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Mr. Frank Cook : The hon. Gentleman would be as well.
Mr. Mates : That is true, but I can go where I choose. The services are different from everyone else. Other disciplined forces, such as the police forces, the ambulance forces, nurses and doctors, can say that they will not go to Yorkshire, for example, if they think that the community charge there is too high. Service men cannot say that, so they are a different and unique case and must be treated as such. It must be unfair for a soldier to buy a house wherever he thinks he will spend his post- service life and then be penalised doubly under the community charge because of a posting. If the service demands him to move, it should compensate him for it.
I hope that that problem will be considered and that we shall receive a comprehensive answer, although I realise
Column 405that we shall not do so today. It is a problem that will bring the community charge into disrepute vis-a-vis the services if we are not careful.
I want to speak briefly about the Falkland Islands and our defence commitments there. I am not going to argue about why or how we are there ; what is important is that we are there defending the Falklands. As a result of the considerable expense that the Government have put into the Falklands and the considerable drain on the defence budget at present as a result of the forces and assets there, the Falkland Islands have become rich, especially through the fishing licences that they are able to grant. They have become rich to the extent that income from fishing licences has risen from £650, 000 in 1986 to £16 million in 1988. Would it not be right to ask the Falkland Islands Government to make some contribution to our defence costs out of that great wealth?
There is a precedent for that in Hong Kong. We have a defence agreement with the Hong Kong Government because our forces are committed there very much in the interest of Hong Kong's success as a free enterprise society. The same can be said about the Falkland Islands. They are able to receive that great income only because of the great time, effort and expense put, rightly, into defending them. Given how hard-pressed our defence budget is at present and how hard-pressed it will continue to be, it would not be unfair to ask the Falkland Islands Government to make a contribution to our defence costs. I hope that the Government will do that.
Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe) : I hope that the House will bear with me if I speak both in the light of the Statement on Defence Estimates for 1989 and in the context of recent momentous events. The defence White Paper addresses the role and equipment of the armed forces including the Army, in chapter three. It deals in its opening chapters with the recent and significant developments that must be in all our minds, such as the challenge of arms control. However, I hope that none of us will overlook NATO's 40th anniversary. In the treatment of arms control in chapter two, I can detect the welcome hand of Sir Michael Quinlan, permanent Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Defence. No one more experienced, more authoritative or more eloquent could have been called upon to perform this exacting and sensitive task.
It is hard for many of us to remember what Europe was like in 1949-- exhausted and discouraged, with its economies in ruins. That was 40 years ago. Everyone born in north America and western Europe since then has been brought up under the strength of NATO's sheltering wings. Our vitality has revived and our common defence has been assured. That is no coincidence.
From the beginning, NATO was more than a security system. It provided the means of expression of a common purpose and a common vision. It established a community of values which bound together a growing number of nations in north America and western Europe. I am proud to say that I attended its anniversary ceremony in Brussels in April. Let us wish NATO in its 40th year many peaceful and happy returns of the day. In the immortal words of the great Sophie Tucker, might we not also say of NATO,
Column 406"Life begins at forty"? All of us wonder about the next role for NATO. I believe that it will have, not simply another lease of life, but a more meaningful one.
We are debating the Army at a time of growing optimism throughout the world, with the intermediate nuclear forces treaty and the opening of the Vienna negotiations. I am proud to say that I visited Vienna last month. I visited at least half of the arms control national delegations and I can testify to the new climate there. Unlike the mood at the time of the mutual balanced force reductions there is a sense of optimism, purpose and a determination not to get bogged down. We are going places in Vienna. I am confident that we shall get results and some people are now talking about results as early as a year hence--that is, the preliminary results, not the implementation. Is this not exciting, because clearly we are on the verge of a new chapter in the difficult history of East-West relations?
I found the Soviet arms control delegation just as anxious to get results as the United States delegation and our own. I went from one to the other and back again. However, it would be wrong to think that all has changed for the good in eastern Europe as a result of Mr. Gorbachev's policies. Many human rights problems remain, so as we go forward Alliance cohesion will prove critical if we are to shape a more promising world. We cannot possibly imagine that recent developments have changed everything. The Soviet Union will remain a heavily over-armed society. Without a secure Alliance defence, it could be increasingly tempted to believe that it has the risk-free option of using force or threatening to use force against us. Intentions are not the same as capabilities and intentions can change overnight, at little cost. They have done so frequently in modern Soviet history. Furthermore, not all capability categories were covered by Mr. Gorbachev in his United Nations speech last December. He covered battlefield firepower, but not
manoeuvrability--that is availability, readiness and deployment--air defence, air attack, combined forces, mobilisation and reinforcement.
Let us consider military industrial capacity, whatever the consumer constraints in the Soviet Union. Can the Minister confirm reports that Soviet tank production levels are actually rising? I am thinking of the FST1 and the T80. Yet at the same time Mr. Gorbachev calls for a reduction in tank deployment. Whatever may be true of justice, it is not true of peace that
"It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven".
