time become an officer cadet unit, and we are now serving in Bosnia for the first time since the second world war.
The Territorial Army makes a huge contribution in my constituency. Last Friday, I visited the 23rd signals division based in Corsham which consists of 3,500 personnel, between one half and two thirds of whom are in the Territorial Army. That base includes one regiment that is wholly territorial, the only regiment in the British Army that, I believe, is wholly integrated into a brigade. The brigade also has a squadron composed entirely of British Telecom engineers. They are not people who come away at weekends to train, but people who come away at weekends to work and to make a contribution to the signals and communications of today's modern Army.
The territorials make three particular contributions to the Army. The first is as reservists, the citizen soldiers of old, and that is a tremendously important role. The second contribution is as volunteers playing an active role, as in Bosnia, as a result of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 under which they can now volunteer to go abroad. The third contribution is the role such as that played by my British Telecom engineers.
More importantly, the Territorial Army makes a huge contribution to the local community and to businesses. The Territorial Army invests in people, especially the young. It provides people with personal skills and confidence which they would not necessarily get in civilian life. Civilian employers know that well and are happy to give extra leave to any of their personnel who choose to join the Territorial Army.
791 The Territorial Army also makes a useful contribution to community spirit and to some of the values that may have been lost in the 1990s. I think of values such as pride in the nation which some of our young people usefully get from the Territorial Army. The TA upholds those traditional values and is a useful link—the only useful link in many parts of the country—between the Army and civilian life.
I am concerned that the Territorial Army may be seen as the soft underbelly of the Army if the review turns out to be a cost-cutting exercise. The fact is that the TA costs only 5 per cent. of the total Army budget, but it makes a huge contribution to the country and to the defence of the realm. The TA punches above its weight in a very real way and costs about one fifth of the cost of its regular counterpart. We and the regular Army must not forget that. The Secretary of State may like to consider, instead of using regular Army officers to advise him on the Territorial Army, involving the four TA brigadiers during the review.
The regimental system may be considered to be an expensive luxury in the regular Army. It is, however, particularly important in the Territorial Army where members may be entirely separate from each other and may come together only once a week on a Wednesday evening and for two weekends in the middle of the summer. It is terribly important to them to have regimental pride, a regimental history and a regimental museum, which the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) mentioned a few minutes ago. All those things matter terribly if one sees one's mates only once or twice a month and when one often has to serve with them in extremely uncomfortable circumstances.
The boffins in the Ministry of Defence may say, "The regimental system in general is desperately expensive. Let us do away with it." They may say, "The regimental system in the Territorial Army simply cannot be justified any more. It would be much more efficient to do what the Canadians did and to bring in cross-skills units." They should bear in mind that the Canadians quickly discovered that that was a mistake and that they are in the process of reintroducing the regimental system which served them so well.
I appeal to those who are taking part in the strategic defence review not to think lightly of the Territorial Army. I appeal to them to bear in mind the immense contribution it makes to the defence of the realm and to society. I appeal to them in particular to preserve the regimental system within the TA.
§ Mr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)
I share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) about the maintenance of the Territorial Army. I must also say, although she is not in her place, that I am in profound disagreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) when she argues for women being allowed untrammelled access to all units in the armed forces. In that regard, curiously enough as an old-fashioned Labour man, I am in complete agreement with the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne). I believe that women cannot be allowed to join infantry regiments. The mind boggles 792 at the thought of women joining the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, for example. I have no doubt that I am in the black book that the hon. Gentleman's neighbour, the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), has brought into the debate. I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) on her fine speech both in defence of her constituents and on Gulf war veterans.
Although he is not in his place, I offer belated compliments and thanks to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). When he was Minister of State, he had an open-door policy for Members with constituency problems related to the Ministry of Defence. I had a number of meetings with him. He rarely, if ever, accepted the case that I put to him, but he always showed immense affability and good humour. He once said to me in relation to the passage of Trident submarines through traditional fishing grounds near where I live that I was known as the fisherman's friend. He, too, always showed deep concern for fishermen in relation to the passage of those massive vessels through their fishing grounds. I hope that my hon. Friends will ensure that the code of practice for submarines in respect of fishermen going about their everyday activities will be strengthened. Not so long ago, we lost four fishermen in a terrible accident involving a nuclear submarine.
I thank the hon. Members for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) and for Taunton (Mrs. Ballard) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen) for their support for Major Eric Joyce. He may have been somewhat indiscreet vis-à-vis Queen's regulations, but he should not have to face the ordeal of a court martial. Perhaps he will be a little more discreet in future.
Although it is a long time since I wore uniform, I am very proud of our armed services. For some strange reason, last year my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, who was then the Opposition Chief Whip, invited me to Bosnia to act as an international observer at the elections there. Again for some strange reason, I finished up in an appalling hotspot known as Brcko along with the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier). I was immensely relieved when my Tory colleague informed me that we were being guarded unobtrusively by six members of the SAS. As an old red cap, I was delighted to hear that, although I had not spotted them.
