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House of Commons

Tuesday 28 November 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


British Troops (Germany)

1. Mr. McFall : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence whether contingency plans are being considered for the redeployment of British troops in Germany in the event of reunification of that country.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton) : No, Sir. The reform process in the German Democratic Republic is only in its initial stages, and it is not clear where it will lead.

Mr. McFall : The Government tell us that they must do nothing to destabilise Europe. In effect, that means that they must do nothing because they have no vision other than the status quo, which renders the Prime Minister a pygmy on the world stage in comparison with Mr. Gorbachev. Are the Government considering renegotiating the 1948 Brussels treaty which commits us to four divisions in Europe? If not, what is the use of increasing the number of tanks and short-range nuclear weapons? Are they intended to deal with the 15-mile queue of East German motorists heading for the West in their Trabants? Is that the present state of Government thinking?

Mr. Hamilton : The Government have taken the view all along that the NATO Alliance has treated us very well and has maintained peace in Europe for a long time. We are currently engaged in negotiations in Vienna to reduce Soviet troop levels on the other side of the border. That is the best way to deal with the problems.

Sir Antony Buck : Does my hon. Friend agree that if, as we hope very much, there were to be a reunification of Germany there would still be a need for the deployment of our troops for the foreseeable future? The original question appears to be misguided.

Mr. Hamilton : I take the point, but one must be guarded about this. At present it is extremely difficult to judge public opinion in East Germany. Indeed, from what one can see on the media, public opinion may be divided on the issue anyway.

Mr. James Lamond : Despite what the Prime Minister said on "Panorama" last night, it is obvious that the reunification of Germany is very much on the agenda so far as Dr. Kohl is concerned and he is already outlining

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steps towards it. Does not that development have some effect on our thinking about the future of our troops in that part of the world?

Mr. Hamilton : We are considering the long-term implications of what is due to happen in eastern Europe, but it is extremely premature to start planning on the assumption that Germany will indeed reunify when there is nothing to support that assumption.

Mr. John Browne : Does my hon. Friend accept that in essence Mr. Gorbachev's challenge to the West is to replace the peace of deterrence with a peace of detente even though detente does not fully exist? Talk of redeployment could thus be read as reduced commitment. Should we not be very careful in considering this so that we do not destroy the morale of our allies?

Mr. Hamilton : Yes, indeed. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must bear in mind the capability of the Soviet Union rather than its intentions today, because those intentions could change tomorrow.

Confidential Information

2. Mr. Corbyn : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what steps he has taken to ensure that confidential information held on individuals by all those for whom his Department is responsible is not passed on to other individuals or organisations who may do harm to the person concerned.

15. Mr. Flannery : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what steps he has taken to ensure that confidential information held on individuals by all those for whom his Department is responsible is not passed on to other individuals or organisations who may do harm to the person concerned.

Mr. Archie Hamilton : There are strict regulations covering the security of all confidential papers and all information of a personal nature. Personal information held on computer is subject to the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1984 and disclosure of such information is made only in accordance with the Department's relevant registration.

Mr. Corbyn : The Minister must be aware that confidential information held by the armed services in Northern Ireland has been leaked and was published in the press. The Stevens inquiry is looking into the matter at the moment. Will the Minister assure us that the Stevens inquiry will not be a cover-up or a whitewash? Will he ensure that the Ministry of Defence evidence to the inquiry is published?

Mr. Hamilton : I cannot guarantee that the Ministry of Defence evidence will be published, but we are giving all our help and co-operation to the Stevens inquiry. There is no question of its being a whitewash.

Mr. Allason : Is my hon. Friend aware that the Ministry of Defence retains a great deal of information which is not secret at all and which should be disclosed? In one recent case, a person claimed a commissioned rank which he did not hold, but the Ministry of Defence consistently declined to reveal that information although it would have prevented a criminal offence from being committed. Will

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my hon. Friend give an undertaking that all information, even from the private files of second world war personnel, will be disclosed if it is not actually secret?

Mr. Hamilton : We shall disclose as much information as it is humanly possible to disclose. I cannot give my hon. Friend an open-ended guarantee because much of the information that we have is confidential.

Mr. John D. Taylor : Will the Minister consider introducing in Northern Ireland the practice of displaying photographs of wanted persons at police stations, as happens in police stations elsewhere in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Hamilton : I cannot guarantee that that will happen, but I will certainly look into the matter.

Mr. Cran : Will my hon. Friend confirm whether his Department uses electronic surveillance and listening devices to gather confidential information? If it does, what controls are exercised over the use of that equipment?

