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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker) : Order. Three hon. Members are still seeking to catch my eye. I understand that Front Bench spokesmen hope to begin their replies at 9.25 pm. I hope that hon. Members will pay regard to the arithmetic.
I wish to follow the splendid speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes) and discuss not overall Army responsibilities or materials supply, but the most pressing matter of how we are to man the equipment in future years. There is a vital need for the Army to retain its personnel and to recruit those needed to man our defence forces. The Minister's speech clearly recognised the problem. It has certainly been recognised by every unit that I have visited during the past year and a half, and there were quite a number of them. We recognise not only the demographic decline but the
Column 444inevitable civilian competition from those who want to employ the very people that the Army needs, such as specialists and personnel of intelligence and initiative.
The manning of missiles and tanks depends on retaining the personnel. To achieve that, we must provide the soldier with a good career--and that means not just satisfying the soldier, but satisfying his wife and children so that they will want him to stay in the Army. The foundation of that satisfaction must be the knowledge that, after whatever length of service, the soldier will have a happy resettlement--to use current economic jargon, a soft landing. To achieve that a number of issues must be tackled. A better degree of training both for the soldier and his wife is required. Of course, SSAFA helps with training and others also lend a hand. The soldier and his wife need to learn the skills to allow them to set up home in civilian life with a great more ease than is currently the case. In home postings, especially in the south of England, it is relatively easy for wives to get jobs, but a great deal of hardship occurs in away-from-home postings. I saw this clearly when I visited Holywood in Northern Ireland, where a regiment had gone for two years. The wives had followed their husbands and found that there was no work there for them. Wives with skills who had had good jobs in Aldershot found themselves offered the most menial tasks on the Down coast, and of course they found that disconcerting.
Something must be done to help the wife who must give up her job to follow her husband, and we want wives to accompany their husbands. I cannot see why, for those who have been in employment, some unemployment benefit could not be payable when they move overseas or to Ireland. Nor do I understand why, alone among those who serve the state, we ask them to pay for accommodation overseas. Perhaps we should consider--the Navy appears to be doing this with great success--initiating the custom of periodic bonuses for those who stay on as their service progresses.
I am anxious to keep my remarks short and will leave out much of what I would otherwise have said. I must, however, refer to the problem of housing and the growing feeling of discontent among people as they progress through their service lives and feel that they will not be able to get a home when they come out. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) made a number of suggestions. Those and similar proposals have been made time and again, but tonight I have time only to commend them.
As one who has not given a vestige of support to the community charge from beginning to end, for Scotland or anywhere else, I feel that what we propose for the Army by way of the community charge needs thinking through. When a regiment is told that at the appropriate time it will move to inner London on guard duty, its reception to that news must be like the sepoys' reception in the middle of the last century to being given greasy cartridges, which they did not like. I do not know what a soldier will do when told that he is to go into Westminster where, whatever is said, the community charge will be £500 to £600 a head. How will soldiers pay that, and why should they pay it? I need say no more about homelessness or the community charge.
We spend enormous sums retraining people, and we lose those who are trained at enormous cost. Any rational application of economics and cost- effectiveness must show
Column 445that a tiny proportion of money spent on making life better for those who are already in the services would pay handsomely. It is a question of making the wives feel not just that their men are contented husbands. We want them to continue to want to help them remain contented. In that way they will be content to be the wives, and families, of soldiers. Unless we tackle the matter in that spirit we shall have losses, and they will be inexcusable.
Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead) : I wish at the outset to thank the Minister for at last allowing the rebuilding of Victoria barracks, Windsor, for which I have been pressing for eight years. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman) was good enough to come with me to see the site and, following that, the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces announced in a written reply that he had given
"Approval to proceed with the rebuilding of Victoria barracks on the site of the old barracks at Windsor",--[ Official Report, 18 May 1989 ; Vol. 153, c. 274. ]
That has given great satisfaction not only to the Household Division but to the colonel of the regiment, Her Majesty. Paragraph 46 of the Defence estimates gives an excellent analysis of the disparity that exists between ourselves and the Warsaw pact. Even if satellites such as Hungary and Poland split off, the Warsaw pact will have enormous superiority. So we must continue with our policy of having a flexible response and we must retain the nuclear capacity. Who knows what may happen? What happened in Peking could happen in Red square.