Let me say to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that the work force at Royal Ordnance Bishoptown understand the need for change in terms of defence procurement and international agreements. The factory is not in my constituency. It is in the neighbouring one, but some of my constituents work there. They are hard working and loyal to their nation and to its defence needs. I hope that the Minister will treat with sympathy our representations on their behalf and invite the hon. Members concerned to his office, so that we can discuss the genuine fears that those people have about their continued employment.
I was pleased to hear the powerful statement by my hon. Friend the Minister of State concerning the Army's determination to stamp out the evils of bullying and sexual and racial discrimination and harassment. I certainly encountered those problems when I was a young soldier. I thought that some of the worst excesses would have been stamped out by now. I say that in defence of many of my young constituents who serve with the Argyll 793 and Sutherland Highlanders and other Scottish infantry regiments. Bullying by junior NCOs has to be stamped out and officers at the ranks of lieutenant, captain and major have a duty to ensure that it is eradicated.
Not so long ago, a young woman constituent of mine who had been very keen to join the Army suffered terrible harassment at the hands of a thuggish corporal during her initial training. She was treated very badly simply because she was a Scot. If certain hon. Members want separation, that is the way to send us down that road. She suffered dreadfully. I brought the matter to the attention of the then Minister of State, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex, and it was dealt with. However, it was a disgraceful case and her parents were extremely angry. There have been other recent cases involving young recruits from Scotland who have been badly treated. The problem must be stamped out.
I should like there to be a much more open form of promotion from the ranks into commissioned ranks. I have always believed that our warrant officers and senior NCOs are the backbone of the British Army. As a young service man, I used to thank God for their presence, given some of the chinless wonders who had pips on their shoulders. When I was in a rough house, I was always pleased to have a couple of those NCOs alongside me.
We cannot have women in infantry regiments. I also believe that the rules and procedures concerning courts martial need to be changed and probably will be. Despite being old-fashioned in some of my views, I have no objections to homosexuals serving in our armed forces. That may well be forced upon us in time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), who is not in his place, is a pacifist. I do not share his views, but I do have similar concerns about the expansion of NATO. I believe that the expansion is being driven by the Americans, in their interests, in order to maintain their grip on most of continental Europe. NATO should and must be led by European senior military officers and not Americans. One day, the Americans will pull out of Europe, and we need contingency plans for when that day dawns.
§ 9.4 pm
§ Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)
It was Lord Mayhew who, while Liberal spokesman on defence in another place, said that the call for a defence review in opposition was a glorious escape route from a policy. We know that the Labour party in opposition was caught in a pincer movement, where any policy acceptable to the country was not going to be acceptable to the party. One has to congratulate the Labour party on the way in which in opposition it put the invisible man in charge of defence policy, who followed his orders to kill the issue as effectively as possible. The right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) certainly did his political task well.
In opposition, as it aspired to govern, the Labour party should have thought privately and deeply about defence. There is no evidence that it has done so. It is impossible to find any speech devoted to defence made in public by the leader of the Labour party in the past decade. Indeed, it is impossible to find almost any remark other than the standard eulogy to the armed forces in any speech that he has made. Even if one had dissected the speeches of the official Opposition spokesman before 1 May, one would have had only the vaguest clue to any potential Labour 794 policy. One is reminded of Chancellor Kohl's remark 10 days ago, when talking about the search for the Government's policy on economic and monetary union, that there was no point in trying to find out as they did not know the policy themselves. In one sense, that is why we have arrived at the strategic defence review.
In the framing of the strategic defence review, I welcome the desire for consensus, of which much has been made. If we are to have consensus, the easiest way to achieve it would be on the foreign policy base line—but there is no Green Paper or White Paper on it for us to discuss today. The explanation that I was given—that the finding of a foreign policy base line is part of an iterative process—is fine-sounding waffle. Agreement has been possible between the parties, but the chance has been missed.
The speeches by the Secretary of State to the Royal United Services Institute, the English Speaking Union and the Select Committee on Defence were also fine-sounding words, but so vague. In his memorable phrase, they were so much "mother pie and applehood". In yesterday's debate, the Secretary of State said:The British people … believed that we would protect and improve the tools that underpin Britain's place in the world, particularly our armed forces … We will not betray the trust of the British people."—[Official Report, 27 October 1997; Vol. 299, c. 610.]How can one protect—let alone improve—Britain's armed forces if one begins the defence review process by saying that there will be no more money?
I am afraid that the conclusion that we must draw—and are entitled to draw—is that the process is a news management exercise. Yesterday's story was about an expanded role for women in the armed forces. Today's story in the papers is about recruiting the homeless into the Army. On widening the employment of women and widening the search for recruits, I entirely agree with right hon. and hon. Members on the Treasury Bench. It is a sensible approach to the manpower and recruitment problems in the lean years of the 1990s, which we were discussing in the Army in the late 1980s. However, we should not lower the standard of trained troops.
The Minister will know that this generation, which is—I am afraid—in many respects a couch-potato generation, requires an increase in training levels and an increase in resources devoted to the training budget. That is one of the serious strains that the Government will have to address in putting effective troops on the ground.
The absence of a foreign policy base line is a pity. The conclusion that we draw is that it is possible to change that foreign policy base line at any time in the process. In a sense, we are waiting for the Treasury axe to fall.
