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Column 391which Opposition Members seem neither to understand nor to accept. That concept was fully endorsed by all our NATO allies.
Those same allies will be pretty depressed if they have bothered to read the latest policy statement on defence from the Labour party. They will learn that the Labour party rejects the NATO strategy of flexible response and wants to see the end of short-range nuclear systems altogether. The Labour party intends to stand alone in Europe and reject the cornerstone of NATO defence policy that has kept the peace in Europe for so long and has forced the Soviets to the negotiating table.
Mr. Hamilton : I did not say that Britain stands alone ; I said that the Labour party stands alone in rejecting flexible response as the keystone to the defence of the NATO Alliance. The French adhere to flexible response. They may not be military members of NATO, but they adhere to the concept of flexible response which is being rejected by the Labour party.
Mr. Heffer : Conservative Members complain about people standing alone in relation to Europe, but the Prime Minister constantly tells us that she is standing alone on issue after issue. I do not complain about that. If she thinks that that is the correct thing to do, she has every right to do that. If the Labour party is standing alone and standing up for something for once, I shall be delighted.
Mr. Hamilton : The hon. Gentleman may well be delighted, but my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was delighted with the outcome of the summit talks and with the fact that we reached an agreement that was shared by all our NATO allies.
Mr. Brazier : My hon. Friend has given way many times and I thank him for doing so again. For the benefit of the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) and for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), will my hon. Friend confirm that France not only supports the doctrine of flexible response but has just modernised its own short-range land-based weapon system with Hades?
Mr. Hamilton : I was making that clear to Opposition Members. France is very much a believer in flexible response and believes that we should not rely solely on ballistic missiles but should have a number of nuclear systems with which to reverse any attacks that we might receive.
But, of course, it is not only flexible response that is rejected by Labour. So is Britain's independent nuclear deterrent which, as our allies have once again explicitly stressed at the summit, contributes to the overall deterrence strategy of the Alliance. We have heard much recently from the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) to the effect that he has rejected unilateral disarmament as Labour policy, but has he? The only thing that has changed in the Opposition's policy is that where before Labour would give away Britain's nuclear weapons now they will negotiate away our deterrent.
If a Labour Government were ever elected by the people of this country two things could be guaranteed.
Column 392First, the many CND members of the Labour party in this House would lobby furiously to see Britain's nuclear deterrent negotiated away. Secondly, President Gorbachev would be over here as soon as he decently could offering perhaps two or three times as many Soviet warheads in return for Trident--and the Labour party is committed to deal. As a result, Britain would lose all its nuclear weapons and the Soviets would be left with thousands. That may not be unilateral disarmament but the result is the same.
We live in an unpredictable world. Although no one can disinvent nuclear weapons, the Labour party is prepared to see Britain stripped of her independent nuclear deterrent. Labour's defence policy will be no less dangerous in the next election than it was in the last ; it will undermine the NATO Alliance and threaten the security of these islands.
The British people realise this and that is why Labour has no more chance of winning the next election than it did the last.
Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan) : The predictable format of the Minister of State's speech was followed almost to the letter : the 40 years of peace through NATO, the quick reference to the sterling work of the armed forces, to which we all subscribe, a little bit about morale, a bit about fighting terrorism and then a bash at the Labour party at the end-- very much the usual stuff.
It is regrettable that it has taken so long for this debate to be held. Normally these debates are over if not by the end of the year at least by the end of January. While we have looking over our shoulder, as it were, the White Paper on the estimates, it would be unhelpful for us today to stray too far into that. I am quite happy to discuss at the appropriate time the relevant parts of the Labour party's defence white paper, which will be a green paper, of course, until it goes to our conference. But that is certainly not our purpose today.
My one regret is that this speech is not being made by my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. Hughes), who is sadly not with us today because he has recently had an operation and is still in hospital. I am sure that friends and colleagues hope, as I do, that he will make a speedy recovery.