We must face the problems of the demographic trough, combined with the possible loss of 35,000 United States troops. Somehow we must fill that gap. Our special relationship with America still exists. Even so, the removal of 35,000 troops presents a problem with which we must deal.
That will be done by ensuring that we recruit enough people, and to do that we must offer them the right terms of service, always remembering that we are competing with industry, espcially in technology. Unlike other countries, we do not have a system of national service. I suggest that we must find an alternative, and perhaps we should press employers to make it compulsory--with, of course, sufficient allowances being provided--for people to do service. They could become Territorials or former Regulars could retrain at frequent intervals, so enabling us to have a strong reserve.
I was impressed by the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes) for the further use of women in the services, which would give even more flexibility. We shall still need the Gurkhas.
The Defence Estimates show that the volunteer services have risen from 73,000 to 90,000 but that is still not enough. I must also refer to the important issue of the SSAFA letter, which was mentioned by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell). It was written by General Grey, whom I telephoned to discuss the matter. The issue was also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). We must recognise what the SSAFA letter says. I am sure that all hon. Members would agree with that.
Column 446Chemical weapons are the most dangerous of all because they are so difficult verify, even by satellite. The comparison between our openness and that of the Russians is well illustrated in paragraph 226 of the Defence Estimates. The imbalance which would result from the proposals of the Soviet Union is insufficient. As the Prime Minister said when she reported on the NATO summit, short-range missiles must remain until the Soviet Union has carried out its arms reduction policies. West Germany objects to short-range missiles but they would land in East Germany, the home of the Soviet allies. We should not relax our grip or drop our guard.
I am convinced that if we continue to negotiate in a strong and tough way we shall be able to achieve a settlement with the Soviet Union. We should always remember that policies could change if Gorbachev were beaten and the same were to happen in Russia as has occurred in China. We must always watch these points, be on our defence and ensure that we are never below the strength of Russia, which can pull hidden troops from the Urals. Let us always remember to negotiate from strength to obtain the security we need. 9.7 pm
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) : I am most grateful to hon. Members for speeding up their speeches to fit me in, and to Ministers for compressing their speeches. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Dame J. Fookes) and my seven other colleagues who spoke in support of my armed forces house purchase savings scheme. I have been encouraged by the constructive discussions that I have had with the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) on the subject. Both have shown considerable flexibility of mind in the solutions which they are willing to look at.
Of the householders in this country, 63 per cent. are home owners. All householders with mortgages are entitled to tax subsidies in the form of mortgage interest relief. A further 28 per cent. of households are either council or housing association tenants and, through their rent payments, they can, if they choose, attract a different form of subsidy : an accumulating discount on the purchase of that property. Sadly, the Army and parts of the Royal Air Force are shut out of that system and are firmly in the other 9 per cent. Comparatively few soldiers--the last figure I saw was 26 per cent.--own houses. Those who do have serious difficulties of the sort already covered by my colleagues.
I wish to stress one simple point, and read out some of the letters which I have received to illustrate it. The solution to the Army's house purchase problems does not lie with encouraging soldiers to buy houses while serving. Unlike the Navy, and part of the Royal Air Force, whose families are comparatively static, about half the Army's families are outside mainland Britain and the rest are extremely mobile. House ownership for a serving soldier does not mean home ownership or owner-occupation, but rather the absolute nonsense of trying to run two households with all the problems that being an absentee landlord entails.
Mr. O'Neill : Does the hon. Gentleman know whether service men living in service accommodation can acquire credits which could be used if, for example, they bought a council house allocated to them after they left the service?
Mr. Brazier : I am delighted to confirm that the hon. Gentleman is right. Should a service man subsequently obtain a council house, thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) those credits can be taken into account. However, the difficulty is that that very measure has resulted in councils being even more reluctant to allocate council houses. In many cases service men simply cannot get them at all, especially if they do not have children. The message is simply that the solution to the Army's housing problem does not lie in encouraging people to become involved in buying houses during their service. The purchase of a house should be at or near the end of their service.
