Previous Section Home Page

Column 630

to the White Paper, the vast majority from individual viewers and listeners, and from organisations such as The Voice of the Listener and the Consumers Association, which represent the views of ordinary average families. More than 500 letters have been forwarded by hon. Members and more land on my desk each day, where they make a pleasant and interesting contrast to the letters on immigration matters. We attach a lot of weight to the consultation process. The White Paper says that we place the viewer and listener at the centre of broadcasting policy. We have therefore been anxious to hear and to consider what they have to tell us. Most people have welcomed the general thrust of our proposals, but there is an understandable concern, which I share, that the best features of our current arrangements should not be lost. In among 3,000 submissions, we have had an infinite amount of advice about specific details--on competitive tender, on training and on the precise prescriptions for programming, with suggestions that we should, for example, require in law so much religious programming a week or so many programmes devoted to the Third world or to social action or to children or to Gaelic or to the disadvantaged position of the deaf. That advice is to be welcomed and expected. In my judgment, the pillars of our White Paper remain intact while we analyse the mountain of responses to see whether the detail on cornice or pediment could be improved by a minor change. Such change, as many hon. Members will know, we have already made in relation to cable and MVDS.

Local delivery systems, whether based on cable or microwave, or a combination of the two, will also open up opportunities for locally originated programming, and for programmes aimed at clearly defined sectors of the population, for example the ethnic minorities. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West that MVDS, perhaps allied with cable, could be especially suitable for the local programmes that he especially wants to see. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North, the passage in the White Paper in which we discussed the new framework for local services was couched in terms that made it clear that we had not yet reached a final view on all the details. We promised a further statement, which was made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in a written answer on 27 April. We then made clear that we had decided to maintain the main proposal for a new, flexible framework for local services, leaving operators free to decide upon the best mix of technologies to use. However, in the light of the comments put to us, we made some adjustment to the original proposals to meet particular points of difficulty. Especially, we have not insisted on the divorce between delivery and retailing of local services. We have also proposed a significant, though not total, liberalisation of satellite master antenna television systems--commonly known as SMATV. That should inject a measure of competition into the delivery of services at the local level. We have placed in the Library a note which details the modified proposals which we intend to recommend to the House.

At the moment, interest in cable is running at an unprecedented level. It is not, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) suggested, being expressed in a haphazard, unplanned manner. Whether that interest is related to the growth of direct to home broadcasting by satellite is unclear. I noted with interest that my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North talked

Column 631

about the complementary development of cable and satellite systems. The other day I visited Croydon Cable with my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Malins) and the people who run that organisation clearly see their development as being complementary to the satellite systems.

Following a success in Stockholm, my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North suggested that I might take on the job of trying to sort out some of the current difficulties and disagreements between the satellite companies about channels and programmes. Yesterday those difficulties were described to me as Bambi having a fight with Godzilla. I am not certain whether I am ready to cast myself in the role of Mowgli, or that any ministerial Mowgli coming along to sort out those problems would be welcome. Commercial battles must be fought out but, obviously, they could be expensive. In the long run it is important that there is some clear agreement on the technical standards, particularly with the advent of high definition television in the 1990s.

Mr. Gale : The extension of my hon. Friend's argument is that unless there is some sort of agreement money will not only go into failed hardware systems that could otherwise be usefully used to make good programmes, which would be commercially expensive, but that we are likely to find ourselves with a plethora of different sized dishes on almost every roof in the country. Therefore, it does make sense to have one super-astra 80 channel satellite carrying the programmes, obviously on different transponders, of all the companies involved.

Mr. Renton : I am certain that the board and management of the two large companies involved will listen with great care to what my hon. Friend has said.

It is interesting to me that the Cable Authority has awarded 39 franchises and advertised a further 20 just at the moment when the new satellite channels are with us. Together those franchises will cover a total of 8.5 million homes. Cable systems currently pass 1.5 million homes, of which about one third have access to the new broadband cable networks, 280,000 people receive their television pictures through cable, and about 65,000 of those are broadband cable subscribers. Who would have forecast such promising figures this time last year? Those very encouraging developments serve as a further illustration of the potential for increased viewer choice.

Mr. Worthington : Some aspects of the cable authority's work are extremely puzzling. Recently in the greater Glasgow area there was an invitation to tender for the franchise. At the moment half of the city is served by Clyde Cable, which was the only tenderer. The cable authority, however, turned down its submission, but no explanation was given. I am utterly puzzled about the non-accountability of that authority.