We must work for it, with a stout heart and a cool nerve. Within the Alliance, we must work for peace together. Unity and determination must be our watchwords.
Last week the NATO summit demonstrated that there is much on which the Alliance agrees. It agrees that the Alliance continues to provide a framework of stability and that within that framework the 16 free European and north American nations should work together to pursue the Harmel guidelines. It also agrees that true security in Europe continues to require the presence of United States forces, both nuclear and conventional. However, beyond that we run into real difficulties--not new, but real, difficulties.
What level of forces do we require for deterrence? What type of nuclear forces do we need and where should they be deployed so that the risks, as well as the proven benefits, are fairly distributed? To what levels can we safely reduce,
Column 407and what would such adjustments imply for forward defence and flexible response? That is one kind of difficulty, which does not concern Opposition Members or the House exclusively ; it is broadly based throughout the Alliance.
Another difficulty has to do with how we can make sense of the changes taking place in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. The North Atlantic Assembly believes--I know that my colleagues on both sides of the House will know that what I am saying is well founded--that parliamentarians, unconstrained by necessary adherence to formal Government positions, can bring a fresh perspective to NATO's deliberations, blending an understanding of, and concern for, military aspects of NATO's plans with a knowledge of the underlying reality of public opinion.
That is where we come in. No one is better placed to speak about public opinion than we are, and it is on the change. All parties represented in the North Atlantic Assembly are determined to question and confront even the most sacrosanct and sensitive elements of current NATO policy.
On the other hand, we also believe that the Western Alliance must test to the full the promises of current Soviet rhetoric. If the Soviets continue to invest heavily in military capability, that must say something about their long-term intentions towards us. As long as the Soviet Union's security and foreign policies are not subject to democratic control, NATO must keep up its guard. No defence means no de tente, which, in turn, means no lasting change for the better. The estimates show that spending is set to rise marginally. The increase is less than the rate of inflation and hence amounts to a real cut. Most concern today, therefore, will focus on the details of how the money is to be spent and how it will affect the Army. Real spending on equipment will be cut by perhaps 10 per cent., and this is the year when the uncuttable spending on Trident is near its all- time high, so conventional equipment will suffer badly. No service will avoid going without some things that are needed. Some procurement programmes will be extended, which costs money in the long term. The White Paper does not tell Members of Parliament--never mind the voters--what they need to know. How will the equipment cuts be managed and how much will individual items of equipment cost? The White Paper does not say much about what is being done to deal with the manpower crisis to which the Minister admitted in his opening speech. That is crucial in present conditions. Are some combat units operating under strength for example?
The White Paper confirms that the Army will get its seventh regiment of Challenger tanks. But the Army also has a vital need for modern artillery and anti-tank weaponry. It is good news that the Army is to start to deploy MLRS--the multi-launch rocket system--next year, but when will the collaborative family of third generation anti-tank missile systems--TRIGAT- -come into service? The Minister also confirmed that the improved Westland Lynx Mark 7 anti-tank helicopter is now being deployed in support of 1(BR) Corps in West Germany. But when will it receive infra-red TOW roof sight modules, secure radios and Ferranti AWARE radar warning receivers?
Evidence of overstretch can also be found elsewhere in the Alliance. Increases in defence spending by all our allies
Column 408are unlikely because of budgetary pressures. The need will grow for more cost-effective equipment procurement, more support for the European procurement group, IEPG, more efficient deployment of resources to improve the teeth-to-tail ratio, better use of reserves and more practical co-operation between allies--that is, an examination of appropriate roles, risks and responsibilities in the Alliance, not only in the NATO area but in other vital theatres such as the Gulf. Henceforth, all of us in the Alliance will have to think smarter, not richer.
There are other lessons of the past to be remembered and stringent conditions for our success that cannot conveniently be wished away. I refer again to strong defence. A strong defence is as
necessary--perhaps more so--in times of movement such as we have witnessed, sadly, on the other side of the world in recent days as in times when the status quo prevails.
United, the Western Alliance will determine events. Having rebuilt western Europe and assured the strength and cohesion of the West, NATO can fulfil its second great historic task--to facilitate peaceful change in the East. I envisage a second and more meaningful lease of life for NATO. It is the best institutional device that could be created to fulfil a number of necessary functions : first, to co-ordinate joint verification ; secondly, to monitor East and West compliance ; and, thirdly, to provide sanctions for violations. If NATO did not exist, we would need to invent it. There is nothing available to us that can work so effectively for East-West reconciliation and ultimately the ending of the painful and grotesque division of Europe.
Dame Janet Fookes (Plymouth, Drake) : I wish to deal with only one theme tonight because I am aware of your injunction, Mr. Speaker, at the outset of the debate, that we should bear in mind the fact that others wish to speak. You, Sir, addressed your remarks to hon. Gentlemen ; I like to feel that that was because you felt that a lady would not need such an injunction.