The real purpose of the defence review under Labour and the task that it has been given by project Blair—which defines the overriding policy of the Government as their re-election—is, first, to cause no trouble and to reassure the defence interest and, secondly, to generate sufficient money for health and education in years three, four and five of this Parliament. I must congratulate the Prime Minister on appointing a team that will reassure the defence community in the early stages. He has two Ministers of State who are expert—indeed so expert that I wonder whether the Secretary of State for Defence has had a testing time as they have demonstrated their expertise over the past six months. The Secretary of State 795 and his team are solid citizens in the eyes of the people who support defence. The team will be sorely tested in the months ahead, and let us hope that the faith that the defence community has invested in that team is realised.
So far, defence seems to be coming quietly. In the review to date, which has had no political direction, we seem to be heading towards the same answers as before. The three defence roles that we had under the previous Government will be translated, so I understand, into seven defence missions. The 50 military tasks will be translated into 30. The troops-to-tasks question will produce the same answer. The real change to our defence posture came in "Options for Change", as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) made clear yesterday. The underlying assumptions in "Options for Change", which was the real defence review for the end of the cold war, were correct. He got some issues at the margin wrong, including infantry numbers, although we restored two battalions in 1993.
The Minister of State yesterday drew attention to the problem of soldiers serving back-to-back tours in Bosnia. That happened to members of my regiment—the Light Dragoons, which is an armoured reconnaissance regiment. The catastrophic policy in "Options for Change" was to cut armoured reconnaissance from five regular regiments to two. I hope that the Minister of State will find room in the reorganisation to restore the three armoured reconnaissance regiments that were cut, because such units are eminently deployable and flexible enough to perform the tasks that face the modern Army. Perhaps the Minister of State will be able to produce six proper armoured regiments with 50 tanks each, once we have our force of 300 Challenger 2s deployed, which would mean no change in cap badges or regimental numbers.
The review is addressing the same old questions. What is Britain's place in the world? What capability should we be able immediately to deploy? What national capabilities must be preserved in terms of our defence industrial base? What military capabilities must be preserved, even if they are unlikely to be deployed immediately? How much should our nation spend on defence in the absence of an immediate threat? All the evidence suggests that the answers to those questions are the same. The Secretary of State for Defence told the Defence Committee that he understood the requirement for high-intensity conflict capability and therefore the need for armoured infantry and self-propelled artillery. He talked about a global role for the United Kingdom, which means an amphibious capability, with aircraft carriers to provide air cover over troops we deploy beyond these shores.
I welcome the fact that the Eurofighter is exempt from the review. The Royal Air Force must have an effective defence capability and all the evidence suggests that the Eurofighter is the right answer. If it is not, Ministers have been badly misled for at least a decade and I cannot believe that that is the case.
I am concerned about the process. First, is the process of the defence review genuine? What will happen when it becomes clear that more money is required for defence, not less? Secondly—and this is the defining question—I fear that civil servants who are running the defence review wish to define the issues for 20 years ahead. When I was in the Ministry of Defence, it was difficult enough to make sense of the long-term costings for year 10. If we 796 define issues 20 years in advance, we shall cut off too many military options by trying to address the tidy minds of the bureaucrats.
My major concern about the review is the same as that expressed by many other hon. Members—the role of reserves and cadets. The reserves and cadets have few friends inside the Ministry of Defence. The Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and even the Regular Army are not friends of the reserves and cadets, who take away resources. Their only allies are the politicians. The Secretary of State talked yesterday about getting the maximum value for money solely for defence. He must think about the role of cadets in the wider community and the effect on the personal development of many young people—
§ Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)
In the past two days, many right hon. and hon. Members have spoken with feeling about their support for the armed forces and the defence industry. Like them, I have elements of the Army and the RAF in my constituency.
The hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) pointed out that this is a strange form of defence debate because we have very little to debate. It has been interesting, but there has been no policy document or White Paper to debate. We do not even have in the Library the defence performance document that the Minister for the Armed Forces promised in the summer would be placed there in the autumn. We were promised a mission statement from the MOD, but that has not appeared.
A general area of policy has been outlined in a series of speeches because—understandably, in many respects—Ministers do not want to be pinned down. Let us try to discover what this cautious defence review, heavily influenced by the Treasury, will come up with. One does not need six months to do that.
Hon. Members will have concluded that the big idea will be to restructure our armed forces into an expeditionary force capability. The House will realise that a series of crucial questions arising from that will affect personnel and equipment. First, such an expeditionary force capability probably will be expensive, as the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee has pointed out. Secondly, it will put even greater strain on our armed forces in terms of the number of tours that they will have to undertake.
In a few months, Ministers will be faced with making real decisions about major items of equipment including air, land and maritime systems. Are we to have new carriers? Will we have a future large aircraft capability? Hon. Members know that this is an area of difficulty and that it is highly unlikely that we will get both. We have not begun to debate the issue because Ministers have preferred to talk in generalisations.
