Previous Section Home Page

Column 697

The 1989 defence White Paper, which follows a creditable tradition every year of improving accountability to Parliament and which spells out our defence posture, reads slightly like an historical document barely a year on from when it was published. It recognised that the "Reserves are an integral part of the forces"


"would play a vital part in defending the European Mainland and the UK".

The Royal Navy, in particular, has an outstanding record on this. The Royal Navy Reserve, which provides mine counter-measures protection, logistical supply and medical services, has played an outstanding role over the years. The Royal Marines Reserve, which defends NATO's northern flank and United Kingdom base, has done similar excellent work. The Royal Naval Auxiliary Reserve, which defends British ports and anchorages, is an essential back- up and support in times of heightened threat.

Even in a debate about the Royal Navy, no mention of the reserves can exclude mention of reserves for the Army and the Royal Air Force. The Territorial Army, including the Home Service Force, make up more than half the infantry of the British Army on the Rhine and are an integral and essential part in our reinforcement capability, our operational posture and our deterrent over the years. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates), with the considerable knowledge that he has built up through his services to the Select Committee and in other ways, would agree with that. The professionalism and personal dedication that our Territorial Army soldiers have shown in giving up their spare time and the tolerance that their employers have shown in giving them the time to play their part in the defence of this country and our contribution to NATO deserve great recognition and repetition in the House.

The Royal Auxiliary Air Force and the RAF Reserve provide indispensable personnel to airfield defence, intelligence and communications. In all those regards, I welcome and pay tribute to what the Government have done in improving both the pay of reservists compared to regulars and training bounty payments. That has been an essential means of retaining and attracting skilled people into the reserve forces. In future, in terms of protecting our United Kingdom base and sea routes and maintaining our NATO commitments, an enhanced role for reservists is absolutely essential.

This is an important debate, because it gives us an opportunity to let the Government know what we think about defence expenditure while the next White Paper is being drafted, the Chancellor is drawing up his Budget and at an early stage before the next round of discussions about public expenditure next year. There is no doubt that changes will be included in the defence estimates or the Autumn Statement, which respond to these momentous events worldwide. If the House lags behind international changes and what the Government say we must put up with, we shall not be playing our role in ensuring that the taxpayer's money is well spent and the enormous resources of public expenditure are used to the best advantage.

We should be beginning to think--even if we do not insist upon it now-- about the new needs and the new generation. In doing so, the House and, in particular, the Select Committee, will be playing a major and positive role

Column 698

--of which the House will be proud in the next century--in ensuring that peace, democracy, freedom and the role of our defence forces, in a different way, continue to thrive.

7.19 pm

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish) : I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson). I admire him for stating that we should have a major defence review. There is a series of arguments in favour of that and I support him in his demand for such a review from his perspective.

I apologise to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement for not being present for the first quarter of an hour of his speech. My researcher made me a note of what he said. I was not here because I was in my constituency attending a meeting at lunchtime, which was fixed up by the Church leaders in Brinnington. It was a meeting of health workers, social workers, doctors, teachers, housing officers and community officers to discuss the problems of Brinnington. It is important to contrast that activity with this debate on defence. The two are linked. We are discussing defending the people of Brinnington.

I ask whether there should be a transfer of resources from the defence of the realm to the defence of the people of Brinnington. Brinnington is a substantial part of my constituency. It is surrounded by countryside and has some attractive housing, but it also contains some high-rise flats and some council properties that have been neglected. In the area, there are pockets of people who are suffering great deprivation. They need money to be spent on their housing and education, on care of the elderly and on relief of poverty. Those people deserve part of the peace dividend. People in Brinnington are no longer convinced that there is any chance of the Russians invading this country or, indeed, of anyone else invading. They are worried about different problems. They are worried about law and order in Stockport, poverty, the lack of resources in schools and in the Health Service, and care of the elderly. When they look beyond Stockport, they look to Third-world poverty and wish that people there enjoyed the peace dividend. They are not enthusiastic about continuing to spend more money on a defence system that they perceive as increasingly out of touch with reality.

The people of Brinnington fear, not only that they will not enjoy the benefits of the peace dividend, as they have not enjoyed the revenues from North sea oil, but that reductions in defence expenditure will result in a disadvantage for them. They fear that someone else will enjoy the peace dividend and that they will see the other side of the coin. They will suffer unemployment as a result of a loss of jobs in the defence industry. That is a real fear for the people of Brinnington.