Both the Minister and the Opposition Front Bench spokesman touched on my theme, which relates to the future manpower requirements of the Army, bearing in mind the alarming trend in the number of young people which will become evident by the mid-1990s. The Minister said that by 1994 there would be 20 per cent. fewer 15 to 19-year-olds coming forward. Already concern is being expressed about recruitment in the Army and the problem is likely to get worse unless urgent steps are taken. After all, it is not only the Army that is looking for bright young people--it is the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, the police and, of course, industry and the professions. I suspect that there will be something of a rat race and that we shall need more than attractive television advertisements to recruit. I noted with pleasure the Minister's reference to making greater use of women in the armed services, particularly in the Army. I was not altogether surprised to hear him say that it was still not the intention to change the long- standing convention and rule that women should not be used in direct combat. I hope that my hon. Friend may consider the matter and perhaps come to modify his views in later years. It seems to me that in every sphere women are now treated on equal terms with men and it is a pity that they should not be given more encouragement in the Army. It will be an interesting race between the Army and
Column 409the Church of England. We shall have to wait and see which can hold out longest against admitting women to its innermost portals. More seriously, I think that we shall need to look closely at the role of women and make a greater role for them in the coming years. If recruitment techniques are important, so also is retention. That brings me to the main burden of my remarks--the question of retaining those who have already been persuaded to enter the Army. The statistics are not favourable. My understanding is that over the past five years the early loss of trained personnel has increased by some 70 per cent. When one thinks of the wastage that that represents in public funds and of the wastage to the Army in losing those who have most to offer, it is most worrying.
What are the reasons? In my view, one of the outstanding reasons as it affects the Army is the concern and discontent felt about housing arrangements. It affects all the armed services, but the Army bears a disproportionate amount of the burden--far more than the Royal Navy and more than the RAF. It springs from the nature of Army service. At any one time, more than half our Army personnel are away from mainland Britain, and even when they are in Britain they may be widely dispersed, far away from their natural homes.
Reference has already been made to the encouragement by the Ministry of Defence for people in the services to own their own homes. That is put forward as an admirable aim, as no doubt in many ways it is, but I do not believe that sufficient thought has been given to the peculiar difficulties which arise for Army personnel. Because they are so often away from home, they are obliged to be in quarters for which they have to pay. If they cannot live in their own homes, they have to let them--assuming that they can find suitable tenants who will pay up and look after the property.
I know from my membership of the council of the Soldiers' Sailors' and Airmen's Families Association that innumerable horror stories are circulating about difficult tenants. What is more, the tenancies have to be managed, and often the agents take 15 to 20 per cent. of the rent. So the unfortunate soldier is squeezed between paying for his quarters on the one hand and all the difficulties of letting a property on the other.
The alternative--not buying at all--means that on leaving the service, whether prematurely or at the end of a full term of service, the soldier has the major problem of seeking to buy a home. When one thinks of the increase in property prices over the years, one realises that there is no way in which a service man can get easily into the market. It is not surprising, therefore, that under persuasion from wives and families generally a great many promising young men are leaving the service early.
I have here a letter from the controller of SSAFA, Major-General Charles Grey, who wrote to me as an MP and as a member of the governing council of SSAFA because SSAFA sees at first hand the difficulties which arise. I quote briefly from his letter : "As you may know, SSAFA has about 6,000 volunteers in its UK network. They cover every town and village in the country and provide trained caseworker support for Service and ex-Service families in need, or difficulty of any description. These local workers have been representing
Column 410increasingly strongly about the number of homeless ex-Service families in their areas, particularly from the Army."
He also refers to the network of services, professional and voluntary, retained by SSAFA overseas and adds :
"We are now regularly faced with evidence of a widespread sense of apprehension and insecurity--particularly among Army families. This is directly attributable to their perceived housing difficulties." Later he says :
"Service manning is not our problem ; but no one in close touch with every variety of Service family, as we are, can doubt that vast sums spent on training are being wasted for want of the comparatively small investment necessary to allow families a sense of future housing security."
That is the problem. What of the solution? I have worked closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier)--I hope, Mr. Speaker, that he will catch your eye later in the debate--who has been instrumental in bringing forward an excellent scheme. He has even proposed a new clause for the Finance Bill as the proposed scheme has tax implications. Briefly, it is an armed forces house purchase savings scheme. It seeks to allow various savings institutions, such as building societies, banks and insurance companies, to take part in a savings scheme through which a service man could save money with the same tax incentives as people in civilian life, so that at the end of the day he will have sufficient money to enable him to buy a house. The rental portion of his accommodation charges would be treated as an interest payment and the relief that he would get on that would be paid to the institution, presumably on a monthly basis. He could also add voluntary savings which would attract the same tax relief as is given to a civilian buying a house.