Mr. Hamilton : Any information of that sort which is gathered is confidential and is treated as such.

War Widows (Pensions)

3. Mr. Boateng : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what representations he has received about the level of pre-1973 war widows' pensions.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Michael Neubert) : War widows' pensions are a matter for the Department of Social Security. My Department has, however, received a substantial number of letters and other representations suggesting that eligibility for improvements made to the armed forces occupational pension scheme in 1973 should be extended

retrospectively to include all war widows.

Mr. Boateng : The Minister must be aware that the Government spend £25 million less today on war widows than they did in 1979 simply because the number of war widows has decreased through death. Why can that money not be applied to the benefit of war widows alive today? How many years must pass and how many more war widows must die in poverty before the Government realise their duty to the House and to the nation to ensure that those women who lost their husbands for us lead a decent life?

Mr. Neubert : The war widow's pension, which is received by all war widows, is 30 per cent. higher than the standard widow's pension. It is increased by age allowances at ages 65, 70 and 80, and both the pension and the age allowances are tax free. In addition, a war widow is able to earn a separate state retirement pension in her own right, and three quarters of them have done so. In all those different ways, the Government have recognised the special sacrifice that war widows, especially those whose husbands died in action, have made for their country.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton : Does my hon. Friend agree that wives whose husbands made the ultimate sacrifice for democracy and freedom deserve more justice from the Government of the United Kingdom? Does my hon. Friend agree also that, if we can pay off a large part of our national debt, we have a debt of honour to those ladies and their families?

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Mr. Neubert : From next April there will be significant increases for war widows. About 85 per cent. of them receive age allowances, and 75 per cent. of them have a state retirement pension in their own right, giving ranges of income up to nearly £128 per week. We recognise the sacrifice made by war widows, and on the record of this Government I am confident that there will be further significant increases for them in the future.

Mr. Menzies Campbell : Last Thursday, when replying to the Adjournment debate, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces made accusations of hypocrisy against some of those who support the cause of war widows. Will the Under-Secretary take the opportunity to withdraw that charge? Does he agree that, on purely humanitarian grounds, reform is entirely justified? How does he think that hon. Members would resolve the issue if there were a free vote in the House?

Mr. Neubert : The House should remember that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) took exactly the same line as I am taking today when he stood at the Government Dispatch Box in 1975.

Mr. Nelson : Does my hon. Friend accept that while the Government have argued that such a change in entitlement for pre-1973 widows would have implications for pensions elsewhere in the public sector, many hon. Members of all parties feel that he and we can defend a special case for the war widows and that some justice is now overdue?

Mr. Neubert : War widows are a special case, but so are the war disabled. My hon. Friend should not so quickly set aside the interests of the war disabled, who also made their contribution and who make their sacrifice to this day. There would be a knock-on effect on other public sector pension schemes. The amount of £200 million for war widows would be increased by £400 million for the war disabled every year from now into the next century.

Mr. O'Neill : Does the Under-Secretary of State not appreciate that the House and the rest of the country feel that when he is cast in the role of a heartless actuary he is failing to meet the requirements and what the country wants? Will he undertake a review both of the war widows and of the war disabled to see whether their plight can be met and their dignity restored in the autumn of their years?

Mr. Neubert : We must first analyse the facts of the war widows' circumstances. As I have explained, 85 per cent. of them receive age allowances. At age 70 that will give a pension 58 per cent. higher than the standard widow's pension, and at age 80 it will give a pension 72 per cent. higher. If they have a state retirement pension on top of that, they have a very considerable income each week. We are concerned, however, that there might be some cases of hardship and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security offered in Committee earlier this year to consider evidence of that hardship. That offer remains open.

Nuclear Submarines

4. Mr. Michael : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence whether he has reviewed emergency arrangements for visits of nuclear submarines to British ports following the recent incident at Cardiff docks when a number of towropes broke ; and if he will make a statement.

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Mr. Archie Hamilton : There was a minor incident in Cardiff on 10 October when a rope, which was attached to one of two tugs handling HMS Sovereign, parted while the submarine was being berthed. This rope was not of the type specified by the Royal Navy for use by tugs involved in submarine berthing operations. Steps have been taken to avoid such an incident recurring.

HMS Sovereign subsequently docked without further incident and in complete safety. There is no need for changes in our emergency arrangements as a result of the incident.