Over the past few months, I have tabled questions to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. I did so on 11 November and 12 January and I have another tabled for next Wednesday. I have been disappointed at the Government's unwillingness to consider the implications of a rundown of world armament industries. We must start to look for alternative jobs for people in those industries. The Government's failure to take that into account in reviews of defence spending is appalling.

I am lucky that in my constituency--although I have one defence contractor, Fairey, close to it--other firms

Column 699

which make considerable contributions to Ministry of Defence projects are involved mainly in civil work and in some military work. It will not be too difficult to expand their civil work. Many companies in Britain are completely dependent on defence contracts. It is important that we begin to develop contingency plans at an early stage to take into account arms agreements and a reduction in regional tensions and to seek alternative products. Our defence industries employ 500,000 people. Last year, they brought into Britain over £1 billion in foreign exchange. We must plan to find jobs for those people. We must not only endeavour to produce a peace dividend to be used for other needs, but we must seek alternative jobs.

It is increasingly difficult to justify the House debating the Navy separately. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) said, we must consider all Ministry of Defence activities. We must seek a rational way of discussing them together, rather than separating them out into Army, Navy and Air Force, as we have done for about a hundred years. I question whether the three services need to be separated at all. I understand all the nostalgic arguments for three separate services in the past, but now it does not fit into logic.

Why do we need a defence review? There are three different strategies. No doubt people could put forward more. It is argued that we must not cut defence expenditure and that it is too soon to do so. The hon. Member for Chichester put that argument strongly. Even if we do not get rid of a nuclear deterrent we must still examine the changing pattern of strategy. I agree with him that it is crazy to consider ordering new tanks.

There is no point in having tanks unless the Government have somewhere where they can train people to use them. It is inconceivable that during the next five or six years the West Germans will allow the level of tank manoeuvres that has taken place there to continue. The West Germans will not put up with it. Perhaps the Ministry of Defence can find places in Britain for tank manoeuvres, but I am sceptical that people will put up with such levels of training manoeuvres in the British Isles. Perhaps the Ministry can use the Falklands or somewhere else, but the Government have a major problem in finding places where tanks can be manoeuvred. The Government must weigh up whether it would be better to use helicopters to fulfil the role of tanks. That is one of the fundamental issues that must be reviewed.

The Government must make sure that their commitment to expenditure on Trident does not leave them insufficient funds to spend on small ships. They must weigh up whether our way of life is under threat more from being undermined by the rapid surge of drugs into our inner-city areas than from anything else, and whether we have the boats and equipment to stop people bringing drugs into Britain. The Government must seriously consider the problem of recruitment. As yet, the Government have not addressed the question of whether the defence budget could be altered to make better use of the numbers of people available. They must also realise that in this changing world where people see less threat from eastern Europe or elsewhere, it will not be as easy to recruit people into the armed forces. For the past 15 or 20 years, people

Column 700

have been convinced that they can have a long career in the armed forces. It will be much harder to convince a 16- year-old that if he goes into the armed forces he will have a job for the next 20 years. Young people perceive that there is a good chance that at some point the armed forces will be cut.

One can argue for a review, even if it is accepted that Government defence expenditure should be kept at the present level and the nuclear deterrent maintained. Whether arms negotiations progress quickly or slowly, they will bring about a substantial cut in armaments. That is another argument for a review. A review should not deal with only one scenario. It must take into account alternative scenarios. The arms negotiations may not bring success, and levels of armaments may remain the same.

We must plan for the future, because we all know the time that is involved between placing contracts and having them carried out. There is a possibility that the arms talks will be very successful and that we shall get rapid change. I hope that they are successful. It is high time that the Ministry of Defence took all those possibilities into account in a proper review.

The credibility of the Government's idea of a 50-ship Navy is now disappearing, because I do not think that the Government will be able to find the money to continue placing the orders. We are then faced with the question of what will happen to the people who work in naval shipyards. The Government ought to look quickly to try to find alternative work on civil ships. It is worrying that in all past conflicts the Navy has relied on the merchant fleet. However, we know that there is virtually no merchant fleet left and it seems logical to look for ways in which we can protect it by placing new orders and ensuring that we still have the capacity to build merchant ships and, if necessary, warships.