I associate myself with the tributes paid by the Minister to the Army for the contribution that it makes to the defence of these islands, the role that it carries out in Europe and the work that it does in places such as Belize and Hong Kong. There are many examples of the kind of work done by our troops, very often in discreet and community-spirited ways. The Minister has already referred to the callous and heartless killing of soldiers who were participating in a fun run for charity last year. It is that kind of work that many of our young men actively participate in for the benefit of the community far beyond the 9 to 5 hours that many people seem to associate with work in many areas. Our young men are a credit to their regiments and to the youth of this country as a whole. The most important contribution that the Army makes, however, is to NATO and above all to the British Army of the Rhine, including those troops in the United Kingdom who are deployed ready to be transferred to the continent at any time of crisis. Certainly in the last 10 days of the run-up to the NATO summit and the subsequent Government retreat, these questions of the size of our
Column 393armed forces have once again come under the scrutiny of the press, as I hope that they will today and in the weeks ahead come under that of the House. It will take some time for us all to appreciate the complexity of the comprehensive concept and the implications of the summit communique .
I was fortunate enough to be in Rome on Monday to hear Ambassador Lodogar and Ambassador Dobrynin talk about some of the difficulties which the summit will throw up, and the task of definition which the allies have set themselves over the summer is a very important one. We recognise that until 7 September it will not be possible to answer a number of the questions that we shall be asking today, but in this debate we shall raise some questions which the Minister should try to address in winding up. We want to know the implications for the British Army of the Rhine and for the other allied forces of the cuts which President Bush has announced with regard to United States forces. I do not think that it would be correct for us to say at this time that we should join the French in being counted in because I believe that the different arrangements which the French have with the Alliance are such that this would add an undue complication. We want to get cuts and we want to get them quickly.
Hon. Members who participate in these debates know that over the months and years I have been arguing that we should have been far more positive in response to some of the Gorbachev
initiatives--so-called initiatives, because in many instances they were elaborate public relations exercises which looked very good and promised a great deal but were dependent upon a response which, sadly, was not forthcoming until President Bush's belated, I think, but highly welcome statement prior to the summit. We can see from the initial response from the Soviet Union that there are considerable grounds for optimism but at the same time certain uncertainties which we have to look at.
I hope that we can move quickly on this and that the September deadline can be met. It might be interesting if, in winding up, the Minister could share with the House some of the thinking. For example, the Prime Minister was adamant on Tuesday that no British Tornados would be involved in any of the cuts. On the other hand, if we set aside the Prime Minister's prejudices for the moment and look at the question of helicopters, will these be included? If so, will it be the Army's helicopters or the RAF's? Will the Army and the RAF still have joint control over helicopters? This is an old argument which always crops up. I notice in today's Jane's that the Australians have now grasped the nettle and taken away the choppers from the RAAF and that these are now solely under the control of the Army. I believe that in an Army debate of this nature this question should be addressed.
We have had a lengthy and rather depressing disquisition by the Minister on the various types of helicopters. I have listened to hon. Members on both sides of the House talking about the future of helicopter procurement and there seems to be a characteristic indifference by the Ministry of Defence to the industrial implications of a confused policy of procurement. We have to recognise that, if we are to sustain a manufacturing base in this country for any kind of helicopter, it is the
Column 394responsibility of the Government, as the main customer of those manufacturers, to create the circumstances in which exports can be obtained. As has been heard from the Government Benches, the weakest possible case that one can put to a foreign customer is to start by saying that our Government have yet to make up their mind what they want.
In one defence debate after another and in one Army debate after another a succession of Ministers--usually a different one each time, but the script is always the same--have said that they have not yet made up their minds what to do. We need far stronger assurances as to the intentions regarding this part of our manufacturing base, because we are running out of time. We must not forget that, come 1992, whoever is in the European Parliament and whoever is at the Government Dispatch Box, we need to ensure that we have a place in the manufacturing of helicopters. If we do not get it right quickly, we shall be considerably weaker when the appropriate section of the Single European Act comes into play--and defence procurement is one feature of the new arrangements.
As to the implications of the summit, traditionally we have heard that the argument for short-range nuclear forces in Europe is twofold. The first is that they bridge the conventional gap between the Warsaw Pact and NATO, and that because of the willingness of the Soviet and eastern European Governments to spend vast amounts of money on defence, those Governments were able to build up sizeable comparative advantages over the West in certain areas of conventional defence. As democratically-elected Governments in the West were not always as committed as British Labour or Conservative Governments have been to support defence expenditure, and have not supported the Alliance in the way that they should, they have hidden behind short-range nuclear forces.