Mr. Michael : May I ask the Minister to check his facts as my understanding is that more than one rope broke? Does he not understand that the area of the city of Cardiff or of any other port affected would be a considerably wider area of population than is covered by the Government's present emergency plans? As we are dealing with safety and not security, does the Minister agree that the matter should be dealt with far more openly and in public discussion with the relevant local authorities?

Mr. Hamilton : I have checked my facts and the fact is that more than one rope did not break--the same rope was wrapped around three times. Opposition Members always cast aspersions on the safety of our nuclear- powered submarines, but if they are trying to revise their defence policy to bring it into line with NATO, they should place some value on our nuclear-powered submarines, which have to berth in ports around the country, and they should remember that the crews are very popular when they visit our ports.

Mr. David Martin : Does my hon. Friend agree that those of us who represent ports used by nuclear-powered submarines or submarines capable of being armed with nuclear weapons deprecate those who use incidents, however minor, to further their obsessions against nuclear weaponry of all kinds? Does he further accept that we wish to see all safety procedures carried out to the best of the Government's ability, but not to be used as vehicles for those who support the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other organisations, given that if we had listened to them we would not have the disarmament in Europe that we have seen in recent times?

Mr. Hamilton : I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. The hunter-killer submarines are of great value to our nuclear-powered submarines and capable of operating for extensive periods under water. There is no way of carrying out this function without them and it is about time that the Labour party treated the crews of those boats much better.

Mr. Wigley : Will the Minister look again at this matter and also consider the allegations that nuclear submarines have tangled with the nets of fishing boats in the Irish sea causing loss of life? Will he undertake an investigation into those incidents and their implications?

Mr. Hamilton : There have been extensive investigations about nuclear submarines and other submarines snagging the nets of fishing boats. I assure the hon. Gentleman that all such claims are investigated with great care and that compensation is paid when it is proved that our submarines have been responsible. Such claims have always been investigated and we have always been happy

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to come forward and admit when we have been wrong. A number of so-called incidents, however, have taken place in water far too shallow for submarines.

RAF Chivenor

5. Mr. Speller : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is the cost to his Department of the civilian use made of 22 Search and Rescue and other Royal Air Force facilities at RAF Chivenor.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Alan Clark) : This question is almost identical to one put by my hon. Friend on 28 June 1988 and I must refer him to the answer given at column 219 on that date. I repeat that it is not possible to give an accurate assessment of the cost of civilian use of the military search and rescue service facilities at RAF Chivenor.

Mr. Speller : I thank my hon. Friend for that not very far advanced reply. Is he aware that in north Devon and across the Bristol channel the RAF helicopters are seen as our first and strongest line of safety at sea? Should it ever be the case, as has been rumoured in the past, that finance becomes a problem in maintaining that service. I hope that funds will be sought to support the defence helicopters before anything is done to remove that vital service.

Mr. Alan Clark : I recognise the prominent role that my hon. Friend has played in focusing public attention on the subject. If he is fair he will recognise that the service has been enhanced as the Wessex helicopters stationed at Chivenor remain and have been supplemented by Sea King helicopters based at Royal Navy air station Culdrose and RAF Brawdy which have an overnight and foul weather capability.

Military Security

6. Mr. John Greenway : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will undertake a review of security of all British military establishments and for all military personnel and their families ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Archie Hamilton : Security measures at all defence establishments are kept under constant scrutiny and review.

Mr. Greenway : Does my hon. Friend agree that at this welcome time of reduced tension in East-West relations the threat to our armed forces from terrorists sadly remains undiminished? In the light of recent horrific attacks on members of the armed services and their families, will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to undertake a further substantial review of security at our military bases? If there is to be any further redeployment of troops and personnel, does he agree with me that it would be better to consider the needs of each station commander in terms of manpower and resources to see what can be done to improve security and protection at each of our bases?

Mr. Hamilton : I can reassure my hon. Friend that all security measures are kept constantly under review. Much more money is being spent on different security measures, although I cannot go into them here. Commanding officers are in close contact with us in that respect.

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Mr. Jim Marshall : Does the Minister accept- -

Mr. Ron Brown rose--

Mr. Speaker : Order. One at a time.

Mr. Marshall : I hope that the Minister will accept that we all condemn terrorist action against service men and their families. As that threat will continue, will the Minister ensure that service men and their immediate families are constantly vigilant against such threats? As important, will he ensure that the armed forces are responsible for the security of their bases?

Mr. Hamilton : We are always trying to ensure that service men and their families are constantly vigilant. We hope that that vigilance will extend outside the bases and camps to members of the local civilian population as they, too, have a great role to play in improving security. I am at odds with the hon. Gentleman on the question of service men doing all their own guarding. I believe that there is a role for civilian guards and security firms although they must obviously reach the high standards that we set for them.