That proposal seems eminently sensible, and far better than trying to devise elaborate schemes to support service men buying their own houses too early when it does not make sense for them to do so. I hope that I am pushing at an open door in relation to my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Ministry of Defence, but I am concerned about my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Treasury, who are not noted for their immediate espousal of imaginative schemes which in some way affect taxation--they have to be made to see that there is a real problem in retaining manpower in the services and that while they may be saving a small amount in immediate taxation, the millions that are being wasted on people who leave the services too early have to be set against that. So far as I can see, the Treasury is not fond of sums of that kind because they do not fit into its rigid thinking. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Ministry of Defence to make the strongest possible representations to Treasury Ministers to ensure that they understand the wider implications and not just the narrow concepts so beloved of that Department of State.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces will deal with that subject in his reply to the debate and that he will give us a word of encouragement. If there is one thing that could be done to retain much-needed Army personnel at a time of increasingly shrinking numbers of young people, that proposal would do a great deal to solve the problem. I commend it to the House and to the Government.
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Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East) : I am sure that I speak for many hon. Members when I say that we find ourselves totally in accord with the thoughtful and perceptive observations of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes).
In support of what was said by the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates), may I draw to the attention of Ministers the difficulties that the community charge is creating for serving men and women in the three armed services? I have a constituent who is a private in a Scottish regiment. He has chosen to buy his own house in my constituency, but he has recently been posted to a Scottish barracks. He pays a personal community charge in the district to which he has been posted but, because he has his own house which is unoccupied, he has to pay a standard community charge, that having been expressed in Scotland as a multiplier of two. That means that from the income of a private he pays three community charges. That appears to be an extraordinary burden to put on someone who has to go where he is sent and who has taken the entirely responsible and, as I am sure the House would agree, reasonable step of buying his own home. I hope that that is a matter that the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence will look at with far greater sympathy and understanding than has necessarily been displayed in such matters up to now.
I shall say a word or two about the events of the past week, which have bulked to a certain extent in the speeches we have already heard. I am well aware that loyalty is at a premium on the Government Benches, but I am sure that even the Prime Minister's most exuberant supporters would find it difficult to consider that her conduct of events in the immediate period up to the 40th anniversary celebrations of NATO should be regarded as a model for others to follow or, indeed, for her to follow on some future occasion. The strength of any alliance depends on the unity of its members and on the unity of its purpose. In the case of an alliance of democratic countries, having as its central purpose the preservation of democratic values, it appears all the more necessary that there should be tolerance and understanding amongst its members. Negotiating with one's allies as if they were one's enemies is hardly likely to cement an alliance. It may be emotionally satisfying, and even politically self-justifying, but it is much more likely to lead to decisions which represent the least common denominator rather than the highest common factor.
Nor in an alliance as diverse as NATO is such an alliance to be easily preserved if there is no sensitivity amongst its members about the domestic political circumstances of each other. Just as the British Army makes a substantial contribution of the highest quality to the military effort of NATO, so too should the British Government be willing to make a similar contribution to the joint political effort of the Alliance. I doubt very much that Chancellor Kohl, never mind Mr. Genscher, felt that our Prime Minister's attitude in the period immediately prior to Brussels was one that took account of the interests of Federal Germany or, indeed, the interests of NATO. We maintain such units of the British Army as we do in Federal Germany for the purposes of the Alliance. Anything that diminishes the strength of the Alliance, potentially or actually, diminishes the effectiveness of our military contribution.
Column 412Nor are we able now to ignore the geography of Europe and its history. Germany sits at its centre able to look east or west for expansion. In the past, such expansion took a physical form and a military one, but the strength of Federal Germany, at least today, lies in its economic capacity. It is little wonder then that President Bush pays attention to Chancellor Kohl's concerns. With the United States of America's balance of payments and budget deficits, he has little alternative. Defending a weakening dollar against a strengthening deutschmark requires a sensitivity to the political circumstances of federal Germany.
In the vacuum caused by the abnormally long running-in period of the Bush Administration, the United Kingdom had a remarkable opportunity to be a bridge between Europe and the United States. We did not take that chance ; rather we used the time to take up positions from which ultimately we had to depart, even on the most optimistic Government interpretation of the comprehensive concept. I believe that the whole House would join in applauding the initiative taken by Mr. Bush. It is an initiative that can justifiably be described as bold and imaginative, because, quite apart from its own intrinsic merit, it had the effect of putting to the test the statements and the offers previously made by Mr. Gorbachev. The initiative underlined that the key to arms reductions at any level in Europe is parity in conventional forces. That is self-evident from the terms of paragraph 48 of the comprehensive concept. However, there is an old rule of interpretation of documents, which is that one should always read them as a whole and not paragraph by paragraph or sentence by sentence. When one looks at the relationship between paragraph 48 and paragraph 49--the paragraph that provides that no decision about the follow-on to Lance will be taken until 1992--it is not difficult to comprehend that, if what is proposed in paragraph 48 has come to pass, or is even reasonably within grasp, there must be great doubt that there will be a political will in the United States to proceed with a follow-on to Lance. Paragraph 48, therefore, is not the end of the story. Indeed, it contains within it, when read with paragraph 49, the mechanism for its own obsolescence.