Next July or August, we will gather here to debate the strategic defence review White Paper, which will fall into the orbit of the comprehensive spending review. Ministers will have to come up with some real decisions, and I fear that many hon. Members will be disappointed. The crux is that we and the electorate were promised a strategic 797 defence review with a big vision. What we have so far is a cautious tale—not a lion that roared, but a mouse that squeaked in the corner. Many people will be disappointed, particularly Labour Members. There will be a series of options that Ministers will have difficulty explaining.
My final point is a personal one. Much has been made today about the culture in the British armed forces. There is no doubt that the armed forces have to change and are, in many respects, highly conservative. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen) is not here, because he quoted from a poorly written article by a serving officer who churned out a load of old thinking—possibly sociology—from 10 or 15 years ago which has no relation to much of what the armed forces are concerned with today.
Labour Members who have not worked with or spoken to members of the armed forces have many mistaken beliefs. There is no place in our armed forces for bullying, sexual abuse or discrimination. The overwhelming majority of our armed forces, of all ranks, are totally opposed to that, and my hon. Friends and I would certainly support any action taken by the Minister for the Armed Forces to stamp it out.
We have probably the best armed forces in the world, and the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) was right: that is not something to be complacent about. The challenges that Ministers may require them to face, through an expeditionary force strategy, will place a great strain on them and their families.
§ Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)
I congratulate the Ministers on their appointment and wish them well, although, to judge, from the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) and for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), whom we all regard as extremely well informed, they will have an extremely rough time trying to fulfil all the pledges and ideals that they have given us today.
Although she is not here, I congratulate the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), whose constituency neighbours mine, on her speech. I noted especially her interest in noise at Gatwick airport, as most of the aeroplanes fly over my constituency. I look forward to having a word with her about that and approaching the authorities.
The debate, although interesting, has been disappointing because we might have expected the Government, after six months in office, to give some hint of their defence priorities—Conservative Members keep making that point—and to be more specific, rather than obliging the House with somewhat platitudinous comments and, to be fair, not unworthy generalisations.
For many years, Labour Members have talked over and over again about the need for a strategic defence review. They have had plenty of time to get all the information that they need—the White Papers and estimates have given them a great deal of information—yet, six months after they took office, we are none the wiser, apart from knowing that to overcome recruitment problems women will be given a combat role and there will be a relaxation of the rules on homosexuals in the armed forces.
The plans for women in combat have been greeted with understandable caution by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young). I 798 was a gunner in the last war. I was in a foxhole and I am damned if I would have found it suitable to find a woman there, exposed as I was to front-line infantry from the other side. I do not condemn women and it is not a question of equal rights: it is something about which we should be very cautious, and people with far more experience than I would back me 100 per cent. on that point. There are plenty of dangerous jobs that women can do, but there are some that are not appropriate.
There is nothing in what the Government have said that one can recognise as a strategic defence review: it is a review, but it is hardly one of strategy. There has been no announcement of any change in our foreign policy priorities—a point made by my hon. Friends the Members for Reigate and for Mid-Norfolk—and without such guidance we are completely in the dark.
There is little wonder, therefore, that the delay in coming to any conclusions about defence expenditure has created the impression that the exercise is primarily a review of expenditure policy: nothing more or less than a cost-cutting exercise. If the Government think that that is unfair, I say that it was unfortunate to be told by the Secretary of State at the Royal United Services Institute that there would be no resource constraints on this policy-driven exercise—just as he was negotiating a reduction of estimates with the Treasury.
For years, Labour Members have parroted the idea of a strategic defence review, but we had one, as hon. Members have mentioned. The previous Government were quick to recognise that the end of the cold war had important implications not only for Britain's defence strategy but for the NATO alliance as a whole, all of which was spelt out in "Options for Change". What is more, NATO headquarters was delighted that the previous Government had taken such an initiative. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) was responsible for implementing that change in strategy.
"Options for Change" has stood the test of time. It spelt out in clear language, as NATO has continued to recognise, that the end of the cold war would lead to reductions in armed forces and in the burden of defence expenditure. That was the peace dividend which all hon. Members welcomed at the time. "Options for Change" also recognised that NATO forces would need to be flexible and capable of rapid reaction and involvement in high-tech warfare.
We were among the first to recognise that, in addition, we should have highly disciplined and professional armed forces that would have the ability to carry out the difficult tasks of peacekeeping and peace enforcement. That ability has earned worldwide praise. Not an hon. Member has met members of the armed forces and seen them in action and not come back with such reports. Our armed forces cannot be that bad. When people criticise the state of the armed forces, I wonder to what extent they are making political capital out of the obvious difficulties that the armed forces face.
We recognise that the restructuring of the armed forces was right, but it left the Army, and particularly the infantry, overstretched. The demands of peacekeeping and of Northern Ireland have increased and imposed greater burdens. In the early 1990s, we knew that we would face some problems. It is no good the Minister nodding his head. I do not remember him as a great soothsayer telling us how we would be plunged into the Bosnia situation for 799 such a long time. Those factors, with the demographic situation in Britain, raise the question of recruitment and, as other hon. Members have mentioned, the problem of reserves, which the Government cannot ignore. We particularly need the specialist efforts of reserves to reinforce the highly technical parts of our military forces that are so valuable when it comes to moving to intensive warfare. That point was picked up by my hon. Friend the Member for north Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) in his excellent contribution.