Mr. David Shaw : Does my hon. Friend agree that a balance should be struck between security needs and the friendships that are often established between military personnel and the community? In my constituency there was a terrible IRA outrage at the Royal Marines base earlier this year. Relationships between the Royal Marines and people in the community are so strong that the people of Deal would like that relationship to continue. Will my hon. Friend do all in his power to ensure that the Royal Marines base in Deal remains there for the foreseeable future?

Mr. Hamilton : I certainly hear what my hon. Friend says. His comments were brought home sharply to me when I went to the memorial service for the marines at Canterbury cathedral at which many civilians from Deal made the point forcefully to me. I shall certainly bear it in mind.


7. Mr. Allen McKay : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is the cost to date of lobbying in the United States of America in favour of Trident.

Mr. Alan Clark : The United Kingdom Government have not incurred any additional costs in lobbying for Trident.

Mr. McKay : Does the Minister not think that if the United States is serious about strategic arms reduction, as I believe that it is, what he calls representations and what we call meddling in the internal politics of the United States proves two points? The first is that the nuclear deterrent Trident is not independent. Secondly, could we not be accused of trying to block the START agreement, of interfering and probably of increasing the time that it will take for a worldwide reduction in nuclear arms?

Mr. Clark : I entirely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The strategic nuclear deterrent has been the principal contributory factor in maintaining the peace for the past 45 years. Anyone who considers rejecting or diminishing that is culpably rejecting his duty for the security of this country. In terms of representations to the United States

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authorities, I found that the chairmen of the appropriations committee and the armed services committee, both of whom I met recently, were entirely convinced of the necessity for the system. That has been shown by the fact that funding has been reinstated.

Mr. Ian Taylor : Will my hon. Friend give us the latest progress on the trials of the Trident system in the United States? Does he agree that it is important that those trials are successful so that we can deploy Trident as early as possible according to the time scale of the 1990s to ensure the continued security of this country?

Mr. Clark : The trials resumed at the beginning of December and my information from the United States Navy is that it assumes that the trials will be successful.

Mr. Douglas : Will the Minister reflect not just on the costs of the representation to the United States but on its effectiveness? Has he seen the report from the Brookings Institute, which casts grave doubt on whether the United States should proceed with the D5? What happens to the so-called independent deterrent if the United States relinquishes the concept of going ahead with the D5 missile?

Mr. Clark : I do not know about the Brookings Institute, but everyone I spoke to in Washington was entirely convinced about the necessity of the system. The fact that Congress withheld funds after three test firing failures seems a reasonable way to apply pressure, but the funding has been reinstated and the test programme resumes on 1 December.

Force Levels

8. Mr. Moate : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what discussions he has had with his United States counterpart about the need to maintain adequate force levels in Europe.

Mr. Archie Hamilton : My right hon. Friend will meet Mr. Cheney at the meeting of NATO's defence planning committee in Brussels, where NATO's force plans will be discussed.

Mr. Moate : Is it not essential to remember that there are still more than 500,000 Russian troops in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and that any premature dismantling of our NATO defences would threaten and jeopardise the peace and freedom of Europe for which NATO has fought so hard in the past 40 years? Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital for us to keep as close as possible to the United States Administration and to Congress to ensure that there is no weakening of our mutual resolve?

Mr. Hamilton : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must always look at the capability of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact rather than at their intentions which, of course, can change at relatively short notice. Those capabilities have been further enhanced by the new production of Soviet war materials of one sort or another. That has improved the quality although the quantity may have come down a little.

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Mr. Ron Brown : Do not the Government always say that we must remember that individuals are important? An individual called Paddy Meehan wrote a book, which I have here-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. Has it anything to do with the question?

Mr. Brown : The House should consider its contents, or at the very least-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. Will the hon. Gentleman sit down, please?-- [Interruption.] Order. The hon. Gentleman must ask his own question. We cannot have this approach.

Mr. Ian Stewart : Conservative Members welcome the remark by our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to his NATO

colleagues--representing the United States and our European allies--that we should "gang warily" with the redeployment and reduction of forces in Europe. Ought not any move that we make in that direction be agreed thoroughly with our NATO colleagues rather than being a one-off on the part of individual countries, and should it not be firmly within the framework of agreement between East and West?