If there is a positive response to President Bush's initiative, and if by 1992-93 the parity or below parity that we seek is achieved, one of the fundamental arguments for SNF forces in Europe--the gap to which I referred --will be removed.
The second argument for SNF has been inelegantly but precisely put--that the Americans are not prepared to have troops here if there is no nuclear guarantee. When we go to NATO, we hear the phrase, "No nukes, no troops." The Germans are still not satisfied, but their time may have been bought by the allies, at least in respect of the German short-range question. However, the problem will not go away. If Chancellor Kohl is returned to power, it will only be with the support of the Free Democrats, which means the presence also of Foreign Minister Genscher in the Cabinet. If he is in the Cabinet, there will be arguments in favour of the albeit step-by-step removal SNF. Genscher, ever the populist, and looking over his shoulder at the narrow margin between his political existence and non-existence under the German electoral system, will make continued calls for the removal of short-range nuclear forces. If the host country for the majority of SNF is not prepared to allow them, I cannot see the Alliance standing by last year's communique .
Since the Brussels summit last March, the situation has changed from one of discussing modernising Lance to debating the continued deployment of existing SNF, and to discussing those forces' possible removal in two or three years' time, subject to other developments. The confidence
Column 395with which the Americans view the prospects of a positive Soviet response to the Bush initiative suggests that that item will be on the agenda fairly quickly.
Although SNF will not be removed until 1992-93, discussions could take place by the end of next year. If agreement is reached on definitions and a deal is settled within six to 12 months, implementation will proceed, according to President Bush's remarks, as speedily as possible. If implementation continues apace, there will be considerable pressure in Germany to comply not least because there will be elections to the Bundestag in December 1990. From the point of view of Genscher and Kohl, there could be no better preparation for those elections than for them to be able to tell their electorate, "We are discussing the dismantling of short-range nuclear forces."
The British Government should not kid themselves as to the length of time that SNF will remain in Europe and the Prime Minister still be walking in step. People decided to leave that unfortunate and unpleasant topic to one side for a little while so that they could get out of Brussels last week as quickly and as safely as they could, but the Minister would be wrong to imagine that a flexible response will remain in its present form.
We also have an interest in the threat posed by SNF to the 55,000 British troops in the central region. Another element is the anxiety expressed to me last year by the German Foreign Minister, and acknowledged by the German Defence Minister, that SNF is no longer regarded as a viable political weapon. Germany sees it as quite possible that the force to space ratio argument to which the Minister referred will apply and that the commanders in the field--to whom the Prime Minister referred on Tuesday as being the people who must make fast decisions--will be left to decide whether or not to use nuclear weapons when confronted by a sudden invasion. Neither the Prime Minister nor the Minister may appreciate that argument, but many right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House do.
Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East) : The hon. Gentleman is right about German anxiety, but he mentions only our short-range nuclear weapons and our modernisation plans. We have 88 systems, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that every one of the commanders in the British and American armies of the Rhine is much more worried about the 1,200 already modified Soviet short-range nuclear weapons. Is the hon. Gentleman not worried about them too?
Mr. O'Neill : Yes, and that is exactly the point I am trying to make. If and until our modernisation programme proceeds, that disparity between our forces and the overwhelming superiority of the Soviets will continue for a considerable length of time. It is thus in our interests to start negotiating for the removal of SNF as quickly as possible. It is argued repeatedly that we should negotiate only from a position of strength, but we cannot afford to wait until we can do that.
Mr. O'Neill : No, not give them up but talk about dismantling them-- we should recognise that to do so would be to our advantage and that of the German people. There is a consensus across the political spectrum in the
Column 396Federal Republic that that action should be taken. That consensus is recognised by the American President, whose support for the present coalition stems from his wish not to see it out of power, because he would then have to deal with a coalition led by Social Democrats with which the Labour party would have considerable sympathy, as would a number of other Governments in the NATO Alliance. The Minister over -eggs the pudding when he suggests that everyone who signed the Brussels communique did so in a spirit of complete unanimity. I know of one right hon. Lady who signed it but who does not agree with every jot, dot and comma of it--and no right hon. or hon. Member believes that she does.