At the moment a soldier has no alternative, and I wish to read out a number of letters to illustrate the problem. The first comes from a flight lieutenant from one of the branches of the Royal Air Force, which has a similar problem. He said :
"While stationed in England I bought my own house. It is the only property I own. On being posted to Germany I rented my house and moved into married quarters at a cost of £180 a month. Almost half of the monthly rent I am receiving for the house goes in expenses--rates, agent's fees, insurance etc. This means that I am £75 a month short after paying my married quarters rent. Yet the law does not allow the married quarters rent to be offset against the let house so that the whole of the net income on that house is treated as though it is profit, meaning a still further loss of £26 a month."
Of all those who have written to me, that man is the best off because he has a letting arrangement which works.
The Federation of Army Wives has sent me a long brief with case after case of lettings that have turned into disaster. I quote just one. A major with three children was posted to BAOR. His tenant cleared out owing rent, electricity bills, telephone bills. He left the house in a dreadful state. The major travelled back to the United Kingdom at his own expense, decided to cut his losses and sell. He is now not able to enter the housing market again.
The next letter comes from a serving officer, who wrote : "I have shown this paper to the six military serving members of my staff and to some of the retired ones. All with one voice have said If only a scheme like this had been in operation when I got married.'"
The crucial sentence comes at the end of his letter.
"Anything would be better than the present moral blackmail to follow the drum and accept the very real problems of letting one's own property."
That is the nub of the problem. Officer and soldier are faced with the moral blackmail of either having to buy a house and go down the hideous route of trying to run two households with all the hassles and problems that tenants bring, which in most cases they resolve by leaving the Army, or to do nothing at all and end up homeless. All those cases concern officers. Comparatively few NCOs even try to buy at the moment. Let me quote a letter from the wife of one : "My husband is an NCO in the Army and I am stationed in London. As we have no children at the moment and I am earning a good salary in London, we decided the time is right for us to purchase a flat." Then news of the posting came, along with all the problems that have been referred to--the loss of the wife's job, and so on. She ends the rather sad story by saying :
"It is because of my feeling of being penalised because of my husband being in the Army and our subsequent loss of our flat that I felt that I had to write to you and applaud your fight on our behalf. I only hope that we, along with many other families in the armed forces, will benefit from your campaign."
Column 448The last letter that I wish to quote is particularly sad. It comes from a lady I know whose husband is a major and would have been classified as a high flier. He has all the right credits to go up to very senior service in the Army. The extract is this :
"Some years ago we managed to get a foothold on the property market and now struggle to maintain a mortgage while paying for a married quarter. We have a mortgage of £40,000"--
comparatively small ; they got in before the latest rise in prices--
"but unlike many other service families we suffered the inevitable problems of letting. For a period of six months we received no rent and for a further six months we had a tenant who did not pay and who stole or damaged so much that we incurred yet more expense. We then had one year of trouble- free letting but of course we had to pay agent's fees and tax on the rent received then."
She goes on to make the same point as has just been made about wives. She ends by saying :
"If a scheme like yours were to be introduced this year we would be able to sell our home, put the money into it and we could then stay on in the Army."
Then comes the saddest sentence of all :
"Sadly, the Army is an anachronism ; it looks as if we will no longer be able to afford to subsidise it."
My hon. Friend the Member for Drake quoted a statistic from a brief that went round earlier which showed that premature voluntary release had risen by 70 per cent. in the Army in five years. In reply to a parliamentary question a few days ago, I discovered that in the latest quarter of this year, taking it back six years now, the figures having just become available, it has risen by 140 per cent. between the first quarter of 1983 and the first quarter of 1989. We cannot go on saying to our soldiers that their alternatives are to do nothing and be homeless or get involved in this hopeless arrangement. We cannot keep people much past the age of 25 in the Regular Army and the age profile of the Army reflects that. My hon. Friend has been most flexible and willing to listen to my suggestions and I know that he and his officials have worked extremely hard in this matter. I will end by giving him a shopping list of items which it seems to me are essential to make any scheme work--there is no reason why he should take my proposal off the shelf. There are four. The first is the easiest of them because since the Budget it is available already. It must be a fully tax- exempted scheme as a house is fully tax-exempted. The new PEP scheme in the Budget is fully tax-exempt ; no tax of any sort is paid on money generated within the scheme.