If the Bush initiative leads to a reduction in the number of United States troops stationed in western Europe, that inevitably will mean that in Europe we may have to assume, relatively, a larger responsibility for our own defence in the provision of conventional forces. That must have implications for all the armed services, but particularly the Army, and especially in the light of the demographic trends which have already been mentioned. Those trends work against the Army as much as they work against any other form of employment. When the debate began, I like others, was minded to say that I was awaiting with interest the publication of the Government study on manpower, the MARILYN exercise, but we learned, almost as soon as the debate began, that an abridged version had been placed in the Library. I understand from members of the Select Committee that the abridged version has been available to some of them for several weeks. I believe, putting the matter no higher than this, that it is unfortunate that those of us who have an interest in these matters were not given an opportunity to make some study of that document in
Column 413advance of the debate. Apart from anything else, it would have helped us to make comments or observations which, if not any wiser, should at least have been better informed.
Mr. Archie Hamilton : I should put the hon. and learned Gentleman right on that matter. The Select Committee was given an abridged version of the MARILYN report, but that was a classified version. It is the unclassified version that is now in the Library.
Mr. Campbell : I accept the Minister's explanation, although I note that it did not come with an apology. I still think that it is unfortunate that those of us who have an interest in these matters were not able to be better informed before the debate began. Those manpower difficulties make it all the more difficult to understand the Government's failure to accept in their entirety the conclusions of the Defence Committee on the future of the Gurkhas. The Minister said something about the Gurkhas when he opened the debate. However, although what he said may have been slightly different in tone, it was no different in substance from what was said when the announcement was made some weeks ago. It is notable to remind ourselves that the Defence Committee argued for the same number of men and for no reduction in the number of Gurkha battalions. The Government's proposal is to reduce the number of troops by half and to reduce the number of battalions from five to four.
Apart from any moral obligation, which quite a number of hon. Members feel we have towards the Gurkhas, the manpower demands of the Army--as the Chairman of the Defence Committee trenchantly pointed out--should surely dictate acceptance of the Defence Committee's entire recommendations. I add the rider, which to some extent has already been anticipated by the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill), that recent events in Hong Kong, where the Gurkhas are stationed for certain specific tasks, should be the subject of careful analysis to establish clearly whether the decision-- which, if not taken, has at least been proposed--is one to which the Government should adhere in the light of circumstances which may clearly be subject to radical change.
There appears to be some evidence that recruitment may be easier in areas of the United Kingdom where there is a traditional geographical link with particular regiments. I am sorry that the Secretary of State is not here today because I wanted to remind him of his notable participation in the campaign to save the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a regiment based at Stirling castle, of which he was a distinguished officer who saw active service. The regiment had a particular link with Stirling and the surrounding countryside. I hope that the Government will take account, in what I hope will be a sophisticated approach to the recruitment problem, of the fact that such local loyalty frequently can be a much more effective recruiting sergeant than simply giving opportunities to those interested in the Army to be assigned to a regiment with which they have neither family nor geographical ties.
I wish briefly to deal with two matters to which some reference has already been made. The first is the position of ethnic minorities within the armed forces. It would be folly to pretend that that issue could be easily resolved, but
Column 414it must be the case that admission to a particular regiment, however distinguished, and promotion within the Army should depend on ability and nothing else. Not only must that be the policy of the Ministry of Defence ; it must be the reality. The House looks to the Minister to give us some reassurance on that matter.
With regard to the Territorial Army, if the demographic trends persist, that branch of the services will have to assume greater burdens. I hope that the Government will act to make membership of the TA as attractice as possible, not least to those who opt for early retirement from the armed services. I do not believe that the issue is necessarily simply one of money ; it probably lies in a proper recognition of the role of the TA and the provision of up-to-date equipment and proper oppor-tunities for training. I do not expect the Minister to tell us this evening of the progress of the demonstration phase of the Challenger 2 project, but he knows that a number of hon. Members believe that the effect of the decision of 20 December 1988 was to put Vickers on probation. We await the results of the demonstration phase with great interest. It might be of some help if the Minister could say when he expects to be in a position to give the House some information ; or are we to wait until the whole of the demonstration phase has been completed? Like other hon. Members, I have been extensively lobbied by the companies bidding for the contract to supply 5,000 four-tonne trucks to the Army over the next few years. They have been generous with their briefings and modest with their hospitality. It is as well that they have not sought to transpose those adjectives. All the companies make persuasive cases. Those of us who do not have access to the results of the assessment tests, or who have no particular expertise, are undoubtedly at a great disadvantage.