Mr. Renton : The hon. Gentleman, together with representatives from the tenderer, might like to discuss that matter with the director-general of the cable authority. The decision about to whom cable franchises should be awarded strictly lies with that authority, and I am certain that the chairman or the director-general would like to explain to the hon. Gentleman the difficulties of that particular case.

Column 632

The question of night hours has always interested my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North and he mentioned it in his interesting remarks today. As my hon. Friend will know, the Peacock report recommended that the BBC should lose both sets of night hours in order that they could be used to introduce more competition in broadcasting. In the White Paper, we accepted the case for removing one set of night hours to allow a new player onto the field, but, at the same time, we accepted that to remove both sets would hamper the BBC's plans for offering night time subscription services in a way that promised to enlarge viewer choice and to establish a firmer base for subscription technology.

We have, as my hon. Friend knows, approved the BBC's medical downloading service, which now has over 3,000 subscribers receiving the service, and arrangements are in hand to supply the necessary decoding equipment to 4,000 more. The BBC has now indicated its interest in developing further such services. I am pleased to tell the House that we have agreed, in principle, to the BBC introducing a similar downloading service for the business community, which will be a nightly, hour-long service of business and financial information, put together by Broadcast Communication plc. That approval is subject to our being satisfied that proper arrangements are devised to regulate the content of the advertising, which will be carried on the service to reduce the level of the subscription fee. Those medical and business services represent a promising start on which we hope that the BBC will continue to build to develop the market for subscription services generally.

We are, in the meantime, giving serious consideration to the arguments that the BBC, my hon. Friend and others have put to us for allowing the corporation to retain both sets of night hours. However, the Government share the view of the Peacock committee that there are strong arguments for using that part of the broadcasting clock as a means of introducing new competition into the scarce UHF frequencies.

Mr. Gale : Before finally going down that road, will my hon. Friend consider that if the subscription services are being developed well now-- which is encouraging, and the news he brings us today is especially encouraging--the BBC will need the other night hour channel if it is to provide public service in, for example, election coverage--a matter of small consequence to this House--when events taking place late at night require air time for their broadcast.

Mr. Renton : I understand that point, which is at the heart of the BBC's case about why it should be allowed to retain both sets of night hours, and I can understand that it is anxious to get on with the process of introducing more subscription services to convince us of the force of its arguments.

Media ownership has been a matter of great concern to the House ever since the White Paper on broadcasting was published in November. It has been raised today by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North, my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North and the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie. The White Paper made clear our determination that ownership in the independent broadcasting sector should remain widely spread, and that unhealthy concentrations of ownership and excessive cross-media ownership would be prevented.

Column 633

The White Paper set out general principles on which new ownership rules might be based and we have considered carefully the many comments we have received on the subject.

In a written answer this morning, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has announced our detailed proposals for ensuring effective ownership controls. The House will want to study my right hon. Friend's announcement in detail. However, I should like to draw particular attention to these main points. The essence of the Government's approach is that the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority should not be given discretionary powers for dealing with ownership questions. Instead, there should be clear rules, which they will be given the power to police and enforce effectively.

Among those rules will be the following. First, no company or group will be allowed to hold two large or contiguous regional Channel 3 franchises, and powers will be taken to introduce further restrictions, if necessary, by reference to audience share. There will be a clear definition of what is meant by a "large" franchise.

Mr. Holt : How big is large? We have a relatively small one in my region and we would not want to lose it.

Mr. Renton : That will eventually be decided by Ministers ; it may be included in a statutory instrument, and we shall be ready to listen to representations about how large "large" is.

Secondly, national newspaper proprietors will be debarred from holding more than 20 per cent. of any DBS, UHF TV or national radio franchise ; and national newspaper proprietors will be prevented from having a signficant financial interest in more than one such franchise. These limits will also apply reciprocally to the holders of such franchises investing in groups controlling national newspapers.

Thirdly, no operator of a non-DBS satellite service receivable in the United Kingdom will be permitted to have more than a 20 per cent. interest in a DBS, UHF TV or national radio licence and cross-interests exceeding 20 per cent. between DBS, UHF TV and national radio licensees will not be permitted.

Fourthly, advertising agencies will be precluded from holding commercial television or radio licences, as will local authorities and bodies whose objectives are wholly or mainly of a political nature.