I believe that the flexible response strategy of the Alliance is out of date and should be changed, but that can be done only through serious discussion within the Alliance and disarmament talks of a kind that we can throw our weight behind. What worries me at present is that, although the Americans and the Germans are committed to the comprehensive concept and the implementation of the changed arrangement proposals in the summit communique , I have yet to see any clear and frank support from the Prime Minister, who was most unconvincing at the Dispatch Box on Tuesday.
The Prime Minister has said that she will have nothing to do with a sizeable or meaningful contribution to the initiative which probably above all else makes the package attractive to the Soviet Union--the inclusion of aircraft in the proposals. It is a mark of the statesmanship of President Bush that he identified that initiative as a breakthrough that would win over the Soviets, who had asked for it, and he should be given credit for that. The Prime Minister's response has been characteristically grudging and curmudgeonly, and it is fortunate indeed that the other 15 members of the Alliance are bringing good sense to the issue.
The Minister has not had much time to read the fine print of the communique , but it would be useful for us to have some idea of the Government's thinking about dual capability and what systems might be considered suitable candidates. Perhaps, for instance, he could give us his views on the 155 mm and 203 mm systems, which I certainly consider suitable.
There are tremendous grounds for optimism on both sides of the European divide--for instance, the election results in Poland, the encouraging developments in Hungary and, indeed, the Soviet Union itself, where the degree of openness in debate has surpassed even that experienced by Conservative Members at their annual party conferences. We have observed disagreements and we have seen the Soviet President being attacked, which is no bad thing.
I realise that in a number of other countries we shall have to wait a considerable time for the progress that is due. In Romania, "Socialism in one country" has been supplanted by "Socialism in one family". Czechoslovakia is perhaps a sleeping giant that has yet to turn. We have considerable grounds for hope in East Germany, but realisation of that hope is still some way away.
Mr. Wilkinson : Does the hon. Gentleman consider the 58 deaths and 500 injured in Uzbekistan, the gassing of 20 in Tbilisi and the unrest in Armenia, which has also caused deaths, a hopeful sign? Or does it suggest to him that the Soviet Union is prepared, if necessary, to use armed force within its own republics and might even do so outside?
Mr. O'Neill : It is true that a great deal remains to be done to improve the situation in the Soviet Union. It is encouraging, however, that at least some of the excesses--I do not say all--have been followed by speedy repudiation by the authorities and the arraignment of those responsible. That has happened in Georgia, although we do not know yet what is happening in Uzbekistan. I do not deny that the state of affairs in the Soviet Union is still patchy. It is very difficult to emerge in a short time from 70 years of tyranny. It is also difficult for a centralised empire to handle the ethnic problems that have emerged in some areas.
It is certainly encouraging that the Soviet Union now recognises that it is spending too much on defence. When I was there earlier in the year, I talked to some economists who said, "We used to think that we spent about 10 or 11 per cent. of our gross domestic product on defence, but we know that the CIA believed that it was more like 15 per cent ; we now think that it is about 23 per cent., but we are not sure, and we would like to see the CIA's databases, which are probably more accurate than ours." Soviet expenditure on defence presents such a confused picture that attempts to cut that expenditure, although laudable, may take much longer than we would like. Nevertheless, the Soviets are endeavouring to make changes and we must give them every possible encouragement. President Bush has taken a worthwhile step along that road.
Mr. Sayeed : I accept that the economic argument has helped the Soviet Union to change its mind about building up its weapon systems. Would the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that the reason the Soviets have come to the negotiating table is that the NATO allies have remained firm? Had this country and others followed Labour party policy on cruise missiles, the Soviet Union would never have bothered to negotiate at all.
Mr. O'Neill : That is speculative in the extreme. [Interruption.] I am trying to answer the hon. Gentleman's question. The remarks of the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) are rarely helpful, and in this case they are simply a nuisance.
The Soviet attitude to talks on short-range and long-range nuclear weapons has been transformed by the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev and the relationship that he established with Ronald Reagan. That is the single fact that we can identify. Whether the movements within Europe, and indeed the United States, against the deployment of cruise and Pershing missiles and the arms race as it was then developing have been an important factor must be left to historians, but I believe that they have. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Mr. Sayeed) does not, but I think that we must agree to disagree. I do not intend to enter into an elaborate point-scoring exercise.