The other three items are new. The second is that it is very important that a soldier going into this scheme, which is in lieu of a house--and he is only shut out from buying a house because he is in the Army--should be able to get the equivalent of mortgage interest tax relief, a benefit for which the 63 per cent. who are home owners are eligible if they have mortgages. It is in lieu also of accumulated discount on a council house.
The third is that he must get some return out of his existing housing payment. Most of these are single-income families and the difficulties in getting work for wives in some parts of England have been referred to. There are hardly any jobs for wives abroad. They are the only category of public servant, indeed almost the only category of people of any sort, who are made to pay accommodation charges when they are abroad.
Column 449The fourth is a detailed but important item. It is very important that there is no upper limit on contributions to the scheme. Obviously there is an upper limit on tax relief but, just as civilians when they buy a house group together what bits of capital and income they can raise, so people should be able to put whatever capital they want to into this nest egg to accumulate in this tax-free environment, subject to the same tax exemption limits as their civilian counterparts have on mortgage interest relief. We owe it to all the members of our armed forces to enable them to have a secure housing future. The MOD has shown imagination in the schemes that it has brought forward in encouraging those members of the armed forces who can be owner-occupiers, the Navy and part of the Royal Air Force by making it possible for them to do so, but I must leave my hon. Friend with the thought that such measures are a complete and utter mistake for the Army. They are not only a waste of money but a delusion leading people down the wrong route. We must instead provide our soldiers with an alternative so that those with 22 years' service do not need to write to me again saying that they are on a five or 10-year waiting list for a council house when they would almost certainly be owner- occupiers otherwise.
I commend those thoughts to my hon. Friend the Minister. 9.19 pm
Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden) : I will utter just one or two sentences. I wish to place on record that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) has widespread support on the Conservative Benches for his remarks, and I know from the nodding heads of Opposition Members that they support him too. I am sure that my hon. Friend's comments were listened to with great respect by my hon. Friend the Minister.
Mr. O'Neill : With the leave of the House, I may say that tonight's debate has been wide-ranging in some respects but has featured several recurring themes. The subject of the Brigade of Gurkhas was raised in almost every contribution except the last two. It is rare in defence debates for there to be a consensus, but it is the unanimous wish of right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House to retain the Gurkhas at their present level of strength. Tonight's debate would have occurred regardless of what happened in Peking, but recent events in the People's Republic of China have given it an extra edge. It is significant that senior Members such as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Boscawen)--who does not make regular speeches in Army debates, partly because of his many years of service in the Whips' Office--forcefully made the point that we all remember what happened when the signal went to withdraw the Endurance. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome made that point in a straightforward way but most graphically.
I do not envisage Hong Kong being another Falklands but I do not want to take any risks. The presence of the Gurkhas in Hong Kong sends signals not only to those outside the colony but to those living there, which is of
Column 450equal importance. We owe them a substantial responsibility. Just because Hong Kong is far away and its culture is different from ours does not mean that our responsibilities there will begin to end some time around 1997 if circumstances are not as we should like them to be.
I ask the Government to take on board the fact that every right hon. and hon. Member who has spoken on that subject is of one mind. The Minister of State for the Armed Forces somewhat disingenuously commented at the beginning of the debate that he is trying to shift with the situation, to try to point up the possibility that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will think again. The House is asking the Secretary of State to think again, and when he reads Hansard he will discover time and again that right hon. and hon. Members are not happy with what has been said. I am sure that that view is held in all parts of the House.
It is significant that the only person who could be prayed in aid of the Government's view is Field Marshal Lord Bramall, in his letter to The Times. However, during the course of the evening I have been able to find something else said by Lord Bramall which may be of interest to the House. It appears that Lord Bramall can be prayed in aid by a number of people, and certainly I have tremendous respect for his judgment and views.