The Secretary of State mentioned the need to try to maintain a consensus on defence. It is right that we should try. To criticise, as he did, the previous Government for reducing defence expenditure to 2.7 per cent. of gross domestic product can only invite the retort that for years Labour spokesmen have urged a reduction to the average level of other NATO countries, which is well below 2.7 per cent. We are not the highest spender, but the criticism that expenditure has been reduced does not sit well coming from Labour. If the Government will lay off bleating about our expenditure, I promise to lay off referring to their past involvement in CND. [Interruption.] I gather that some of my hon. Friends will not; I understand.
I suppose that we should not pay too much attention to such bleating because it is another example of the typical Blairite-Mandelsonian rubbishing of previous Government policies that is so often the prelude to their adoption. [Interruption.] I could not resist that. I am glad that it is appreciated. I am all for trying to be pals with the other side on important matters of state.
There is no indication of a need for a substantial change in military strategy. There have been no events that could lead us to believe that the threat has grown worse. Since 1981, I have been involved in various capacities with NATO?s parliamentary assembly. At one time, NATO was targeted by short and medium-range nuclear weapons. We had awful rows about that. A huge mass of Soviet ground troops faced us on land, their mechanised battalions within a few hours of Brussels, where we were sitting. France could easily have been overrun. The Atlantic ocean was infested with nuclear submarines.
Today, if one goes to NATO headquarters at Mons, one will see Russian armed forces officers. British troops taking part in "Partnership for Peace" training exercises in Poland are well spoken of. That, together with expansion of NATO to include Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, holds out greater prospects for European security than we could possibly have imagined. An examination of the NATO summit in Madrid and the NATO-Russia foundation pact surely invites the prospect of a new era of co-operation with the Russian Federation.
However, some aspects of defence policy could impose greater burdens. One is the relationship between the United States and its NATO partners. Our American friends express anxieties about the willingness of their European partners not only to foot the bill but to take on more responsibility for troublespots that they regard as of greater concern to Europe than to America. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown).
800 The first point leads to a second one which was picked up by hon. Members on both sides of the House—the role of Western European Union as an arm of NATO. France sees the United States control over the use of some NATO assets as undermining European sovereignty and choice.
Thirdly, some wish that the European Union would take on a more direct role in European defence. I worry about that. It may happen one day, but I am a NATO man and I believe that NATO should be the bedrock. I do not want too many people in the European Parliament mucking about with it.
Fourthly, the instability in the middle east speaks for itself. A growing proportion of countries in the middle east are extremely well equipped and have tactical missiles.
Fifthly, Britain is a member of the United Nations Security Council. We have to ask ourselves what importance we attach to our peacekeeping roles in areas outside NATO. That may be part of the moral quest, but if Britain wishes to play a leading diplomatic role in these days of drugs, famine and revolution, it cannot duck its responsibilities as a member of the human family through the United Nations.
Sixthly, there is an urgent need—this is probably the most difficult task from the point of view of cost and efficiency—to bring together the defence industries of western Europe in such a way that competition is not eroded, and we must recognise that to attempt to shut ourselves off from collaboration with American companies can only lead to increased costs. That point was emphasised by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire and other hon. Members.
I hope that collaboration with American companies will not blind us to the priority that we should attach to the merging of separate European national industries to form something that is truly European. We do not want a single bloc of European nations to come together as one company because that would create a monopoly, but we want companies of sufficient size to compete globally. Some American companies seek not only to dominate the defence market but to become global. That is why I attach great importance to our collaboration with American companies.
In this debate, the Government have not considered or recognised the judgments that will have to be made on military grounds about our armed forces. I can see the Government recognising that we need better air lift. Armour will still be needed, if only because tanks are needed to protect peacekeepers, but in reduced amounts and provided that the money is used to strengthen our ability to project force beyond our shores, as that is one of our worldwide responsibilities. If we are to project force overseas, we need heavy airlift planes, at least two aircraft carriers and support ships in order to continue our policy of rapid response.
I foresee difficult decisions in the RAF—they were referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers). We shall have to decide where the balance of advantages lie. How many Eurofighters do we buy? They are expensive. To what extent could they be bought if we run the risk of reducing our capacity for long-range bombing? We should take advantage of the opportunities that we have—with the co-operation between BAe and Lockheed and their arrangements for the production of the 801 American joint strike fighter. All those issues, together with Trident, make me realise what important decisions, with cost implications, the Government have to take.
Nothing that I have mentioned involves anything near what one would describe as a massive change in our strategy; it is, rather, a continuation of the principles that have underpinned our defence since the early 1990s. Everything depends on making a budget that will allow the policy to be affordable. From what we have heard today, if the Government's intentions are to be believed—I want to believe them—we shall have fewer problems and we shall come through this difficult period. However, if the Secretary of State and his Ministers are forced to renege on his good intentions he will have no other course but to resign.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Spellar)
It is a great privilege to close this debate on British defence policy and it is also a pleasure to welcome the right hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) back to the defence Front Bench after an interval of 25 years. He gave us an interesting tour d'horizon.