Finally, we intend to abolish the rule which has hitherto precluded non-EC ownership of local delivery operators ; no other ITC or Radio Authority licences will, however, be able to be held or controlled by a non-EC company or individual.

Mr. Tony Banks : The Minister is making an important annoucement. As I understand it, it has been released in the form of a written reply by the Home Secretary. Is it now available in the Library? If so, would it not have been more appropriate for the Home Secretary to release the answer in a statement to the House during prime time?

Mr. Renton : The hon. Gentleman has an extraordinary ability to carp when the Government have gone out of their way to try to be helpful. We heard only a few days ago that my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North had won this debate on broadcasting and we worked with great speed to prepare the details so that the question could be asked yesterday and answered this morning, and

Column 634

so that I could make this speech today. Just for once, the hon. Gentleman should get rid of some of his bile and be thankful to this co-operative Government for bringing forward these proposals for discussion in the House-- [Interruption.] I suggest the hon. Gentleman goes back to the poop-scoop if that is all that he can think about.

These rules, which build on the broad principles set out in the White Paper, should ensure that ownership in the independent sector remains widely spread. This will help to keep the market open for new entrants, and should be a shield against editorial uniformity or domination by a few groups.

Mr. Wheeler : Most hon. Members here today would agree that we have had an extremely informative and constructive debate, in which most of us have taken part and in which we have discussed in detail the vital issue of ownership. My hon. Friend the Minister has, in this debate, and in the written answer that he has made available, answered the concern that many of us felt about this matter. It is a cause of great regret that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), who has just bounced into the Chamber, should approach the subject in this way.

Mr. Tony Banks : Have a care.

Mr. Renton : I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North asked me whether a national newspaper would be able to own a substantial position in more than one television franchise, and the answer is no. The statement says : "We see a strong case for debarring national newspaper proprietors from having a significant financial interest" --ie 20 per cent.--

"in more than one such franchise."

Mr. Worthington : This is a complicated statement, as it inevitably must be in a matter such as this, and I shall want to study it long and hard. I understood the Minister to say that a newspaper owner would not be allowed to own more than 20 per cent. of any terrestrial channel. However, that leaves out the fact that, increasingly, channels will be satellite as well as terrestrial. If I have understood the Minister correctly, would it not be better to bar those who control satellite channels from any kind of influence on terrestrial channels?

Mr. Renton : I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's slight difficulty in fully following a detailed elaboration of the question answered by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. No operator of a non-DBS satellite service receivable in the United Kingdom will be permitted to have more than a 20 per cent. interest in a DBS, UHF television or national radio licence.

No Government can stop British newspaper proprietors buying into overseas transmitters that have been linked to non-DBS services that are not controlled by this country. If a national newspaper proprietor in Britain has a more than 20 per cent. interest in such a non-DBS satellite service receivable in the United Kingdom, it follows from what I have said that he would not be able to acquire a 20 per cent. interest in the United Kingdom licence. That is the connecting route.

Mr. Corbett : The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) sought to make was on, as the Minister has acknowledged, an

Column 635

extremely important matter. While the House is grateful to the Minister for using the oppportunity of the debate to make the statement, it would have been of greater assistance if we could have had the written statement at some stage during the debate. That was the point that my hon. Friend was trying to make.

Mr. Renton : It was not my impression that that was the only point that he was trying to make. The question was tabled yesterday and answered at 11 o'clock, which is the normal time for answering questions on a Friday.

I was asked whether, under the new ownership rules, a local paper will be able to own a local community radio. I think that it was my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh who asked that question. No regional or local paper will be allowed to have more than a 20 per cent. interest in any regional or local ITC or radio authority licence with whose area it overlaps, and vice versa. There will be no restriction on out-of-area ownership by papers of local radio stations. For example, if a local newspaper wishes to develop its expertise in local news gathering by becoming interested in local radio stations in areas that are not contiguous with the area of the paper, it will not be barred from doing that. That is in line with the principles announced today by my right hon. Friend.

I shall now turn to the issue of quality. The clear restrictions on excessive concentration of ownership or of cross-media ownership that we have announced today, will be welcomed by all those who want to see diversity in our broadcasting system. They certainly show our determination to be serious in deed as well as in intent on the question of choice.