In last year's debate on the Defence Estimates in another place, Lord Bramall referred to the £20 billion that the Government spent on conventional defence since 1979, which was also mentioned in the Minister's speech today. Lord Bramall commented :
"The Government can be proud that as a result of seven years of sustained growth between 1979 and 1986, induced both by the Falklands campaign and by the Government's adherence to the NATO 3 per cent. growth target (an intention, I have to say, which was first announced, as the noble Lord, Lord Mulley, will know, by the last Labour Government)".
He continued :
"The Government would always want to see themselves as strong on defence. Indeed, they have done much, first to get forces' pay on a proper basis-- and here I give credit to the noble Lord, Lord Mulley, who started the process when he was Secretary of State."--[ Official Report, House of Lords, 12 July 1988 ; Vol. 499, c. 727-8. ] I do not want to start an exchange of "Oh no you didn't--Oh yes we did." I am merely trying to put the record straight. The Minister of State has been in the House for long enough, and has been connected with the Ministry of Defence for long enough as a Whip, a junior Minister and a Minister of State, not to insult the intelligence of the House with obviously misleading items of information to the effect that the increase in the Government's conventional spending is wholly attributable to decisions made by them. Many were set in train long before the present Government came to office. [Interruption.] The Minister is careful enough to say from a sedentary position that he did not say that, but that is what he meant to convey, as anyone with half a brain would have worked out when he said it. I wanted to use the right quotation, and I consider evidence from someone of Lord Bramall's seniority more than worth praying in aid.
In his speech on the Estimates last year, Lord Bramall drew attention to the deep-seated anxieties shared by many people about aspects of procurement. I will confine my remarks on that subject to one or two points that have arisen in today's debate. Everyone was relieved, I think, at the decision to go for a British tank, and no one disputes that the arrangement with Vickers is probably the most
Column 451sensible option. We shall be buying a tank that is not yet in operation in our own or any other army--it is often forgotten that the Americans and Germans do not have such tanks in service yet and that we are going through the process of testing and trying them. This summer once again sees the Canadian army competition, and I am not sure that it was sensible to arrange for the British not to be present. I may be wrong, but I was under the impression that British Army teams would not be competing this year. The Minister nods to confirm that. I think that that is regrettable. In my view, our armed forces can only benefit from such participation. That they will not do so well because their kit is not what it might be is a matter for speculation. As they lost a place a couple of years ago, I would expect them to try their damnedest to make the impact that their professionalism requires. I ask the Minister to think again, and to let us know the Ministry's current view.
Will the Minister also tell us why we are not replacing the Milan anti-tank missile, as the French and Germans are replacing its counterparts in the 1990s? We also seem to be slipping behind the French and Germans in battlefield air defence. For every two main battle tanks that we have, there is one air defence system, but for every two that the Germans have there are 1.5 air defence systems--that is to say, 50 per cent. more--while the French have almost one air defence system for every tank. I realise that what I have said is open to criticism on the grounds of over- simplification ; nevertheless, the authors of Jane's "Battlefield Air Defence" were concerned about the matter, and I feel that it is legitimate to raise it in a debate of this nature.
Another aspect of procurement has not been mentioned today, perhaps because one or two hon. Members who have made it their hobby horse are not present. There is still a good deal of anxiety in the House about the demountable rack offloading and pickup system, known as DROPS. BAOR requires trucks capable of loading and off-loading supplies in the field. We know of the complaints about the equipment which was lent to the MOD and the problems in getting them investigated. The Comptroller and Auditor General has looked into the matter, but he has been hampered by the fact that it appears that the National Audit Office does not have the right technical advice to reach a judgment, so the matter has still not been settled. There is a strong case for looking very closely at DROPS and for there to be a proper statement in the House at some stage.
We have discussed Ptarmigan and raised the need for effective communications for BAOR, particularly as the amount of information that needs to be distributed on the modern battlfield is increasing rapidly. The Ptarmigan tactical communications network is supposed to fulfil those requirements, but there have been reports that the system does not have the capacity to meet the Army's future needs. The introduction of BATES, the battlefield artillery target engagement system, and ADCIS, the air defence command information system, will substantially increase the demands that will be made on Ptarmigan.