Mr. Hamilton : That is absolutely right. We must continue to pursue rigorously the current talks in Vienna--the negotiations on conventional armed forces in Europe, or CFE. That will lead to major reductions in the superiority of Soviet numbers, and we may then be able to start considering significant reductions on the NATO side.

Mr. O'Neill : Is the Minister aware that only the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister seem to be prepared to continue waging the cold war? Does he agree that, although it may take some time to reduce force levels through negotiation, it should be possible for the Government to follow the lead given by Lord Carrington--a former Foreign Secretary and Secretary General of NATO--who has said in the past week that there is now no case for short-range nuclear forces in the form of a follow-on to Lance? Will the Government make that contribution to ending the cold war, and abandon this folly?

Mr. Hamilton : No. The Government feel that it is much better to do everything in co-operation with our allies. The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that we are all signed up for the comprehensive concept, which agrees that there is still a need for a mix of conventional and nuclear forces and for flexible response. Only the Labour party is out of step with the rest of Europe at present.

Mr. Brazier : Does my hon. Friend agree that any such discussions must take full account of the Soviet Union's continuing massive chemical capability? That is underlined by both the continuing secrecy surrounding the Shikhany plant and the chilling revelation that lethal chemical weapons were used in Georgia for crowd control purposes.

Mr. Hamilton : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have no evidence whatever that the Soviet Union has reduced its stocks of chemical weapons, and, as my hon. Friend has said, the injuries sustained at Tbilisi were not the kind that would be expected to result from the use of riot dispersal agents such as CS gas.

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Free-fall Nuclear Bomb

9. Mr. Ron Davies : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what expenditure has been incurred to date on the study of possible options for the replacement of the WE177 free-fall nuclear bomb.

Mr. Alan Clark : We are continuing to study a number of options for the replacement of the United Kingdom's free-fall nuclear bomb. The expenditure to date has been negligible.

Mr. Davies : Can the Minister explain why we are spending any money at all on developing a new nuclear weapon system that will probably be negotiated away before it is even commissioned? At a time when the Berlin wall is coming down, democracy is breaking out all over eastern Europe and peace is in the air, what sense is there in developing new nuclear weapons and keeping up the obsession with the cold war?

Mr. Clark : The system is not covered, because it is not ground based. I believe that we cannot predict the pattern of diplomatic alignments within 20 years. I cannot say where the United Kingdom's adversaries may be found, or what part of the globe they inhabit, but any prudent Government are obliged to update all their weapon systems to ensure that their forces have the best equipment available, because the lead time for such systems--the time before they must next face an enemy--is so long.

Mr. Wilkinson : Is it not the case that as it will probably become politically more difficult to modernise our short-range nuclear forces with a direct follow-on to Lance, it is all the more important to procure an air -launched system that is inherently more flexible and potentially of greater range? Will my hon. Friend therefore say what specific options are being studied as a replacement, particularly as the United Kingdom is not now pursuing the modular stand-off weapon programme?

Mr. Clark : My hon. Friend reinforces the conclusion made in paragraph 92 of the Select Committee's report. As he will appreciate, I cannot go into much detail, but we are considering American and French options.

Mr. Rogers : Today and in previous parliamentary questions, the Minister refused to comment on the replacement for a free-fall bomb. Will he affirm or deny that an agreement has been signed by the United Kingdom and the United States for a stand-off missile to be deployed on Tornado aircraft?

Mr. Clark : No such agreement has been signed. Expenditure has been negligible because studies are at an extremely early stage.

Eastern Europe

10. Mr. Hanley : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what are the implications for defence policy and costs of recent events in the Soviet bloc ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Archie Hamilton : We remain committed to NATO, whose policies of seeking dialogue with the East while maintaining a strong collective defence have contributed greatly to the change taking place in eastern Europe.

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Mr. Hanley : Whatever has been said this afternoon, is it not true that developments in the Warsaw pact have been most helpful and exciting? However, they will lead to uncertainty, because, as we have seen in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and China, there can be a most terrible response to reform. Will my hon. Friend ensure that he proceeds with caution, so that the hopes of those nations are not reduced because of the uncertainty that reform can bring?

Mr. Hamilton : I can give my hon. Friend that reassurance. It would be almost a miracle if the road to reform were smooth and straightforward. We are faced with a period of definite uncertainty, during which we must keep our defences sound. We do not want to indulge in unilateral disarmament, as advocated by the Labour party.

Mr. Cohen : Given the favourable political changes in Europe and President Gorbachev's enormous cuts in the Soviet Union, how can the Government justify a change in defence policy, as announced in the Autumn Statement, which will add £1 billion a year each year to our defence budget?

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