In the debate on the defence estimates I asked about Fylingdales. I said that the Soviet Union had announced, more or less unilaterally, that its early warning station at Krasnoyarsk was to be dismantled and that it had raised the matter of Fylingdales. Has there been any further discussion about that?

There have been exchanges in the debate about nuclear-powered submarines and their future. That raises questions about Britain's reliance on Trident because I understand that those submarines are important in protecting the Atlantic so that Trident can be hidden. In an intervention my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) asked whether Russian advances in working in space mean that it will be much more difficult to hide Trident. Is Trident now vulnerable to cuts in United States expenditure? I have raised that with the Minister several times and he says no, but I have the feeling that in the next year there will be a substantial argument in the United States about the budget.

My hon. Friend the Member for Attercliffe seemed absolutely certain that the United States armed forces committees were firmly committed to defending the programme. My information is that many people in the United States and in Congress are demanding a peace dividend. When negotiations start on that, we shall see whether Trident will be at risk. The Minister says that he is confident that the teething problems of the missile system have been overcome. That must go into the defence review to find out whether we should now be relying on such a system.

Column 701

We have questions about the extremely low- frequency transmitter that the Government are committed to building on an experimental basis at Glen Garry forest. Given the tremendous changes that have taken place in eastern Europe, would it not be better to delay expenditure on that programme for another couple of years, to see whether it is necessary, before we start to tear up another bit of our countryside for defence installations?

Our first demand is that the Government set in train a defence review. It should not be tied to any certainties, but should weigh up the options and come up with proposals that take into account little change in terms of how much we spend ; arms negotiations that are moderately successful ; or very successful. We should look at how we can transfer resources from the peace dividend to peaceful expenditure, and we must consider the job implications that will flow from that.

We must look seriously at arms conversion. The Government are in grave danger of ignoring the real defence needs of the British people by insisting that we can go on as if nothing has happened in eastern Europe. A great deal of change has taken place there and we should try to prevent future conflicts by means of a realistic defence policy rather than trying to go on preparing for the sort of wars that happened in the past--or those that did not happen. That is looking to the past and not to the future.

7.34 pm

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate) : The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) spoke repeatedly about the peace dividend. He must choose his words with great care because it is wrong to assume that there will be great benefits so early from a peace which, although it can be seen, has not yet revealed its real substance. He also spoke about the need to find alternative employment for those who find themselves out of a job in the defence industry. I recall the savage cuts by a Labour Government, but I cannot recall any provision being made for the employment of people who lost their jobs as a result.

This is a timely debate in which to reappraise the role, size and purpose of our defence forces. I had hoped that the speech by the hon. Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) would enlighten us about how the Labour party saw the future of the Royal Navy, but I was hugely disappointed. I was left with questions and very few answers.

One of the questions that came to my mind as a result of what the hon. Gentleman said was whether a Labour Government would maintain aircraft carriers in the Royal Navy. What would be the size of the Royal Navy if a Labour Government came to power? I suspect from what the hon. Gentleman said that it would be a small Navy designed for shore protection. We shall read his speech most carefully in Hansard. We want to know the policy of the Labour party.

Mr. O'Neill : Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could enlighten us about his conclusions on the Government's intentions on the size of the Navy in respect of their performance and ordering record for surface ships. What are the Government's intentions? This may be the first speech that the hon. Gentleman has made in a Navy debate. Those of us who are fairly regular attenders have year after year heard questions from Back Benchers about the intention of the Government over Fearless and

Column 702

Intrepid and on the aviation support ships. The Government have the information and the power, but they have done nothing to satisfy the House. The hon. Gentleman should not ask the Opposition. He should ask the Government, because for the next two years they have the power to make the decisions which, no doubt, will satisfy the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Banks : My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement gave the commitment that we were seeking to maintain a 50-ship Navy. That is as clear as a bell. I have attended many debates on the Navy and have spoken in them. We have consistently supported the concept of a 50 -ship Navy.

Mr. Alan Clark : It is 300 ships and 50 frigates.

Mr. Banks : Frigates and destroyers ; it is a fighting-ship number.