I accept that a whole range of factors must be taken into account--the buy- back scheme, for example, that has been proposed by one of those competing for the contract ; the proposal of another to make a large investment at Irvine, which lies close to the boundary of the Secretary of State's constituency--who would no doubt deal with that matter with his usual objectivity ; others who make high claims for the United Kingdom content of the vehicles to be produced ; others who emphasise the costs and others the ability of their company to fulfil the contract if awarded, thereby seeking to draw unfair comparisons with other companies. I suggest that the criteria to be adopted should be that the product chosen must be the best for the job. Financial considerations are important, but the Government should not be seduced by them into accepting a tender for a vehicle which, on capability grounds alone, they would not accept. The men and women of the British Army are heirs to a long and valuable tradition. Their professionalism is recognised wherever they go. They can be called upon at any time to fight in dangerous conditions and they keep the peace in difficult and dangerous circumstances in Northern Ireland. They are often called upon when public services either decline or are unable to discharge their responsibilities. Those men and women deserve our commendation ; they also deserve our practical support.
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Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) : Exactly three weeks ago, almost to the hour, I was struggling to get on an aeroplane to take me out of Shanghai to Hong Kong in what was clearly a rapidly deteriorating situation. I was told that flights were fully booked until the middle of this month. I did manage to get out of Shanghai, and I am conscious of the extreme stress of those who, in the worsening crisis of the past few days, must have faced a real emergency in trying to get out with their families and whatever belongings they could take.
On 22 May I was with the Gurkhas on the borders of Hong Kong. It was the day my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made his statement about the future of the brigade. My tour of China had been with the defence committee of the Western European Union, and had begun with a unit of the People's Liberation Army just outside Peking, although soldiers were not yet very much in evidence in the city. The students were much in evidence, as they were in Xi'an and Shanghai.
I do not wish to be too anecdotal, but when I reached Hong Kong I was struck by the optimism of the Brigade of Gurkhas and the strong feeling among its officers that the bottom figure of 4,000 quoted by my right hon. Friend would never be reached and that the Crown would have at least as much need of the brigade, probably in numbers almost up to its present strength, as far ahead as could be foreseen. Of course, the unit most under threat is the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Gurkhas, but I was told that it had been under similar threat before and had twice escaped disbandment in recent years.
If we study what has happened in China in recent days, and if we coolly and rationally re-examine our policy towards Hong Kong, I am sure that we would all accept that it would be wise to heed the warning of the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) and not pursue the policy announced just as though nothing had happened. The roles of the Gurkhas in Hong Kong--the 48th Brigade--include the maintenance of British sovereignty to 30 June 1997 ; support of the civil authorities and the Royal Hong Kong Police in the maintenance and stability of security ; training for limited war operations ; assistance to the civil community in the event of natural or other disaster ; and the prevention of illegal immigration to Hong Kong. In 1987, no fewer than 22,000 illegal immigrants were arrested at the borders of Hong Kong.
The scale and dimension of the problem of the Vietnamese boat people has afflicted Hong Kong to a growing extent in recent weeks. Her Majesty's Government claim that this immigration problem is merely the result of economic pressures. Nearly all refugees in history have come, at least in part, to take the terrible decision to leave their homes as a result of economic pressures. We must also bear in mind the fact that the Government of the People's Republic of Vietnam have not condemned the action of the People's Liberation Army in brutally crushing the students and other freedom-loving people. Therefore, I should have thought that, at least in part, the motivation of the boat people was to escape a politically unacceptable regime.
We hope that sense will prevail and that peace will be re-established in the People's Republic of China. If it is not, there is the threat of a major immigration problem on the frontiers of Hong Kong. Undoubtedly, if that
Column 416movement of people were to persist into the future the Gurkhas would be very much needed. All the security forces involved in the apprehension of illegal immigrants would be required. The plans of Her Majesty's Government call from 1991 for the disbandment of the Royal Hong Kong Regiment, the Volunteers, who play an important part in the policing of the border. I hope that the timescale within which their disbandment is envisaged will also be re-examined.
I trust also that the Government--in view of the circumstances that have manifested themselves so horrifically in the People's Republic--will review their policy on the issue of British passports with the right of abode in the United Kingdom for ex-members of the Royal Hong Kong Regiment who, as former servants of the Crown, must prima facie view with considerable apprehension their future in Hong Kong under the sovereignty of the People's Republic after July 1997.
Another aspect of the plans of Her Majesty's Government is the withdrawal of the first of the Gurkha battalion of 48 Brigade from Hong Kong in 1992. You, Mr. Speaker, will have recollections of partition in India in 1947. You may still have been serving in the Indian Army in those dark days of mid-August 1947. The lesson of the past few days must be that it would be extremely unwise of the British authorities in Hong Kong to diminish the forces of the Crown available to support the civil power and police the frontier before the handover of power. Nature abhors a vacuum, and at a time of political uncertainty the vacuum created by the diminution of physical power could have alarming consequences.