It is not to the Soviet Union or to the Warsaw pact but to China that I now wish to look, with some trepidation. We in Britain have a unique responsibility to Hong Kong, but what the Minister said about the Gurkhas does not strike me as particularly satisfactory. He seems to have said nothing more than the Secretary of State said in his recent statement announcing a 50 per cent. cut in the brigade. That is not reassuring.
In the past decade, we have learned to our cost that when wrong signals are given out to particular countries at the wrong time we pay dearly, as we did in the Falklands. Until we can obtain far better guarantees of the intentions
Column 398of the People's Republic of China for the people of Hong Kong after 1997 we should not talk about cutting the Gurkhas or withdrawing troops. I believe that hon. Members on both sides of the House will wish to argue that case today.
I thought that the Minister was going to say that in the light of changing circumstances the figure of 4,000 might be raised, but he meandered around the question and never reached a conclusion. If we are told in the Minister's winding-up speech that the Secretary of State's announcement is to be put on hold, many of us will be, if not satisfied, at least reassured of the strength of the Government's intent.
Members of the Select Committee will speak for themselves, but paragraph 305 of the Select Committee report states that there are "no grounds for concluding that a cut in the number of Gurkha infantry battalions is justified."
They were speaking not just from their hearts--this is a matter of tremendous emotion for many people in Britain--but also from their heads, after many months of well-researched work. The Secretary of State apparently found that work immensely helpful when he spoke on 22 May, but he did not pay very much attention to it. The British Army requires the Gurkhas not only for demographic reasons but because they represent a contribution to the armed forces that still has a place in the British Army. It is worth while for us to continue to support the state of Nepal by continuing to entrust the Gurkhas with the tasks that they have carried out with such distinction and valour for such a long time. We should not consider reducing our commitment to Hong Kong in any way at this time, least of all our commitment in the form of the Gurkhas.
The Minister has spoken about the security of mainland army bases where the experiences of this summer have been particularly distressing. I recognise that the Ministry has responded in a flexible and, one hopes, effective way and that the cessation of these attacks for the moment at least--that is all that we can ever say--is a tribute to the renewed and increased vigilance of our forces, and we welcome the arrangements that have been made. Car numbering may also have made a difference. Perhaps when the Minister replies to the debate he will give us some news of what has happened in that respect.
The increased threat outside Northern Ireland does not quite shape up with the Government's plans for the MOD police force. We understand that the MOD police force may well be cut in order to save money. In the past 10 years the force has been increased, but that was almost entirely due to greater demand as a result of the increased size of anti-nuclear demonstrations. While the MOD accountants see considerable opportunities to save money by substituting private security guards, those security guards have no constabulary powers of arrest, no right to bear arms where appropriate and no training in their use.
The MOD police force has a creditable record and there is considerable concern about the proposed changes to policing arrangements at the Colchester garrison. Military commanders are concerned about security and civilian police officers are worried about their capacity to take on the responsibilities of the MOD police at Colchester given the financial restraints under which the civilian police must operate. The MOD finally dropped the proposals in the face of considerable opposition. May we be assured that this bright idea will not re-emerge in other garrison towns
Column 399and that the increased activities of terrorists on the United Kingdom mainland will be countered by the increased commitment of resources, equipment and personnel to the safety of the bases? We need to ensure that financial reasons will not be advanced for any changes in security. We pay tribute to the way in which the Secretary of State and his Ministers responded to the events of last year, but we should like to think that such vigilance will be maintained, as we know that it will, and that the MOD police will not be involved in any cost -cutting exercises.
In regard to the Government raising funds, I should like briefly to mention Royal Ordnance, the supplier to the armed forces, and the sale of Royal Ordnance land. It appears that the care and attention that the MOD is giving to these matters is less than it should be. The Enfield site was valued at £3.5 million and subsequently sold for between £300 million and £400 million. That suggests that the MOD is not getting the value for money that many of us assumed the Government would have been anxious to achieve.
House--inadvertently, I hope--when he said that it was subsequently sold for £300 million. The site to which he referred has not been sold, has no planning permission and has had no development carried out upon it.