The changes in the Soviet empire have probably been more speedy and momentous than the demise of any great power structure in history. That is a victory for political ideals, and the proven value of democratic government. Above all, it is a victory for the strength of the armed forces of NATO and the political and economic example of the West. The years of misery and oppression by Communist regimes have been lifted from eastern European countries and from the Soviet Union itself, which is about to go through a momentous change. The only certainty is that we do not know what the future holds. It is therefore right to reappraise our defence role and that of NATO--and that must be undertaken not in haste but balanced by the scaling down of Soviet and Warsaw pact forces. My advice is that we should be "steady as we go".

NATO must work together and stay together. The process of holding, checking and preventing a Soviet invasion of Europe may be less thinkable now, but the Soviet navy remains unaltered in terms of its size and power. I welcome the cuts made in conventional and nuclear forces through patient negotiations. The navies of the world possess about 16,000 nuclear weapons, of which 9,500 are intercontinental ballistic missile warheads. Ninety per cent. of those weapons are deployed in American and Soviet units, and fewer than 1,000 of them in the British, French and Chinese maritime forces, so there is scope for a reduction in the number of nuclear weapons. The scaling down of the naval forces themselves is extremely difficult to accomplish because of the different roles of those navies. That point has already emerged in today's debate, in connection with the Royal Navy's influences and responsibilities worldwide.

Trident spearheads Britain's defence, and it must be maintained. I congratulate the Government on the savings that they have achieved in the construction programme and on the programme's timing being on course.

The Royal Navy's shape and purpose should be the subject of a long and searching debate. For as long as there are sizeable navies patrolling the seas, Britain must maintain her sea strength and maritime capability. Our interests span the world and the maintenance of order, prevention of disruption to merchant shipping and ability of our naval forces to land troops and to supply our forces in trouble spots, wherever they may be, are the purposes for which the Royal Navy has always been ready--and for which it must be maintained.

Column 703

Our forces must be flexible. The reduction in army personnel is inevitable, given the new situation in Germany. To maintain flexibility, the Royal Marines should be strengthened. They currently number 7,700, which, by our standards, is a small force. Army units need to be transformed into a different type of fighting force. By strengthening the Royal Marines, we shall be able to maintain the flexibility that is necessary quickly to deploy fast-acting forces in different parts of the world.

The age of the tank and of the tank battle is nearly at an end, and we must examine carefully their role in today's Army. Air platforms and amphibious forces are vital to the concept of a mobile, combative and flexible force. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will reach a decision soon on the futures of HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid, and that they will be replaced by new ships.

I welcome the aviation support ship because air power is enormously important in a combative scenario. Support for the Royal Navy from the merchant shipping fleet is as important as maintaining our RFAs. The tonnage of British merchant ships has steadily declined, and it will be further depleted in 1997 when Hong Kong-registered ships are no longer available. For both commercial and defence reasons, fiscal measures are needed to stimulate investment and to increase ship numbers in the industry. After all, the merchant fleet produces £2 billion in foreign exchange every year, in addition to the revenue from insurances that it brings to the City.

Our objective must be a highly skilled and mobile combat force and the means to back it up, with the force of RFAs and the use of merchant shipping at times of necessity. The three services must work more closely together if the concept of worldwide deployment is to be achieved in their strategic planning. NATO must address the question of its role and territory of operations, and whether now is the time for it to assume a role that takes it farther afield. No United States marines are currently stationed in NATO areas in Europe. In peacetime, the Royal Navy must give priority to advancing the technology of its weapons and operations. Wars are prevented, or won, not just by numbers but by having the edge over the weapons possessed by others. That means having improved engine technology for our ships, submarine design and detection, weapon range and accuracy, flying operations, and technically based, more accurate methods of minesweeping. Those are all areas for advance research.

NATO can and will adapt itself to changing times, but we must not lessen our efforts to co-operate in research and development. We have the prospect of a period of lasting peace. Let us not leave the door open for an intruder or troublemaker to test our resolve to keep the peace.

7.45 pm

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich) : Like almost every other right hon. and hon. Member who has spoken tonight, I believe that the extraordinary changes in the Soviet Union and in eastern Europe over the past few months have profound implications for the future of our defence. What was so threatening about the Soviet Union over the past 40 years was not its sheer military might but

Column 704

the offensive nature of its full structure on the continent of Europe. So much of Russia's armour and military capability was in a forward situation, which enabled it always to be capable of launching a sudden and devastating attack on western Europe.