I say clearly to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington that the question of quality has always been at the heart of our thinking. We want to see quality not just on Channel 4 but on BBC and Channel 3 as well. The main strands of our thinking about Channel 3 are well known. There are requirements for news and current affairs, for a diverse programme service, and for authentic voices from all the United Kingdom regions so that there will be programmes not just of regional interest, but programmes produced in the regions as well. We are determined that quality will still be the hallmark of much of British television in the 1990s, preferably more so than now. But quality, of course, means different things to different people. To some the quality of the series of programmes on the gnostic gospels produced by one of the smallest of the ITV companies, Border TV, was extraordinary. To others such programmes would be boring and to them quality might mean an ability to choose between four different films or four different American soap operas. Perceptions of quality are subjective and it is humbug to pretend otherwise.

I was struck by an article in the bulletin of the Independent Programme Producers Association of spring 1989, which reads in part as follows :

"A lot of people in Britain do choose to watch programmes that do not attract mass-majority audiences. It would be a diminishing of choice to eliminate such programmes, or to make it costly to view them, or to substantially reduce their number, frequency, range, diversity, appearance in reasonable viewing hours, funding and so on. The logic of choice as a political ideal is to ensure the healthy survival of those TV organisations and companies which do provide nationally, at low cost to the individual viewer or family, just such programmes."

Column 636

Those are sentiments with which I have much sympathy.

Our commitment is that more choice and better quality shall go hand in hand with greater competition. Thus, we are committed to maintaining the remit on Channel 4, including the commitment to innovation and experiment, and we fully understand the case for not putting that remit at risk while encouraging a greater freedom and independence in Channel 4 by requiring it to sell its own advertising. Together, those commitments to the remit and to the growing amount of orginal drama and other work from the independent producers--the companies that are not controlled either by the BBC or by ITV companies--mean that we are clearly committed to a concept of diversity and variety that goes beyond the status quo of today, and that certainly does not confuse choice with a simple proliferation of more of the most popular types of programming.

In this context, the BBC is, I am sure, planning its strategy for the 1990s. Apart from the nudge towards subscription, encouraged by the announcement that I made a few minutes ago, and the proposal for the removal of one set of its night hours, the White Paper does not aim to set out an enabling framework for the BBC in the 1990s as it does for the whole of the commercial broadcasting sector. My hon. Friends the Members for Surbiton and for Langbaurgh asked about the future financing of the BBC. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said that the licence fee cannot be regarded as immortal, and that is a matter that should be considered for both television and radio, but not now. It will be considered early in the 1990s, when the charter comes up for review.

In paragraph 3.2 of the White Paper, we agree with the Select Committee on Home Affairs that the BBC

"is still and will remain for the foreseeable future the cornerstone of British broadcasting".

However, we have said that this does not mean that the BBC has to involve itself in every aspect of broadcasting or that it should be insulated from change. I hope that those sentiments will be echoed by the BBC management, by the BETA, and by the work force, and that they pick up the comments made earlier today by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West.

I note that in a talk recently given to the BBC's board of governors and board of management conference at the end of April, Dr. Veljanovski said :

"The BBC must define the distinctive parts of its product. This will be a matter for conscious choice by management in the light of the competition. But the definition of the BBC's output cannot be solely a reaction to competitive threats. It must cast itself in the role of the quality broadcaster--the IBM of broadcasting." Interesting and provocative words, I thought.

I said earlier that the 3,000 submissions that we have received in answer to the White Paper were generally interesting and full of ideas. However, the exception that proves the rule is the Labour party's submission, which is deeply negative and depressing. All it appears to offer is the need for more regulation and a pessimistic fear of the future. I have read it three times and I know that its simple message is, "Stop the satellite, we want to get off." There is no policy, no vision, not even any speculation.

As to quality and negotiations for the new franchise, the kindest thing to say is that the shadow Minister who wrote that submission had not read the White Paper. The shadow Minister who wrote the paragraphs on broadcasting in the Labour policy review published

Column 637

yesterday did something different. Rather than not reading the White Paper, he has lifted paragraphs from it. Paragraphs 108 and 109 of the Labour policy review are all about the reward of franchises. After substantial assurances about the range, content and quality of the programmes offered, they use what those who have served on the Select Committee on Home Affairs will recognise as the precise words of paragraph 6.17 and 6.19 of the White Paper. I am, therefore, somewhat puzzled about which shadow Minister is responsible for the media. When we debated the Right of Reply Bill, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) said that a future Labour Government would establish a Ministry to deal with the arts and the media ; that there would be a media Minister. We have heard nothing about that since then, including in today's debate. Is the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington or the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central in charge? Perhaps there is someone in charge called the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Erdington.