Over the past two days, we have had a wide-ranging, informed and well-attended debate on matters of great importance to Members of Parliament, the armed forces and those whom we all serve—the British public. The Government want defence issues to be debated openly and attention paid to all views. That is why openness and inclusivity are two of the watchwords of the strategic defence review. In the time available, I should like to respond to some of the points raised, but my colleagues and I will be writing to hon. Members about matters that I am unable to cover tonight. I convey my apologies in advance to any of those whom I miss out tonight.
Not only has this been a useful and informed debate, but there have been some interesting revelations. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), the number two on the Opposition Front Bench, revealed at some length his complete dissatisfaction with the previous Administration's handling of personnel matters.
The shadow Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) revealed himself to be a serial reader of The Guardian—than which there is no more serious offence in the Conservative party, apart from having doubts about the Opposition policy on European currency.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) revealed that he was not new Labour, which was a great shock to us all. His contribution was incisive and well informed. He is one of the regular stalwarts of defence debates, as are some other hon. Members who are present.
There are others who are no longer Members of Parliament, but who used to make regular contributions to defence debates. I am thinking of Peter Hardy—who will, I am sure, be making regular, informed contributions in another place—of Keith Mans and Hector Monro, who are still very much involved in defence matters, and of Bill Walker, whose contributions were regular if somewhat predictable.
The encouraging feature of the past couple of days has been the number of new Members of Parliament who have contributed to the debate. I should like particularly to 802 mention my hon. Friends the Members for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) and for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw). One of the results of the general election has been a substantial increase in the number of Labour Members representing defence constituencies, and we look forward to their continuing contributions.
I am also pleased to see a number of new Opposition Members taking an active interest—although, in a couple of cases, that interest might be an act of contrition for previous incarnations in the Ministry of Defence. We look forward to all their contributions in future.
Speaking from the Front Bench, the hon. Member for Salisbury made what could be regarded as a low-key speech. However, he made some serious and irresponsible allegations about alleged delays in export licences. We have checked with the Department and with the defence sales organisation and they say that they have received no representations from industry about delays. If the hon. Gentleman knows of any individual cases, we shall be delighted to investigate, but his speech could only have provided comfort to our overseas competitors and he should reflect on whether he was selling British industry and exports short. However, given that the shadow Secretary of State has complained that Eurofighter was excluded from the strategic defence review, I suspect that industry will cease to be surprised at the antics of the Opposition Front Benchers.
The hon. Member for Salisbury also made the extraordinary move of coming to the House and defending land mines. My hon. Friends the Members for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) and for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen) raised those serious issues during the debate and I wish to ask the Opposition spokesman a simple question, so that he can clarify the position. I am sure that the country will carefully note his answer. Does he believe that the Government should sign the international treaty on land mines—yes or no?
§ Mr. Key
The answer is a simple yes. We were delighted that the Labour Government carried on the work started by the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), which led the Government of Canada to press successfully for the measure. If the Minister had taken the trouble to listen, he would have realised that I endorsed everything my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) said yesterday and added only two points. The Minister might do well to listen a little more carefully instead of sweeping ahead with generalisations.
§ Mr. Spellar
The hon. Gentleman takes a long time to say yes and his answer is in complete contradiction of what he said in his earlier speech.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley made an excellent maiden speech. That is no surprise—she was an excellent candidate, as I discovered when I visited her constituency in the build up to the general election. It is no wonder that the previous hon. Member for Crawley moved to Mid-Sussex. However, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) made an excellent speech, with which we found ourselves in substantial agreement. I had better say no more and spare him further embarrassment. My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley will play a constructive role on the Select Committee on Defence, as will my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), who also spoke today.
803 My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley spoke effectively about Gulf war veterans, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor). My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North tried to relate that to the case of the nuclear test veterans, but the situation is not comparable. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces has made resources available to establish the facts in the case of the Gulf war veterans' and this action has been warmly received. However, studies were carried out into nuclear test veterans, in both 1988 and 1993. Those studies were conducted by the highly respected National Radiological Protection Board and the Imperial Cancer Research Fund and were published in the British Medical Journal for proper scientific comment and evaluation. The studies showed thatparticipation in the test programme has not had a detectable effect on the participants? expectation of life, nor on their risk of developing cancer or other fatal diseases.Since taking office, I have discussed the matter with the NRPB, which is vigorously convinced of the validity of the results.
I now turn to points raised yesterday by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and today by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Mr. Godman). Both spoke about the possibility of a merger between Royal Ordnance, which is in the Bridgwater constituency, and a French company SNPE. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman has also met my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement to discuss the subject. The right hon. Gentleman will understand that I am unable to comment on the merger proposal until the matter has been examined by the regulatory authorities, I can assure him tonight that Defence Ministers recognise the efforts of the loyal work force at Royal Ordnance and will consider carefully the strategic requirement to retain access to supplies of ammunition and munitions.
Yesterday, the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis), who, I am pleased to see, was able to return from the talks to be in his place tonight, raised the subject of the procurement programmes Starstreak and ASTOR, which affect his constituency—and Northern Ireland in general.