Clearly, the CFE process has begun to reduce that risk. The Soviet Union has already accepted the principle of reducing the number of Warsaw pact tanks by two thirds, from 60,000 to 20,000, and its armoured troop carriers from 70,000 to 16,000. Cuts of that kind, together with the reductions currently being negotiated in artillery, will substantially reduce the offensive character of the Soviet forces deployed on the European continent.

We have seen also unilateral cuts made by the Soviet Union, such as the withdrawal of specialist bridging units, which underlines Russia's apparent willingness to relinquish its ability to launch a sudden and devastating attack. No serious analyst currently argues that there is any risk of a surprise strike being launched in Europe. That view is reinforced by changes in the Warsaw pact nations. It is not just that the previous satellite countries are reducing their forces, or that they are no longer concentrating them on their western frontiers. It is not even that they are taking steps to secure the removal of Soviet forces. The most important aspect is the political change that has occurred and the collapse of the Communist regimes. The prospect of free elections also strongly suggests--I put it no higher than that--that we shall soon see elected positive, non- Communist Governments in almost every one of the nations concerned. No doubt they will seek good relations with the Soviet Union, but they are not likely to be pliant, vassal states of the kind that we have seen for the past 40 years.

Because those new states will have serious economic problems, they will look to the West for solutions, which again makes it unlikely that they will serve as any kind of springboard for a Soviet attack on western Europe. The opposite is true. In future, they will present an obstacle to any such Soviet adventurism.

As other hon. Members have said, the situation in the Soviet Union is changing in no less dramatic a way. The Soviet Union is no longer a monolithic super-power. It is riven with economic, ethnic and nationalist problems. If the Soviet leadership wants to meet the aspirations of its people, aspirations that we see expressed on our television screens almost every night, it cannot continue to pour resources into arms at the level that we have seen during the past 40 years.

The basis of the deal that is emerging between East and West is that the Soviet Union desperately needs economic expertise and technological know- how from the West ; in exchange, it can offer stability and security--the removal of the threat under which we have lived since the end of the second world war. That basic and fundamental ideal gives us hope for the future.

However, nothing is certain in this life, and there are obviously risks in the current position. Perhaps the most worrying risk is not the possibility of a return to the old hard-line, concrete-faced Stalinist rulers in the Soviet Union, but, as the empire breaks up, the greater risk of chaos, civil war, ethnic and religious conflicts in the Soviet Union and in parts of eastern Europe. There is always a risk that such untidy and unpleasant situations could spill over into neighbouring areas, particularly in the southern flank of NATO.

Column 705

I agree with hon. Members who have said that the forces that we need to deal with a new situation are different from those needed to deal with the threat with which we have lived since the end of the second world war--a major pitched confrontation on the continent of Europe. In future, we may need smaller, well-trained, well-equipped, more flexible and more mobile forces than we have at present. That implies that we need to reassess the threat and our future defence needs. As we can see, our NATO allies are going down that track : some of them seem to be stampeding down it.

There will be cuts in United States forces deployed in the continent of Europe. In many ways that strengthens the case for Britain to have effective naval forces. Europe is likely to be more dependent on North America for sudden reinforcement in the event of an unexpected crisis. NATO needs to review the size, shape and character of its naval forces.

I would be strongly opposed to early steps to extend the disarmament process into the maritime area, and not just because of the complexity of the issue. We have quite enough to do at the moment in dealing with the complex negotiations on land forces and aircraft without adding something as mobile as naval forces.

When we begin to negotiate about naval forces in the future, I hope that we will remember that the sea lanes across the Atlantic are as vital to us as roads and rail links across Europe are to the Soviet Union. Any deals that we do on reductions in naval forces will have to bear in mind the basic vulnerability of NATO's position. There may be a case for considering naval confidence-building measures, and perhaps for exchanging technical information, or alerting each side to plans for maneouvres and exercises, but that is a long way from the sort of naval disarmament that is being peddled in some quarters.

The coming changes, and those that are already taking place, seem to underline the need for the sort of burden-sharing and specialisation within NATO that we have talked about frequently for years but of which we have achieved little. If we get the sort of CFE deal that seems likely, and we seek to share out various ceilings in equipment and forces across the European part of NATO, there is a risk that we shall end up with ineffective defence systems. It seems to me that CFE ceilings and the well- established prospect of reductions in American forces in Europe will force the European NATO nations to embrace the concept of sharing out who does what at long last. We cannot have every European member of NATO trying to do everything in defence right across the waterfront. I strongly endorse the idea put forward by a number of hon. Members and people outside the House that it is logical for the continental nations of Europe to concentrate more on land defence, leaving Britain to develop its maritime role. Historically we have done that, and it is in our best interests. It would improve the mobility of our armed forces and give us the ability to deal with out-of-area problems which we may well have to face in the future.