The whole vision of the Labour party consists of two inquiries, one into the financing of the BBC and the other into the availability of advertising to finance the extra broadcasting services. It is no wonder that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) prefers his slot on the Sky news channel.

The Government's policy is one of choice, quality and vision in a difficult, fast-moving world in which a whole series of decisions inter- react. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North for initiating a debate that has enabled us to consider some of the challenges ahead.

1.36 pm

Mr. Gale : With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I thank the 11 hon. Members on both sides of the House who have taken part in the debate and have brought to bear the weight of a considerable amount of professional expertise on a subject that is of increasing importance to everyone in the United Kingdom. I especially thank my hon. Friend the Minister and his team of officials, who were given notice of the motion only on Wednesday and who have worked hard to provide the answers to the points raised today. I, at least, appreciate that.

My hon. Friends the Members for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) and for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) are anxious to begin the debate on the Territorial Army and so, without further ado, I conclude this debate.

Question put and agreed to .

Resolved ,

That this House welcomes the communications opportunities offered by technological developments in terrestrial and satellite broadcasting and cable distribution systems ; urges Her Majesty's Government, when creating a legislative framework for the future of radio and television broadcasting and interactive services, to pay particular attention to the need to continue to stimulate quality programming and maintain diversity of ownership and choice ; and further calls on Her Majesty's Government to establish a coherent policy for the promotion of United Kingdom and pan- European satellite services.

Column 638

The Territorial Army and Reserve Forces

1.37 pm

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden) : I beg to move,

That this House, in view of the demographic downturn in the number of people eligible for military service, recognises the growing importance of the Territorial Army and reserve forces as an important back up to the Regular Armed Forces of the Crown ; and calls upon employers in the public and private sectors to make it possible for their employees to volunteer their services to meet the defence needs of the nation by providing the time for them to fulfil this important patriotic public duty, recognising that the training and service experience can be beneficial to both employees and employers. I wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Territorial Army and to the reserve forces of the Royal Navy. I am sure that I express the opinion of hon. Members on both sides of the House in saying that we have the deepest respect and admiration for the quality of those services. I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Minister in his place.

None of us should be in any doubt about the important role of the reserve forces. The defence White Paper, published only a few weeks ago, shows how the nation's defence depends upon a steady flow of volunteers to reinforce our regular armed Forces. The White Paper emphasises--this is a digest of some of the highlights of the role of the reserve forces--that they are an integral part of the forces that would be called upon in times of emergency, not a follow-up force separate from the regular services. The Royal Naval Reserve provides much of the Navy's wartime mine counter- measure forces, personnel for naval control and reinforcement and resupply shipping, medical and dental teams. The auxiliary service would help to defend British ports and anchorages, and reference is made to the Royal Marines Reserve that would enhance 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines in defending NATO's northern flank in north Norway.

The Territorial Army includes reinforcements from ex-Regular service men. It is planned to provide 58,000 men in formed units as an integral part-- and this is the important aspect--of the reinforcement of BAOR. In addition, 29,000 TA soldiers, including the Home Service Force, and 45,000 ex-Regulars would have home defence roles guarding installations, undertaking reconnaissance and providing communications. I should also mention the role of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force which would provide personnel to augment operations, intelligence and communications staff in maritime headquarters units. The Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve would reinforce regular units in intelligence, photographic interpretation, interrogation and public relations duties.

I could continue, but I believe that I have said enough to emphasise the fact that the TA is an integral part of our forces and that the reserve forces are absolutely vital to the defence of the nation. The TA plays a most effective part, when necessary, of the North Atlantic Alliance.

My description of TA duties also underlines how necessary it is for us to have sufficient volunteers if we are to fulfil our defence commitments. In addition, the duties which the TA is expected to perform show how essential it is to have people of the right calibre who can achieve high professional standards. It also shows how lucky we are to have people in this country who are dedicated to achieving those standards.

Column 639

I recall standing by General Rogers, the retired United States commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, after he had witnessed an exercise in western Europe during which a parachute landing had taken place in what he believed were extremely hazardous circumstances. He was staggered to be told that the drop had been performed by Territorial Army parachute units. General Rogers told us that he was impressed by the TA's skill and added rather wistfully, "I wish we had more of them."