It was originally planned to purchase 32 mobile trunk nodes, but in the end only 26 were acquired and there is substantial doubt as to whether that will be sufficient. Just a few weeks ago in Jane's Defence Weekly a communications commander called for the number to be restored to 32. Certainly the Ministry should look at a number of matters relating to Ptarmigan.
Column 452It may be that all the answers on procurement are not available tonight, but I understand that before the summer we shall be debating the Estimates. I should like to think that when we debate more detailed matters of procurement, the Minister will be able to give the House more information. If he can give us some information tonight, so much the better, and if he cares to write to me I shall be happy to receive his letters. I give notice that we shall be returning to these detailed matters in the Estimates debate relating to procurement for the Army and particularly BAOR. It is legitimate that we raise the matter tonight and receive some information. A number of interesting points have been raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) expressed concern about the security arrangements for Westcott and his longstanding concern about MOD security. He deserves an answer. The speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) requires a substantial reply. The House will benefit, perhaps not this evening but certainly in future, from a substantial answer to those serious questions. If the Minister chooses not to put them on record but to write, I know that my hon. Friend would like to hear from him as quickly as possible and I should like to see the replies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) made an extremely thoughtful speech. I know that he could not be here for the wind- up and he has apologised. My hon. Friend takes his duties as President of the NATO Assembly very seriously. He raised a number of serious questions and made a useful contribution to the debate. He raised serious issues about the problems of joint procurement and collaboration and co-operation within NATO. We are all grateful to him for his remarks and I hope that the Minister will be able to meet many of his requests.
He raised one point of response to the speech by the Minister of State. Perhaps the Minister could tell us whether the new MLRS sytems will be purely conventional or whether they will be dual-capable and whether they will use nuclear shells or merely conventional shells. That information will be of some assistance when we come to assimilate the significance of the communique produced last week in Brussels.
The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) made passing reference to the bid for Plessey. The silence of the Ministry of Defence about the bid has been almost deafening, although its previous position about the takeover of Plessey was well known and its representations were a matter of public debate. A clear statement will have to be made soon giving the Ministry of Defence's view, as it is critical to consideration of the bid.
A number of issues have been raised, and I have touched on only some of them. I and other hon. Members believe that President Bush's offer and NATO's response to it merit consideration. We shall doubtless return to the subject in the summer and autumn. Understandably, we have been discussing more basic and fundamental issues, but consideration of the Gurkhas enabled us to debate demographic trends and future recruitment.
Many useful contributions have been made about pay and rations and Army life. At times, we tend to leave these matters to bodies such as the pay review board. It is desirable that such issues are removed from the political arena and left to a group of experts, so that neither one side nor the other deals with the cash element. It has emerged from the debate that there are serious potential
Column 453social problems under the surface among the armed forces. They are emerging because of the dramatic changes that have recently occurred in the property market.
From my own constituency experience, I am aware that
non-commissioned officers and men in the ranks do not experience some of the difficulties that have been alluded to in obtaining council accommodation. It may be that I deal with a Labour authority which has bigger housing stocks and that in other parts of the country, where housing stocks are smaller, the problem assumes different significance. There is worry among all ranks about accommodation. The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), whom I am wont to criticise and bash whenever I can, for once is right. I have not looked at the fine print of the amendments to the Finance Bill that he has tabled. I am not trying to damn him with faint praise, but I appreciate the vigour with which he is pursuing the matter. Like the Gurkhas issue, there is no division across the Floor of the House about the principle of this. We may disagree about the fine details, but they can be ironed out, which is what the House, at its best, is supposed to do.