I shall mention briefly the concept of forward defence, which featured in the earlier part of our debate. I have no difficulty with the basic concept of forward defence in the naval sphere. If we could guarantee to bottle up the Soviet navy, and the submarine forces in particular, north of the

Column 706

Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap, that might be sensible and the best way to protect NATO convoys across the north Atlantic. However, I have three basic worries about the practical application of that sort of concept. We would have to deploy those forces forward well before hostilities started--if they ever broke out. Therefore, we would have to deploy them at a time of tension, and their deployment would be obvious to the Soviets. At a time of tension, our forward deployed naval forces could no nothing to stop the Soviets moving out of their North sea bases. All that we could do is watch them sail past into the calmer waters of the Atlantic. Also, in my view merely deploying forces forward at a time of tension could risk strongly aggravating the situation, and make matters worse.

When resources are scarce, as we know naval resources are, using them to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted is not the best use. Therefore, in view of the changing situation, forward maritime defence strategies must be reconsidered.

We all welcome the prospect of a 50 per cent. cut in strategic nuclear systems deployed by the US and the Soviet Union. It has been talked about for so long, that it will be something of an anti-climax when it occurs, but it will be welcome none the less. We should not under-estimate the fact that it will leave the Soviet Union with a massive strategic arsenal, a good deal of which will be targeted on western Europe.

While nuclear weapons remain, there is always the risk of a nuclear attack on Britain. Therefore, I see no reason to alter my view, despite the changing international climate, that, while the Soviet Union retains nuclear weapons, it is crude common sense for Britain and France to keep a minimum effective nuclear ability, something that will provide a degree of security to Europe, and will guarantee against any possibility that the United States may not deliver on its nuclear guarantee to NATO powers.

It is well known that Trident was not my first choice for a strategic nuclear system in Britain, but that argument ended a long time ago. I think that Trident now has a lot to commend it as a powerful, accurate and flexible system. It is perfectly possible for us to tailor the number of warheads to suit changing circumstances, and in that sense it can be described as an effective minimum nuclear deterrent.

I am glad to see that the trials of the Trident missile have turned out to be more successful than some pessimists thought in the early stages. Perhaps inevitably, those who gleefully seized on the two unsuccessful sea launch trials have been quieter about subsequent successes. I am glad to see that the missile is doing no worse than any predecessor missile did at a similar stage in its trials. I believe that the major threat to the British Trident missile system comes from problems with warhead production at the atomic weapons establishment at Aldermaston, rather than problems with the missile. The Defence Committee has drawn attention on a number of occasions to the problems of recruitment and retention of the scarce and vital labour needed to produce those warheads. I shall watch with interest to see how the Government's contractorisation programme will tackle the problem--although I remain somewhat sceptical about the possibility that labour can be produced out of thin air at a time when it is so scarce, and can then be

Column 707

persuaded to stay on, without the improvements in pay and conditions that were possible without the introduction of contractors.

I do not want Britain to make any unilateral defence cuts : I do not want us to spend the peace dividend before the cheque arrives at the bank. I do not believe, however, that we can stick our heads in the sand and argue that the world has not changed dramatically over the past 12 months. We should be working with our NATO allies to assess the implications of those changes ; we must seek to reshape our armed forces to meet the needs of the future, rather than leaving them stuck in the concrete of the past. That, I feel, is the sensible, prudent course, and the sooner we embark on the process the better. 8 pm

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) : I listened with keen interest to the speech by the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) ; it was one of several fine speeches in this very relevant debate.

My constituency, which contains six major naval establishments and a large housing estate, must be home to about half the members of the shore-based Navy. Nine years ago the Government conducted a major review of defence commitments, as a result of which they decided that the three main priorities should be the defence of the home base, the nuclear deterrent and the British Army of the Rhine. Over the past 10 years, the Army has remained at a strength of about 156,000, while the strength of the Royal Air Force has increased from about 86,000 to 94,000. The strength of the Royal Navy--which was excluded from that list of top priorities--has now been reduced from about 65,000 men to 57,000, and the purpose of my speech is to ask for the reduction to be arrested.