Hon. Members will be aware that as chairman of the Defence and Security Committee of the North Atlantic Assembly, I see and hear a lot about the forces of our NATO allies. Without exception, General Rogers' view would be reinforced by our allies. A number of my colleagues in the North Atlantic Assembly have told me how impressed they are by the high state of efficiency of both our Regular and reserve forces.

However, my colleagues sometimes develop a point made by General Rogers. They point out that they have conscription which calls for sacrifices from their young men. They expect us, the only nation in the Alliance apart from the United States to rely exclusively on an all-volunteer force, to make up in quality what we lack in numbers. Therefore, I have included the issue of numbers in my motion and I want to consider it in this short debate.

If the numbers are allowed to drop and we fail to reach our goals as declared in the defence White Paper, our allies will question our reliance on the voluntary principle. Below a certain threshold, as we know from many a gallant fight in British military history, quality alone cannot always make up for the lack of numbers.

Last autumn, the Government to their credit embarked on a recruiting campaign. I am aware of the personal interest shown by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces in that campaign which was intended to attract young men and women into our reserve forces. It was helped by the National Employers Liaison Committee under what I am told is the admirable and inspiring leadership of Mr. Tony MacPherson.

I look forward to my hon. Friend the Minister telling us about the details of that campaign and its progress. Without in any way diminishing the Government's initiative, because I know that they are committed to strengthening the reserve forces, I want to dwell on the two problems which stand in the way of success.

The first problem relates to the decline in the number of young people of eligible military age. The second problem is the possibility of a change in the perception among our people of our future defence needs in the light of the current arms control talks and the thawing of relations between the western democracies, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact and particularly the perception of the young men and women upon whose talents and spirit of patriotism we wish to draw in the 1990s.

With regard to the first of those problems, I am not convinced that we appreciate sufficiently the full impact of the downturn in the number of young people in our society. The problem is not simply a question of numbers. It is a question also of increasing the demand for young people having initiative, the necessary skills and the required educational standards. They are the same people who increasingly are in demand by the reserve forces--and

Column 640

happen to be the same people whose services are increasingly sought also by modern industry and commerce.

The people we require as reserve force volunteers will be able to pick and choose more than any previous generation what they want to do. There is certainly no lack of suitors. Those people would be less than human if they did not exploit that situation to some extent, to their financial advantage. Market forces are respected by the Government, and so they must appreciate that market forces prevail in this sector as in others.

The Government cannot rely on financial measures alone to attract young people to the reserve forces, for they are basically asking our young people to recognise that there is satisfaction in serving one's country voluntarily. However, I suspect that patriotism will not of itself be enough, because that emotion is not easy to arouse in peacetime. The people to whom we appeal belong to a generation that is less diffident than its predecessors, less afraid of authority, less tolerant of bureaucratic folly, and less patient of delays in rectifying inefficiency. If we do not put the welcome mat on the floor and pave the way for them to get stuck into what it is we expect them to do, they will be off. That may be one reason why the wastage rate is still too high in our reserve forces. I am not advocating that we pander to their every whim and mollycoddle them. I am saying that if we want to attract suitable young people, we must give them a fair deal and one that eliminates the unnecessary pin-pricks that niggle so and eventually turn people off. The best firms in industry know that to be true, as do the best regiments and the best units of Her Majesty's forces. It especially holds good for the volunteer in the reserve forces, who can be off like a shot because, in most cases, he will have a job to go to.

It is with those points in mind that I turn to a list of irritants or grouses. Some may not have as much substance as others. I emphasise that the list is not one to which I subscribe in every detail, but it is culled from many different sources. I am mindful that even if every irritant on the list is overcome, nothing is so attractive and calculated to give satisfaction than to be a member of a reserve force that offers interesting and challenging training using up-to-date equipment, rather than one featuring too many return visits to that bleak place in England known as Salisbury plain. Would not the Royal Auxiliary Air Force give its eye-teeth for at least a few workhorse aircraft--such as those produced by Short Bros for the United States national guard--rather than none at all? My hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne), who until recently was a commanding officer in the Territorial Army, have much more practical experience of training matters than I do, for my experience came to an end in 1947 after a few years' war service--so I am regarded by my hon. Friends as an old veteran.

I begin my list with the mundane subject of pay. The present recruiting campaign attempts to attract recruits to the reserve forces while at the same time emphasising their importance in time of war. The reserve forces are being told that together with the Regulars they made up one force ; they are all in it together as professionals and part-time professionals. Surely, some consideration should be given to parity or near parity in pay rates. At present, all ranks in the reservists are paid the minimum scale for the rank they serve and never go higher. That cannot be

Column 641

reconciled by serving members with the overall message of one force or, in the case of the TA, one Army. I know that the reservists fully understand that the X factor which applies to the regular forces could not apply to them. There is a cost in that suggestion and it would be interesting to know how big it would be.