I confirm that we remain committed to exploring the feasibility of Starstreak in the air-to-air role. We have also emphasised to our allies in the United States that Starstreak should receive a fair evaluation in its competition with the Stinger missile to fulfil a US requirement for an air-to-air capability on attack helicopters. That is absolutely necessary to demonstrate that we genuinely have a two-way street in the procurement of defence equipment, and we are emphasising that point.
On the airborne stand-off radar project, I confirm that it remains our aim to place a contract in 1998, and that the Government very much appreciate the work carried out by the two contractors involved in project definitions. In both cases, we recognise the expertise of Short's and its importance to Northern Ireland, and we fully understand why the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone raised its case so vigorously.
That leads me to broader procurement issues. From its inception, the strategic defence review has included an element dedicated to the review of our procurement 804 policies and processes. It could not be otherwise, given the underlying ethos of the review, which is to shape Britain's defence capabilities for the new millennium. That will inevitably feed into the way in which we equip our forces and thus our future procurement programme.
In the new strategic environment, our forces must have the flexibility to face a wide variety of tasks, from high-intensity combat to humanitarian missions, and they need the right equipment—the right capabilities—to do so. We are considering how best to procure those capabilities, making the most efficient use of defence resources. That is where our procurement policies and processes feature in the review. I would emphasise, however, that there is no procurement moratorium during the review. I hope that that answers the point made by the hon. Member for Salisbury.
We need to ensure that we obtain value for money for the British taxpayer. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, the British people want strong defence for this country, but they do not want defence at any price. We must justify every pound that is spent.
Undoubtedly, we need to do better in the sphere of our major equipment procurement. We need to eliminate the cost overruns and delays that have characterised too many equipment projects. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis) drew attention to the National Audit Office findings on the MOD's major projects report for the year ending 31 March 1996, which suggest that more than half are overspending and that most will fail to meet their original in service date.
At that time, the average slippage in projects since first approval stood at 37 months. The main reasons given for that are technical difficulties, budgetary constraints, the need to redefine the programme and difficulties with collaborative projects. Programme changes already have added, or will in later years add, a further £400 million to costs; specification changes an additional £180 million. Poor estimating has added, or will add, a further £130 million and differential inflation in defence contracts £340 million. What a devastating indictment that is of the previous Administration.
Our goal has to be faster, cheaper and better defence procurement. To coin a phrase used by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State before the Defence Select Committee in July, we are looking for "smart procurement". Obviously, the MOD and industry have a crucial role to play in its achievement and at last industry has a partner with which it can engage in dialogue.
Let us acknowledge that there are real strengths and benefits in our traditional approach to procurement, but also serious weaknesses. The process can be unnecessarily long and it can be difficult to recover the time lost in delays once they have occurred. We have also tended to concentrate effort on achieving the maximum technical capability before equipment first enters service, rather than trying to get as much capability as we can into service on time. We are therefore looking to develop alternative models for our procurement process that will enable us to respond to the realities of the modern world.
We need a range of modern, streamlined procurement techniques that allow us to keep pace with technology, with industry and with the requirements of our armed forces.
What are the essential elements of that? The first is the phased introduction of capability through a continuous and concurrent process. That is to tackle the time and cost 805 overruns and to achieve better value for money than in the past. The second is the adoption of best practice across the board by continually measuring performance internally and externally against that of industry and our allies. The third is making our procurement processes more interactive with industry, improving the management of our requirements and involving industry at the earliest stage, and working in partnership with it. The fourth is flexibility, looking at the compression of procurement time scales and the best way to allow for regular upgrades to keep pace with advances in technology.
We fully recognise that that requires a coherent and consistent approach from Government. As a result, we have make it clear that our aim is to align our processes more closely with commercial best practice and to work in a more integrated way with industry.
§ Mr. Brazier
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, as this is a subject on which, before coming to the House, I was privileged to be co-author of a study covering eight countries. Is the Minister aware that the list that he just mentioned does not include the armed forces? The early involvement of the armed forces, not just in formulating requirements but in project teams, makes the most proficient procurement system while the surest way to achieve the most devastating cost overruns is to have to change things after they have come into service.
§ Mr. Spellar
I look forward to receiving a copy of that study as the hon. Gentleman?s contribution to the strategic defence review. He obviously did not listen to what I said previously because I said that streamlined procurement allows us to keep pace with technology, industry and the requirements of our armed forces. Obviously, that will involve the armed forces at an early stage. We are fully intent on that and look forward to receiving the hon. Gentleman?s contribution.
We are looking to the various elements of smart procurement, taken together to deliver measurable improvements in our performance. We are determined to drive out the factors that are the main contributors to cost and time scale overruns, of which we have seen far too many.
Much still needs to be done to develop the full package of smart procurement measures, but the Procurement Executive has already begun to implement some elements. We also recognise the need to engage industry in the process and are already involved in extensive consultations with industry through the National Defence Industries Council. Its working parties are taking account of the views of companies, both large and small. That is very important because there has been a tendency to regard the prime contractors as the industry and to forget the huge numbers of firms and employees in an enormously capable and interdependent supply chain. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have such firms in their constituencies and recognise their value to the local and national economies.