As many hon. Members have pointed out, the political background has changed profoundly since 1981. Socialism and centralism have proved economically and morally bankrupt throughout eastern Europe ; an attempt has been made-- and thwarted--to secure better dialogue and more democratisation in China ; there has even been an attempt to open up dialogue in South Africa. I am sure that everyone marvels at the courage of those who have led the changes, and we wish them well, but it must be added that the future is potentially dangerous. What are the defence implications of the political changes? Some nations have sought to respond to them quickly : the United States has already announced its intention of cutting defence expenditure by some 2.6 per cent. It is goodbye to the USS New Jersey, the USS Iowa and others, and the 600-ship navy concept--essentially a part of Reagan's presidency--has gone ; we shall see a 546-ship navy in 1991. Holland and Belgium, too, have expressed the wish to cut the number of troops deployed elsewhere in Europe.

Before making our own decisions, we need to consider the military reality behind the political headlines. According to various intelligence reports, and comments by its generals, the Soviet Army appears to support and indeed embrace perestroika, but

perestroika--which means "restructuring"--does not simply mean restructuring away from military hardware ; it means a restructuring within the military establishment as well. To many Russian generals, perestroika means that they will have a

Column 708

chance to increase their emphasis on technology and high-quality products, which will enable the Soviet army to narrow the West's technological lead in military equipment.

There has been much talk of the conversion of the Russian arms industry to civil production, but without verification it would be unwise for us to rely on that. Similarly, there are

indications--mentioned by Labour Members--of a change of strategy by the Russian navy. In recent years there have been fewer "high seas" deployments and a greater concentration on the Soviet "bastion" concept--defending the bases in the sea of Okhotsk, and the strategic submarine ballistic nuclear operations. So far, however, evidence of any Russian naval reduction is thin, and in any event such a reduction would pose major problems of verification. As has been pointed out, cruise missiles in particular can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads, which makes it difficult to verify which type is being carried unless there are people on the missile carriers.

How much reliance can we and should we place on the fact that political changes have reduced the military threat to us? My answer is that we must face uncertainty and instability, and that this is not a time to lower our guard. The likelihood of a planned Russian tank invasion through Europe-- backed with the willing support of the armies and population of the Warsaw pact countries--must be less than it was, but the risk of civil dissension within the eastern bloc, provoking military action and a war that will spread, could be greater now than before.

Some hon. Members have talked rather loosely about the peace dividend. It would be a serious mistake to imagine that the changes in eastern and central Europe are a cause for unalloyed joy among the populations of those areas. There must be losers as well as gainers ; for every person dancing in the street there must be someone contemplating the loss of a privileged existence--the loss of a house, a car, a privileged education for the children or the opportunity to travel. There must be immense stresses and strains in eastern and central Europe, and talk of spending a peace dividend seems to me seriously premature.

We should take note of the changing nature of the threat. The more that the forces facing each other in Europe are reduced, the greater will be the need for flexibility and improved lines of reinforcement. The more that we reduce the British Army of the Rhine and the allied tactical air force--I for one believe that, in due course, by agreement and with proper verification procedures, that will be possible--the more we shall need to keep open the routes for rapid support. Hon. Members have already compared NATO's supply routes with those of the Warsaw pact countries. Those countries rely 75 per cent. on rail communication for their reinforcements and only 25 per cent. on road and Baltic sea and Black sea ferries. NATO, however, moves 90 per cent. of its reinforcement equipment by sea.

Land wars and sea wars require different balances of troops. It has been accepted for years, perhaps centuries, that an aggressor on land needs an advantage of about 3 : 1 against the defender, whereas at sea the position is reversed : the aggressor has the advantage, because he has the opportunity of secrecy and surprise. It would be entirely wrong for us to contemplate reducing our sea

Column 709

forces now. SACEUR--the Supreme Allied Commander Europe--has estimated that NATO could last only about 10 days without sea reinforcements.

The Royal Navy of today is leaner and more efficient than ever. It is well equipped--and I am grateful to the Royal Navy and, indeed, to ship manufacturers and builders, for giving me the opportunity to visit ships at sea and to watch the construction of every class of naval ship in the building yards. It is superbly manned ; the concentration of training and personnel in the south of England--and particularly in my constituency--is, I think, now recognised as the most efficient way to run the Royal Navy, although 10 or 15 years ago their removal to the north was being contemplated. It also gives a social advantage to the men and their families.