We have had a useful debate. Some issues have not been considered as closely as they might have been. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South is coming out of the cold, or other people in our party are coming out of the cold--I am not sure which, and I will not say one way or the other. There has been an uncharacteristic degree of unanimity among Labour Members and broad agreement across the Floor of the House on a number of issues. The Government would be well advised to pay close attention to what has been said because it is not party advantage that is at stake but the good name of the Army, the morale of the men and women who serve in it and, ultimately, the defence of this country. I urge the Government to think seriously about what hon. Members have said today.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Michael Neubert) : As a veteran of no fewer than two single service debates since taking up my post, I have been struck again by the diversity and authority of the contributions by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I shall try to respond to as many points as I can in the time left available to me, but the House will understand that I shall also want to make some comments of my own.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces spoke of the encouraging signs of change in the Soviet Union, but not all news that comes from the East is encouraging. While a massive military capability exists in the Soviet Union, the West must retain the wherewithal to deter aggression. The Government will continue to ensure that this remains so. To succeed, we must maintain the support of the British public and recognise the debt owed to those men and women in our armed forces. For that reason, I am particularly pleased that tribute has been paid on both sides of the House to their sterling work.
We welcome the Bush proposals at the recent NATO Alliance summit and we now await the response of the East. As always, there is much detailed work to be done within NATO and it is too early to assess the implications for the United Kingdom in general and for BAOR in
Column 454particular. It is worth pointing out that reductions envisaged for NATO are small compared with those being sought from the Warsaw pact to remove the existing large conventional superiority. I am afraid that I must disappoint the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) in giving that response at this early stage in the development of arms control.
We do, however, share in the triumph that we believe the NATO summit represented. I regretted, but was not surprised by, the rather sour comments made by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) on the part played by our Prime Minister in those negotiations. It may be that by his choice of party and policy he has condemned himself to a role of spokesman that is about as effective as trying to light a match in a force 10 gale. He naturally resents the dominant role that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister plays in world councils. We are prepared to pay tribute to the part that Britain has played in reaching this advantageous arrangement, which has taken the initiative in arms control for the first time for some months.
The Army continues to play key roles in the defence of the United Kingdom and in the forward defence of the European mainland. In addition, it continues to provide vital assistance to the forces of law and order-- against the men and women of violence in Northern Ireland--as well as assistance to communities and Governments all over the world. This year has seen the Army in action in all these guises and the House is right to applaud them. From the jungles of Belize to the streets of Northern Ireland, our service men and women serve with great distinction and professionalism.
In this latter context, the hon. Member for Clackmannan asked about measures taken to counter the terrorist threat. He was good enough to acknowledge that the Government have in hand extensive new work to improve the security of service establishments. In this, the Ministry of Defence police will continue to play their part. This does not mean that every civilian-guarding task requires its specialist skills, but I can assure the House, especially the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), that any adjustments to the size of the force will have full regard for its value in the security context. In addition, the Army is continually refining and improving the organisational and operational arrangements to support the RUC in Northern Ireland. These have been successful and, together with measures taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, have frustrated the IRA in any attempts to make greater use of the large quantities of arms and ammunition that it possesses.
I should like to dwell on some of the more newsworthy activities in which the Army has taken part over the past 12 months which illustrate the variety of tasks that the service may be called upon to perform. I shall give examples of the Army in action which may be unexpected to the public at least, if not to Parliament. In Nepal, British military staff treated almost 900 casualties and carried out more than 300 operations in the wake of the earthquake there last August. Following hurricane Gilbert in Jamaica in September, Royal Engineers from the Belize garrison carried out much- needed repair on hospitals and children's homes. In Vanuatu, another team of sappers is working to repair cyclone damage under the auspices of the Overseas Development Administration.
Column 455Closer to home, and perhaps the most difficult and distressing work carried out this year, was at the sites of the tragedies at Lockerbie and Kegworth. Up to 500 service men were present at Lockerbie on any one day, and some 8,000 man days of service assistance were provided. Some of the work was especially harrowing and those involved deserve the highest praise.
The army responded to many other calls for assistance, such as in the clearance of unexploded ordnance. Some 200 calls were answered in Great Britain, involving, for example, several world war 2 German 500 lb bombs. Those at Stanford-le-Hope and near Billingsgate fish market in London required the evacuation of large numbers of local residents.
Assistance was also given to the Home Office in the past year in manning temporary prisons at Alma Dettingen barracks and Rollestone camp. The soldiers involved demonstrated very well the sheer adaptability of the modern service man.