Mr. O'Neill : We shall have to explore that later. I understand that British Aerospace will be selling the land very soon for something in the order of the sum that I mentioned. On a number of occasions the Minister has told us that he has experience in these matters, but his experience seems to have involved a different type of land sale as these sales appear to represent a particularly bad deal for the MOD and for the nation. Perhaps I am using the word "sale" wrongly, but the proposed sale to which I am referring at the price that I mentioned represents nothing less than a complete abdication of the Government's responsibility to the taxpayer. The Minister referred at some length to the MARILYN report, which I have read about in the press. I believe that it has now been circulated to a select few Members of Parliament and that today, as an afterthought, a copy was placed in the Library. I understand that not even the Chairman of the Select Committee has received a copy, so its circulation must be extremely restricted. A number of right hon. and hon. Members take an interest in these matters and would have regarded it as a courtesy to be told that a copy of the report was available in the Library.
Had it been placed in the Vote Office, we would have seen quite clearly when it came out, but putting it in the Library almost as an afterthought is not the best way of securing all-party support for what may be a worthwhile and politically uncontentious issue. Such clumsiness is increasingly characteristic of the Ministry and was apparent in the announcement of a statement on the Gurkhas on a Monday on a one-line Whip when many members of the Select Committee, who had spent a great deal of time working on the issue, were not in the House and did not know about it. Normally, as a courtesy, I receive word about such statements in advance. The fact that I was not here and a colleague was able to handle it was not a problem for me, but for individual members of
Column 400a Select Committee who put in a great deal of time on a voluntary basis to be treated in such a disrespectful way by the Ministry was nothing short of shocking.
Perhaps the indifference of the Secretary of State is demonstrated by the fact that he is not here today to support his own Department. I do not blame him for not listening to me because I understand his discomfort at some of the things that I have to say, but it is a matter of courtesy to the House and to his own Department that the Secretary of State should take the trouble to be here and to speak on these matters, or at least to let right hon. and hon. Members know that there are good reasons why he is not here. Had he done so, it would not have been necessary for me to raise the matter in the way that I have.
Mr. O'Neill : I accept that as an excuse, or reason. If an agriculture Minister visits Brussels, statements are always made, but if NATO holds a meeting about earth-shatteringly important matters, the chances of getting a statement from the Trappist Secretary of State for Defence are almost zero.
The Minister has usefully expressed the Government's concern about recruitment, which will be a problem in the 1990s. We recognise the demographic changes that are occurring in the country and much will have to be done to attract people from sections of the community who so far have shown little interest in joining the Army. We appreciate the Government's concern about recruiting more people from ethnic minority communities. We are along way away from ethnic minorities being represented in the Army in the numbers that the size of their communities requires. We shall have to watch this issue closely because it is as important for community relations as it is for the defence of this country.
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : My hon. Friend makes a good point about ethnic minorities in the armed forces. Surely it is wrong for the Government to refuse to monitor ethnic minorities in the armed forces when those minorities are simply not getting the promotions to which they are entitled. The Government should be checking that and doing something about it.
Mr. O'Neill : We have discussed this in a number of debates, in which my hon. Friend participated on behalf of his constituents. A case can be made for more scrutiny and greater monitoring. We must be assured that ethnic minorities will be attracted to the armed forces and that they will regard it as a worthwhile commitment with which they can identify.
It would be helpful if the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces said something about the success of the initiatives that his predecessor took in relation to bullying. He made great play of this issue in a debate last year, and it is important that hon. Members should be updated about the concerns that the former Under-Secretary of State expressed.
The House's treatment of the armed forces is somewhat sketchy. One-day debates are often too short and unsatisfactory. Labour Members have always complained that the time lag between debates is too long.
Mr. O'Neill : The Minister laughs and says, "A two day debate for the Army." Hon. Members should be allowed more than five days' debate on the Army, which is one of the biggest recipients of public expenditure. The Prime Minister recognises that it is one of the most important responsibilities of the state. Given that she does not recognise much as being the responsibility of the state, hon. Members should be allowed more than 10 or 11 chances to discuss the Army at Question Time and five days of debate. Regrettably, these debates occur as and when the Government have the time or nothing better to debate.
Mr. O'Neill : The Minister is well aware that Opposition time is already restricted enough. If the Government believe that the defence of the country and the time that hon. Members spend debating it are important, many hon. Members believe that more time should be allowed.