On Sunday 21 May, my wife and I marched in Hong Kong with a huge and, at that time, apprehensive but not yet angry crowd of 500,000 people demonstrating peacefully in favour of the demands of the students and other freedom-loving people in the People's Republic. I felt then that the demonstrations in China could only end in tears. My other strong feeling at the conclusion of that march--it was the biggest demonstration ever in the colony's history--was that the peaceful manifestation of deep feeling on behalf of Chinese people in Hong Kong in favour of the aspirations of fellow Chinamen in the People's Republic could quickly turn to deep bitterness and to nasty anti-British kinds of riot.
Since then, sad to say, there have been some riots in Hong Kong but--thank goodness--they have not got out of control. Any diminution in the British military presence in Hong Kong too soon, however, could be extremely dangerous because in the last resort that presence is needed as an aid to the civil power.
Something else leads me to question the Government's decision, so far in advance of the handover of power in Hong Kong in 1997, to make at least outline decisions about the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas. The point was well outlined by the Chairman of our Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates). The so-called demographic trough is now extremely alarming. We have a shortfall of about 5 per cent. in the infantry and the very nadir of the demographic trough will occur when the rundown of the Brigade of Gurkhas is due to start.
Traditionally, 80 per cent. of Army recruits are taken from the 16-to-19 age range. That has been the consistent pattern. Of that age range within the population as a whole, in the last decade the Army has on average recruited 0.8 per cent. By 1993, the number of 16-year-olds
Column 417in the population will have dropped from the present 400,000 to 332,000, and in 1995 the low point for that age bracket will be reached. If the Army in the mid-1990s is still to obtain 80 per cent. of its recruits from that age bracket and maintain the target of recruiting it has set of 20,000 per year, the proportion of males recruited will have to go up from 0.8 to 1.2 per cent. per annum. Throughout the last decade, except in 1980, the figure has hardly ever exceeded 0.8 per cent. That is why it is rash for the Government even to suggest such a large reduction in the Brigade of Gurkhas.
Events in China have brought home to us the age-old lesson that the unexpected always happens. Not long ago we were looking to China and thinking that a magnificent reformist programme would transform the economy, that we could enjoy arms sales, have military exchanges perhaps and have a healthier relationship to our mutual good. Those hopes have been dashed and, undoubtedly, there are security policy remifications for the region--not least for Hong Kong.
There are also lessons for areas of potential instability nearer home. In an earlier intervention, I cited the ethnic unrest in Armenia, Uzbekistan and Georgia. We do not know how that pattern of ethnic unrest will develop. It could certainly lead to desperate Communist leaderships using force to suppress the national aspirations and, possible the aspirations for liberty and democracy within the countries of eastern Europe and the Soviet empire in Europe. If that were to occur, the instability could overspill and pose a threat to our security. Therefore, we should have at least the flexibility which a sensible manpower policy in our Army would allow.
In the past, we have been able substantially to increase the numbers in the Brigade of Gurkhas. In future, by closing the depot at Dharan in eastern Nepal, it will be made much harder. That is the kind of pettifogging, mean economy which absolutely baffles me. The Ministry of Defence wastes hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money without seeming to bat an eyelid, appearing to suggest that it is merely £1 billion down the drain on the Nimrod airborne early warning system. The Foxhunter radar, the alarm and anti-radiation missile, EH101, the command and control system for the type 23 have all overrun on cost. The number of examples is stupendous and horrifying. However, for an institution such as the depot of the Brigade of Gurkhas in Nepal, which costs £4 million per year to run and where the British military hospital carries out invaluable work for the local community at costs of only £2.5 million a year to run, the Government cannot find the money.
The Government have a disregard for the effect on the local community and the loyalty of the people of Nepal, particularly eastern Nepal, who have given sterling service to the Crown, which I find staggering. It could just be that the optimism of those officers in Hong Kong on Monday 22 May will prove justified. Events may turn out so that we need more Gurkhas than we think, and we may even conceivably need more than the 8,000 which are in the Brigade of Gurkhas now. If that is so, it will be difficult to achieve the necessary expansion without the depot at Dahran.
In case there are any fallacious ideas floating around that Gurkhas cannot cope with the sophisticated
Column 418equipment on the central front in Europe, if the average squaddie in Glasgow, Liverpool, Newcastle or London manages to cope with basic infantry skills and jump out of the back of an armoured personnel carrier I do not think that Gurkhas will find it any more difficult. As my right hon. Friend said,
"The Gurkhas are not only extremely good soldiers who fought extremely well in many different conditions and theatres, but are clearly very adaptable. I have no doubt that they can cope with any task that they are given."-- [ Official Report, 22 May 1989 ; Vol. 153, c. 1092.]