Perhaps the most under-rated of all the Army's commitments is the contribution it makes to the various international peace-keeping forces. For many years, we have provided contingents for the United Nations force in Cyprus and the multinational force of observers in the Sinai. Our garrison in Cyprus has provided support for the United Nations there and for United Nations forces in Lebanon, that terribly troubled country. Most recently, we have provided the signals staff for the United Nations transition assistance group in Namibia. Despite serving in conditions of virtual turmoil in this case, British personnel are highly regarded for the work they have done. It has become clear that one of the main issues exercising the House--and that can be judged by the contributions of many of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members--is the question of the Gurkhas. My hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill), in particular, spoke feelingly and forcefully about that. I hope that tomorrow, hon. Members will reread what my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces had to say at the beginning of the debate about the Gurkhas. The hon. Member for Clackmannan raised the question of the future of the Brigade of Gurkhas and the current position in China. The Government are well aware of our security obligations to Hong Kong.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces made it clear that no reductions in Gurkhas would be made before 1992 and that no decision on the matter need be taken until well into next year. Surely that is the way to look at the statements made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the House about the future of the Gurkhas. As he himself said, the figure of 4,000 is a minimum. Surely what is significant- -this is a point to which insufficient importance has been given tonight-- is that the brigade structure will remain and all the Gurkha regiments will be intact. If that is encouraging to the President of the Gurkha Association, my hon. Friends and other hon. Members might also take encouragement from it. We are talking of some years ahead, not next month or next year. A commitment has been given not only to 4,000 men, but to the brigade structure of the Gurkhas. Surely that should be some reassurance to my hon. Friends and others tonight.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) spoke about the Vietnamese boat people--another tragic problem which has intensified in recent weeks. We are seeking to assist in a number of ways in
Column 456Hong Kong. Troops of the Hong Kong garrison have already erected several temporary tented holding camps for the boat people. We are providing stocks of tents, water and water purification equipment, which are being used to help to set up these facilities. Troops are currently building a large tented camp to house Vietnamese boat people at Sek Kong military airfield.
Another issue mentioned in a number of speeches, notably that of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) was the question of helicopters. I repeat that the Government fully recognise the importance of helicopters on the battlefield. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces said in his opening speech, our development of this capability continues. I shall not repeat my hon. Friend's remarks about our existing plans for improvement. The key point is that we should ensure that the balance of systems is for the destruction of armour is maintained. Helicopters and tanks both have a role to play, as we and our allies recognise.
I agree that helicopters are of considerable use out of area but, as with other equipment, our priority must be to meet NATO requirements while building in the flexibility necessary for out-of-area operations where appropriate.
The command and control of helicopters has recently been studied by the Ministry of Defence and it has been concluded that no significant changes should be made to the current arrangements.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West described helicopters as "low- flying tanks". As the House knows, one of my responsibilities is for low- flying training, so the concept of low-flying tanks did not immediately fill me with enthusiasm, in that context at least.
Mr. Cohen : The Minister referred to command and control and said that he did not think that there was any need to change the arrangements for the communications system. One problem is that the system cannot distinguish between friend and foe. Does not the Minister think that that makes it worth altering?
To maintain the level of professionalism that we have all come to expect from the British Army it is necessary that training is as effective and realistic as possible ; exercises are vital in that respect. In 1988 Exercise Iron Hammer, which took place in Lower Saxony, involved 3 Armoured Division together with some 3,300 regular and Territorial Army personnel from the United Kingdom.
In the United Kingdom there was a series of military home defence exercises in the autumn. These tested our preparation to defend ports, airfields and other facilities, essential to our ability to sustaining war on the continental mainland, and the exercises involved not only Regulars from all three services, but Regular reserves, the TA and the Home Service Force.
In the United Kingdom, the Army needs large areas of land for training. We are determined to ensure that the size of the defence estate is kept to the minimum necessary to support the armed forces and, where possible, we take steps to rationalise our holdings and to dispose of land that is no longer essential to our purposes. Nevertheless, our current holdings cannot satisfy fully the training needs