The universities used to be a valuable source of recruitment. With the growing technical demands of the reserve forces we need to tap their resources. Will my hon. Friend the Minister reassure the House that every effort will be made to do so?

The Government are considering plans to attract more women into the regular forces. They have recently published an imaginative document. I have a suggestion for attracting women to the Territorial Army. In certain types of unit--I am excluding those which perform hazardous duties in forward areas--we should tell young women that if they want to be promoted after volunteering, they will be considered on the same basis as the men.

A person on unemployment benefit loses his benefit when he trains on a Saturday or attends a 15-day camp. If one is a lifeboat man or a part-time fireman, one is not subject to the earnings rule if one attends a 15-day camp. Also, I understand that the travelling and training allowance is now included as income. It was previously excluded.

On the meals allowance, a company may have its platoon scattered in different places, perhaps 10 or more miles apart. When the platoons get together for company training, one platoon may fall within the radius to qualify for the free meal but the other platoon may not. That must be irritating.

Could the tax free bounty be increased to a minimum of £1,000 per annum after a four-year term of service with the armed forces? Would that not help overcome wastage problems among more experienced personnel? It is suggested that a better pension scheme might also help to reduce the ravages of wastage, especially among the more experienced personnel. Why not make pensions payable after 15 years in the TA reserve forces comparable with the Regular Army on a pro rata basis?

I know that there is a campaign to encourage companies to release men to serve in the reservists. What consideration has been given to providing some modest financial compensation to companies, especially small companies, as an incentive to release an employee for training?

My hon. Friend the Minister will be glad to know that that concludes the inadequate shopping list. I could go on, but it might become a little bizarre. I recognise that the proposals are not of equal merit and I want my hon. Friend to understand that I do not necessarily endorse them. However, some of them are worthy of serious consideration. They may raise fresh problems, but it would be interesting--if not today, then at some future time--to have some communication from my hon. Friend the Minister as to the Government's view.

The price may be too high, given the present position of the defence budget, but the turnover of the reserve forces is also too high. We lose 30 per cent. in wastage rates in a reserve force intended to provide 40 per cent. of our total forces. Compared with our NATO allies, our overall reserve strength is not good enough. We cannot take risks. However, if we can get reductions in weapons as a result

Column 642

of the arms control talks, I have no doubt that the Ministry of Defence will have an opportunity to switch its resources to paying more for its manpower.

I should like to leave my hon. Friend the Minister with two thoughts that suggest that expenditure on the reserves is very good value for money. I said that 40 per cent. of our total forces are supplied by the reserve forces. That cost will be just over 5 per cent. of the defence budget. Their training is cost-effective. In answer to a question about

"the current cost of a Regular Army soldier and of a Territorial Army soldier"

the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said :

"The estimated annual cost at 1987-88 prices of a Regular soldier is £14,100, and of a Territorial Army soldier £2,500."--[ Official Report, 12 April 1989 ; Vol. 150, c. 611. ]

The second problem, which I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, is the attitude to this generation of recruits to defence in the context of detente. It is a vast subject, but I assure my hon. Friend that I will deal with it expeditiously. As we secure further reductions in nuclear weapons and conventional arms, it will be only to easy for people to assume that the danger of war is over and that we can relax and turn our swords into ploughshares. Such a euphoric reaction ignores all the lessons of history, and certainly those of recent history. However, the Government and the Ministry of Defence in particular will face a serious challenge. They will have to explain again and again why defence forces are required not so much to wage war or to prevent one but to restrain those who misguidedly attempt to believe that they can gain by force rather than by negotiation. There are still quite a number of rather wicked, acquisitive people in the world.

In countries in which national service is obligatory, it is possible for successive generations to share in the experience of serving in the defence of their country. Through such service, the link between society and the military is maintained. If we want to avoid conscription, it is important to keep that link through our system of reserve forces based on voluntary principle. As we strive for and, I hope, achieve security at a lower level of expenditure, the continued presence of the TA reserve forces will remind successive generations that we do not take peace for granted and are willing to pay the price for it. After all, military security is the precondition of peace.

1.57 pm

Next Section

  Home Page