The response that we have received from industry has been positive. That comes as no surprise as there are considerable benefits in this for industry as well as for us. It will help to sustain the British defence industry?s place in an increasingly competitive global market through a 806 continued reputation for quality, effectiveness and value. We shall back its competitive role in that international marketplace. After all, it was a Labour Government who first set up the defence sales organisation.
On the future of the UK defence industry in the global market place, one of the policy principles underpinning the strategic defence review is the Government?s commitment—previously made in opposition—to a strong, capable and competitive UK defence industry. The aerospace and defence industry in Europe has been a tremendous contributor to economic prosperity. One has only to mention the success of the Airbus consortium in the civil sector. In 25 years, it has come from nothing to capture a third of the world market for airliners.
In Britain, the export achievements of British Aerospace, GEC and Rolls-Royce, and the thousands of smaller firms that support them, have made a major contribution to the balance of payments. The fall in defence spending, however, since the end of the cold war and the rapid rationalisation of US defence industries that has followed represent a huge challenge to Europe's defence and aerospace sector. The industrial giants of Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Hughes, with their vast industrial strengths, will make it increasingly difficult for fragmented European industries to compete in the years ahead. Europe must respond to that challenge.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said at the recent industry conference:Europe's defence and aerospace industry must rationalise or die".That must have been a favourable message as British Aerospace shares shot up at the announcement. To lose out to US competition in emerging markets when domestic orders can no longer provide the critical mass required for continued viability is to risk everything. Sooner or later, marginalised European industries would founder as their Governments could no longer afford to pay the spiralling costs of keeping them alive.
While recognising this challenge, European industry has up to now been slow to respond, operating as it does in different political environments, with different forms of ownership and commercial systems. We in Government are not in the business of arranging transnational commercial marriages. That is for industry to do, based on its judgment of where its best interests lie. That is the best means of securing a healthy, competitive private sector industry designed by industry itself, not by Government diktat. However, unlike the last Conservative Administration, who dogmatically believed that such issues should be left solely to the market, the present Government recognise that we have a key role to play in the restructuring process.
The facts speak for themselves—except to the profoundly deaf. We are the principal customers of the UK defence industry. The decisions that we take in this area will have a profound effect in shaping the market environment in which the defence and aerospace industries operate. We have a role to play in facilitating the necessary international agreements that would allow mergers or joint ventures to proceed, and we can help by establishing a clear policy framework in which industry can make sensible decisions on how to restructure.
The need for defence industrial restructuring in Europe is urgent. The call for Europe to get its act together should not imply any hostility to our US allies, as was rightly 807 mentioned by the right hon. Member for Wealden. Many industries have substantial business in the US and cannot ignore a procurement budget that is twice that of Europe combined. Indeed, some of the solutions to consolidation may involve US companies. We must recognise that a healthy mix of competition and co-operation between US and European industries is in the interests of countries on both sides of the Atlantic.
We must also recognise the need to widen the technology in the defence industries. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced yesterday that the Government intend to make the best use of the skills and technologies developed for defence purposes, by encouraging their wider exploitation in civil markets. Such defence diversification will strengthen the country?s industrial base. In that context, I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth).
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth
I am grateful to the Minister for his kind remarks. Will he respond to my request for the Government to state that they will support Foresight action with Government money for research and development in the aerospace industry, along with the private sector money that is on offer?
§ Mr. Spellar
I intended to write to the hon. Gentleman about that, as I am mindful of the time available.
The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) referred to ballistic missile defence. The SDR makes it clear that we now face fundamentally different security risks, and he drew attention to some of them.
Our prime concern in assessing the need for ballistic missile defence for the UK concerns the ballistic missile threat as a means of delivering chemical or biological weapons. Potential responses are not of course limited to active ballistic missile defence.
The pre-feasibility study considered the options for active defence only. Its conclusions and those of other, related work have informed our work on ballistic missile defence, and continue to do so in the context of the strategic defence review. We attach great importance to work in NATO on this subject.
I shall deal with the questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) and the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) 808 regarding the replacement for Fearless and Intrepid. I can confirm that the contract was placed for two amphibious ships with VSEL on 31 July 1996. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness raised the possibility of a replacement for Invincible. Studies to establish a procurement strategy for any new class of aircraft carrier are at an early stage, with further work subject to the outcome of the SDR.
Let me finish by recapping on the major themes of the British defence policy under a Labour Government. At the election, we pledged to be—and always will be—strong on defence. Our strategic defence review, therefore, has at its roots firm principles, including commitment to NATO, strong armed forces, retention of Trident coupled with progress on arms control, and support for a strong defence industry. That should be a welcome message not only in this country but with our allies. I am delighted to say that such messages were reaffirmed at this year's Labour party conference.
We do not want defence to be a party political football. We wish, through the review, to establish the widest possible vision about Britain's essential security interests and defence needs and the role of our armed forces. That is a change to the way in which defence has sometimes been viewed in the Chamber, which may disappoint some Opposition Members. However, we owe it to our service men and women who risk their lives for us and to our pursuit of our commitments and interests around the world.
Our armed forces are a great asset to this nation wherever they serve, and they want and deserve a clear sense of direction into the 21st century. The Labour Government will provide that direction through the strategic defence review and through our commitment to a country that is strong at home and strong abroad.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.