There are a number of possible developments in the defence of our country. This is an opportunity for all hon. Members to express guarded optimism for the future, but that optimism depends to an extent on what happens abroad. Our optimism for the future is mainly due to the fact that our armed forces, especially the Army, make a sizeable contribution, which we all support and believe benefits the people who serve in it and the country. I am therefore happy to participate in the debate.
Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East) : If the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) thinks that these debates are too short, he could oblige us by speaking for slightly less than 45 minutes. We would also get better evidence of the keenness of the Opposition if more than five Labour Members were present.
It is impossible at times not to feel a twinge of sympathy for the hon. Member for Clackmannan as he struggles to square the circle of Labour defence policy, especially when he came to the difficult passage in his speech about nuclear forces. A skilled professional acrobat can walk a tight wire and an even more skilled one can walk a slack wire. However, he canot walk a tight wire if, half way across, it drops 3 ft, which is what happens every time the Labour party tries to put together a nuclear policy that is coherent, honest and acceptable to Labour Members. When the hon. Member for Clackmannan was saying "We shall not scrap short-range nuclear forces," Labour Members behind him were shaking their heads in disapproval. When the hon. Gentleman mentioned the German concern, he did not want to address the enormous Russian superiority. I do not want to follow the hon. Gentleman, whose speech would have been better made in a defence debate rather than one on the Army, which he mentioned only peremptorily.
When the Select Committee on Defence visited the Army over the past year it found it in good heart and professional, working well and offering a service of which we can be justifiably proud. We visited British elements of battalions and troops and staff in the far east. We visited the United Kingdom land forces headquarters in Wilton and I visited many other units. Most important of all, we visited our forces in Northern Ireland. I endorse everything that the Minister and the hon. Member for
Column 402Clackmannan said about how well they are doing. It is a paradox that the worse the conditions for soldiers, the higher their morale and the harder they work for a cause for which they have been professionally trained and which they believe is right. I am sure that they have the support of all hon. Members.
Never before have we concentrated as much on one section of the Army as we have this year on the Gurkhas. Most of the Committee's working time was devoted to them and they caused it to produce the longest and most thorough report in its history. It is an exceedingly comprehensive report and I am grateful not only to my colleagues for the work that they put into it but to the Committee staff, who worked hard on our behalf, assembling all the facts to produce it. I hope that it is as helpful to the House as the Government said that it was to them.
It was slightly disappointing that such a comprehensive report was met with such an uncomprehensive Government reply. I can understand the Government's difficulty about the time scale involved and their not wanting to commit themselves to a state of affairs that may apply in 1997. The Government made two announcements. The first, which was most welcome, was of a firm and definite future for the Gurkhas in the Army after 1997, and everyone welcomes that. Secondly, they produced a figure that amounted to more than a 50 per cent. cut. It would have been helpful to know the thinking behind it, rather than to have the vagueness that surrounded the response and the statement by the Secretary of State.
It was helpful that, during his statement, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State elaborated in reply to a question by me and said that it was a minimum figure, which was negotiable upwards but was unlikely to go down. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Minister of State has confirmed that. Having considered the subject so closely, we will not leave it alone. We are pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will come before the Committee on 26 June, when we hope that we can persuade him to flesh out the thinking behind his decision, to say how he envisages the figure being achieved and to give a more detailed response to some parts of the report.
I could talk at length about the report and elaborate on it, but I see at least five members of my Committee waiting to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not want to abuse the fact that you were kind enough to allow me to catch your eye first, so I will not take the House through the whole report. I should like to refer, in the context of the Gurkhas, to one serious subject to which both Front Bench speakers have alluded--the future manpower problem. The Committee covered that aspect closely.
It is axiomatic that, if we have 8,500 well-trained, loyal, well-motivated troops, our requirements for them--albeit in 10 years' time--must take account of what our needs are likely to be. When running an Army of a size that will meet the commitments of the Ministry of Defence and the Government, without fat in the system--presumably, that has been removed during the past few years--we must look first at current manpower levels and problems and then at the projections.
My hon. Friend the Minister was honest in expressing concern about the present position and how it could develop. If he had wanted to put it in exact words, he could have done little better that to turn to our report, especially the part that deals with the establishment and strength of the Army, in paragraph 129 onwards. The Committee
Column 403measured the shortfall according to the Ministry's figures, but they are now out of date. The latest recruitment figures which the Ministry produced in a press release on 2 March revealed a slightly worse position than the one on which we reported. We said : "If this shortfall reflects a worsening trend, there is cause for concern."