We cannot, however, ignore the fact that concentration on the other services at the expense of the Royal Navy leads to some stretches and strains, due to concentration on the three main commitments. The commitment to an escort fleet of about 50 destroyers and frigates may still be about met, but I am concerned that there may not be sufficient personnel to man them. The Royal Navy has already been run down from 65,000 to 57,000 personnel and there has been a commitment to reduce it still further.

I do not know whether further slimming down will harm the efficiency and effectiveness of the Royal Navy, but I fear that it may. Similarly, urgent action needs to be taken to upgrade the armed forces' amphibious capacity, with replacements for HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid. I am also concerned that over one third of the royal fleet auxiliary's fleet tankers and replenishment ships are more than 20 years old. Replacements need to be ordered soon.

Like others, I am disturbed by the lack of a command and control system in the type 23 frigates. We are all concerned about the delay over the supply of a good airborne early warning system. I look forward to the arrival of AWACS in 1992.

There are two other areas of specialisation about which I am concerned. The first is the naval medical service, whose skill and courage has been proved time and again, but never more memorably than in the Falklands. The royal naval hospital at Haslar is highly regarded, but budgetary and nursing problems have occasionally caused difficulty. The medical service is an essential and integrated part of the Royal Navy and deserves steady support. Similarly, may I say a discreet word in support of naval intelligence. There has never been a greater need for us to distinguish between reports of political progress on the one hand and military reality on the other. Finally, I refer to personnel issues. The Royal Navy is tough on some things. For instance, it does not tolerate lateness when a ship is due to sail. However, it is a caring employer. Pay is good and the Royal Navy takes considerable care to help and to understand any problems that may arise while men are in its service. The Royal Navy, however, as with the other services, is naturally more concerned about those serving than about those who have served.

It took several years to win pensions for the pre-1950 service widows who previously had no service pension. The Conservative Government can take great credit for the fact that one of their earliest actions in 1979 was to introduce a special service pension for the pre-1950 service widows. Similarly, it took many years to win improvements for the older war widows. I give all credit to the present Defence Ministers for having responded to the

Column 710

representations that were made on behalf of war widows. On their behalf, I thank the present Defence Ministers for enhancing older war widows' pensions.

I fear, however, that the 25,000 service men who were present at nuclear tests between 1952 and 1958 may be in a similar position to that of the widows when they were fighting for recognition. It does not take a nuclear physicist to guess that there is some connection between nuclear tests and the fact that 700 or so men have suffered cancers, deformity and in some cases death. Those who serve in the Royal Navy deserve our gratitude and support. Those who served in the Royal Navy in the past, and their widows, deserve nothing less. 8.13 pm

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : The hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) made a fluent speech. I agree with him that those who served in the Royal Navy deserve better pensions. However, the bulk of his comments were fundamentally flawed. They were based on threats from an enemy. In the light of world events, that is now regarded as increasingly unreal--a fact that has been acknowledged even by some of his hon. Friends when they look at the state of politics in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

I pay tribute to Royal Navy personnel. They carry out their tasks ably and efficiently. I paid a visit to HMS Alacrity, which is doing excellent anti- drugs work. It has also provided hurricane relief. That is the sort of work that I want the Royal Navy to do, especially anti-drugs work with the United States coastguard. I should like it to be increased. Unfortunately, however, the Royal Navy's cold war role is regarded by the Government as more important.

Naval ratings have expressed concern to me about several issues. They moan about pay, but they are more concerned about the bills they face when they return home. The poll tax is at the top of their list of concerns. Many of them are worried about their families having to rely on social security and housing benefit. They will also, I presume, have to rely on poll tax benefit. The Minister ought to acknowledge that the Government's policies have led to the families of service personnel being forced to rely on rebates, as so many other families have to.

Those people must regard the future with as much concern as my constituent, Mr. E. Taylor, of Lea Hall gardens, Leyton, who wrote to me recently because he is worried about the effect of the poll tax upon him and his wife. He said :

"My present weekly income is £48.55 state pension, and about £64 per week"--

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. Is the hon. Gentleman's constituent a sailor?

Mr. Cohen : Yes. You have spoilt my punch line, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Next Section

  Home Page