I hope that Her Majesty's Government will respond accordingly. 6.54 pm
Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North) : I could not rise and catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, at a more appropriate moment, because I want to crave the indulgence of the Chamber and start where the hon. Member for Ruislip- Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) left off. I wish to refer to the record of that statement and the questions of that day. You and hon. Members who were present will recall that I said :
"The Secretary of State will recall that at the time of press speculation and comment when the Select Committee was considering the Gurkha's future, one school of thought of questionable origin was that the Gurkhas may be suitable for one type of warfare but not for another. I refer not to Northern Ireland but to their role in high tech, modern rapid response situations. The suggestion made in the media was that perhaps the Gurkhas do not think quickly enough. Will the right hon. Gentleman put that argument to bed once and for all and counter it, here and now?"--[ Official Report , 22 May 1989 ; Vol. 153, c. 691.]
Thank heavens, the Secretary of State did so and graciously thanked me for the opportunity. Furthermore, outside the Chamber in the corridor by the Tea Room, he expressed particular thanks for my having given him the opportunity.
However, the very next day in a newspaper, the despicable opinions to which I referred were attributed to me personally without any reference to the fact that I pleaded with the Secretary of State to counter and dispel them. In addition, the said edition of The Times of 23 May edited in similar fashion the response of the Secretary of State. I do not mind an element of spite creeping into reports from time to time, but when it is quite so selective, judicious and partisan, I object to it. I hope that hon. Members will not mind if I correct the record today. Perhaps that newspaper will have the decency to tell its readership tomorrow, if only because it might correct the opinions expressed in some of the mail which I have received, which has been particularly critical of the wrongly attributed opinion.
To remove any doubt, not only myself, but colleagues within the parliamentary Labour party and those whom I have met on my military visits, have the highest regard for the ability, loyalty, allegiance, fighting and peace-serving qualities of the Gurkhas. It is despicable for newspaper-men to allow their spite to boil over in such an uncontrollable way.
Much has been made tonight of the Select Committee report on the Gurkhas. The Gurkha units have always proved to be effective in a military sense and efficacious in a cost-saving sense. There is no doubt about that. At this time, when brigade commanders are being encouraged to
Column 419count their pennies carefully and control their own budgets, I should remind the House that the Gurkha units are competitive in that way.
Before we come to a definite decision on the future of the Gurkhas, leaving aside for the moment the proposals on paper, we should remember that we are talking about, not necessarily a "cheap" form of providing for defence, because that is the wrong word, but a cost-effective form. The Gurkhas can be used in most effective roles, not only in Hong Kong but throughout the spheres of influence in which we play a defensive role.
Mr. Mates : I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. The Gurkhas are cost-effective not merely in the way that he described, but because they join the service for a full 15-year term. Therefore, the return on investment and the level of experience grows in each Gurkha battalion. That is in sharp distinction to the recruitment of the British Army, where the average length of service is only five years.
Mr. Cook : The hon. and gallant Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) terrifies the life out of me. I cannot allow this agreement to go too far. He steals the words from my mouth, but he says them with a great deal more elegance than I could. I thank him for his intervention. He is absolutely right.
I exhort the Minister to be careful before making any decision on the future of those Gurkha units because nothing could be worse than removing such effective combat units from our store.
Reference has also been made to NATO and its changing ideas and outlook. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy), the President of the North Atlantic Assembly, dealt with that in detail. I want to draw hon. Members' attention to some of the views expressed a fortnight ago at the spring session by the spokesperson for NIAG. For those who do not know what that stands for I shall quote its spokesperson. He said :
"The acronym stands for NATO Industrial Advisory Group, and the NIAG is one of the six main groups reporting directly to the Conference of National Armaments Directors ... It is composed of delegations of industrialists from each of the NATO nations except Luxembourg and Iceland".
Therefore, it is truly representative.
The spokesperson for NIAG said :
"all of NIAG's efforts are multi-national and collaborative we would find ourselves being forced into collaborative programmes by the irresistible force of economics no nation can any longer afford to produce, by itself, all of the defence equipment that it needs Just think of the number of programmes which are being kept alive for political reasons only The political life machine is going to have to be turned off, and political' programmes allowed to die We must face the fact that, for the foreseeable future, the military budgets of NATO nations, at the very best, will be maintained at the zero growth level and, more realistically they are headed down the trend is very definitely toward fewer programmes not even the US can afford by itself to produce everything it needs The military of the various countries are going to be forced to rationalise their requirements so that, hopefully, those weapons that are produced will be produced in larger quantities and unit costs can be reduced the days have gone when the answer could be found within Europe alone. In the interest not only of affordability but of ensuring that the products that are built are the very best that technology can provide, the industrial collaboration has got to be transatlantic".
The unasked question is not merely where do we get our arms, but how do we get them. The Government tell us that we must have competition in order to obtain