Ministry officials who spoke to us acceded to that point. The Committee went on to look at shortages of infantry. It said : "The infantry constitutes nearly one-third of the Army's manpower. It is here that the gap between strength and establishment is most acute, and is expected to be about 5 per cent. by 1 April 1989." The 1.5 per cent. shortage in the forces as a whole has been concentrated into a shortage of 5 per cent. in the infantry. It is from the infantry that the reserve of manpower in Hong Kong will become available when we pull out.
Although we welcome the Ministry's assurances, I hope that it will address more urgently the problem of future recruitment. The MARILYN assessment-- manning and recruitment in the lean years of the nineties--is realistic. The recruiting drive that is under way may be successful, but it would be a sanguine person who, given the demographic problems and changes in attitudes to our armed forces, thought that by simply spending money on television recruiting campaigns we will make good the shortfall. I do not believe that anyone in the Ministry of Defence really thinks that. We must get the message across more clearly.
When I look around the Benches I see few Members of Parliament who have had a direct connection with the services, because we are 28 years from the ending of national service. In recruiting 16 to 18 year-olds, we are for the first time recruiting from families where the father has had no military experience--he has not been called upon to do his national service. Until four or five years ago, there was always someone in the family who had served. There was always a photograph on some sideboard of the service man, however much he hated his service while doing it. When those people finished their service, they were proud that they had contributed to our country. That element is missing from every part of family life.
The Ministry of Defence would do well to try a different recruiting approach from the one that assumes that everyone knows what military service is about, what it means and what it has meant in terms of the way that our society has been built up. There is no question but that there has been a sea of change. When one goes round one's constituency talking to people, one finds that it is now the early middle-aged people who have no concept of what service life means. That starts the prospect of a recurrence of the kind of divorce between the military and civilian communities that we had at the end of the 1930s, when there had been a similarly long period during which people had not experienced service life at first hand. I hope that the Government will consider producing a more general, less macho approach to the services. Much of a service man's life is spent on the ordinary facet of service to the community--he has to fight only if the politicians' policies fail, and under the Government that is less and less likely to happen.
I want to make a brief remark about the community charge as it affects the services. Before the Whips shiver, let me say that I am not fighting any old battle--I want to raise a different aspect.
Column 404Mr. Frank Cook : A tactical withdrawal.
Mr. Mates : The hon. Gentleman knows me better than that. There is a real problem which I want to address and on which I hope to be given some elucidation by the Ministry of Defence. The Government have decided that service men were to be treated in the same way as their civilian counterparts. That is not the right answer, because service men are different. I hope that the Ministry fought his corner hard to get them treated differently. The sensible solution would have been to make service men pay an average community charge. That could be easily done.
I am not arguing that service men should not bear the same responsibility as their counterparts, but it is not right, and is sometimes downright unfair, that a service man should be subject to the community charge payable in the area to which the services--mainly the Army--sends him. He can be posted suddenly from a low-rated area to a high-rated area through no choice of his. He can show no democratic reaction. The argument used to support the community charge is that one can vote people out, but the service man can play no part in the way in which local democracy works. He just has to lump it.
The Ministry has an equalising mechanism whereby a service man can be relieved of part of the burden of a particularly severe charge. I hope that, on looking at the anomalies that will be thrown up, and that are starting to be thrown up in Scotland, the Ministry will return to what must be the right solution--a standard community charge for every soldier, sailor and airman, and their dependants, wherever they are.
A particular problem is already arising and I want the Ministry to consider it. More and more married soldiers and officers have bought their own houses, encouraged by us. When they end their service, they do not have to start at the bottom of the property ladder, and that is right and proper. Having encouraged them to do that, we then, for perfectly good military reasons, uproot them from Hampshire and send them to Scotland or Yorkshire. That must be. Because they want to keep the family unit together, they take quarters. They will then, in many cases, be liable to pay a double community charge by being charged at their home and then being told that because they are living in quarters in Catterick, that is their major residence. They will have to pay two charges because they will be liable for the charge in their own homes--