Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight) : It is now 15 months since I raised the issue of search and rescue helicopters in the RAF debate. The Wessex search and rescue helicopters are now more than 30 years old and, as was demonstrated recently, they suffer from the logistic problems created by their lack of range. Increasingly, search and rescue helicopters are required to go further out into the Atlantic, and the Westland Sea Kings have that extended capability. A search and rescue order for Westland would enable the company to capture other overseas search and rescue orders for the Sea Kings. The interim results published by Westland a few weeks ago show that the company has just five helicopters left for delivery this year. My concern is that the lack of orders for the helicopter division will overbalance Westland Technologies and Westland Aerospace in my constituency.

As I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister knows, aerospace structure contracts are long-tail business requiring massive investment up front with profits flowing only in the later stages of a contract. That makes the position of the helicopter division all the more parlous and I hope that my hon. Friend will bear that in mind when making the announcement that he promised.

I apologise for introducing a parochial note at a time of such great international changes. I recently visited SHAPE and NATO, and I am certain that it is more important than ever that we do not accept the cellophane- wrapped sugar-candy proposals of the Labour party for a peace dividend that will leave the nation naked and bereft of modern nuclear weapons and efficient services.

Column 758

I recommend my hon. Friend seriously to consider the suggestions I recently made to him about increasing the use of Reserve forces. I believe that we should return to county regiments, resurrected as volunteer forces. We should not sell HMS Intrepid and HMS Fearless when they are replaced ; we should use them to raise a stand-alone volunteer capability for Territorial Army marines with amphibious capability ; they should be crewed by Royal Navy Reserves. So often the Regular forces have acted as a safety net for our reservists. We must convince chiefs of staff in the 1990s that Reserve forces must be encouraged to exercise in a more stand-alone capability with their own allocation of equipment.

I was particularly interested and pleased to learn about the investment made in our armed forces by Jersey, which, as part of its contribution to the defence budget, paid for a new Reserve camp on the Isle of Wight which will be used to train Reserve forces as well as regular forces for the south of England land force. I am sure that it is unique in the history of our armed forces for such a contribution to be made by overseas taxpayers.

The cost of adventure training in the new leaner, meaner services of the next decade could be contracted out to organisations such as the Ocean youth club, rather than maintaining sailing vessels in all three services. By such means we shall surmount the recruiting problems by the use of Reserve forces and we shall be able to deliver the so-called peace dividend politically while maintaining efficient fighting forces. It may be necessary to introduce a period of compulsory service in the Reserve forces. Above all, by maintaining our nuclear forces in a modern state of readiness, Britain will continue to enjoy the longest period of peace it has ever experienced. That is my hon. Friend's duty and our children's inheritance. It must neither be negotiated away nor starved of money. That is the challenge in the 1990s and I have no doubt whatsoever that only a Conservative Government can manage those conflicting interests and maintain a sound defence policy.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee is not present to hear me disagree with his views on the withdrawal of Russian troops from East Germany. If I may say so, as a mere donkey walloper, that is typical of the cavalry--if in doubt, charge. How can we expect Russia to withdraw 350,000 troops and to accommodate them in Russia when more than 17,000 Russian officers and men spent last winter under canvas inside the Soviet Union because of the lack of barracks?

How can we expect Russian generals and field commanders, who, as a result of President Gorbachev's sacking of 300 Russian generals, now have an average age below that of their NATO counterparts to accept an accelerated withdrawal when the best logistic estimates are three years using existing rail capacity to move out the ammunition, stores, fuel and vehicles in East Germany alone? How can we expect that to be completed sooner rather than later? When the bear's back is against the wall, the bear lashes out. The faster the pace, the greater the risk. Mr. Gorbachev is like a rodeo rider- -he shows remarkable ability to stay in the saddle of a bucking bronco, but he has no control over the horse, he does not know where it is going and he cannot get off with any dignity. Now is not the time to cash in on our military muscle.

Column 759

8.49 pm

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : The debate takes place in the most peculiar of times. I have been waiting for Conservative Members to say --perhaps the Minister will say something in his reply--that we should think back five or 10 years and remember the efforts made by President Gorbachev and previous Soviet leaderships to pursue policies of peace and disarmament, and all the arguments advanced by peace campaigners throughout western Europe in the past 20 years calling for nuclear disarmament and a rapid cut in arms expenditure and opposing the siting of cruise and Trident missiles in Europe. Those arguments have finally come to fruition.

It is sad that the Minister and many Conservative Members seem to be pretending that the Soviet Union is our enemy. I do not believe that it has ever intended to invade western Europe. That theory was put forward by NATO and the Marshall plan. Today, they are once again seeking to raise the spectre of some Russian menace. A country that lost 20 million people in the second world war fighting fascism is not about to embark on a war against anyone.

The great search for enemies continues. I understand that SHAPE headquarters is running computer models on whether Libya or another country in the middle east could match up to the size of the threat. There is a perpetual search for enemies to attempt to justify arms expenditure of £21 billion. Even by the rather glossy productions of the Ministry of Defence, the comparisons are awesome. Britain spends £21 billion on armaments, almost the highest in western Europe and the highest per capita of any comparable industrial country. Is it any wonder that social services are grinding to a halt and poverty is increasing continually? There is a direct correlation.

The Ministry of Defence has put much effort into promoting such expenditure on armaments and into exports to poor countries to prop up elitist regimes. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) mentioned the wringing of hands throughout western Europe about how appalling the Iran- Iraq war was, yet it was being fuelled by every industrial country in Europe, by selling the precursor chemicals, which were made into the most devastating chemical weapons by Iraq, by providing credit, by buying oil on the spot market that propped up the economies of those countries and, over the years, by selling arms to those two countries. The sale and export of arms create conflicts such as the Iran-Iraq war.

It is no strategy to continue promoting the sales of arms to countries that can ill afford them and should not have them because the needs of their people are far greater than the needs-- [Interruption.] If the Minister wishes to intervene, I shall happily give way. I am saying, and I am sure that he will agree, that it is far better to consider the needs of the poorest countries rather than to force them to accept arms. The people of those countries certainly do not need them. The arms industries fuel conflicts rather than reduce them. That surely is a problem that we should be considering. I spent a pleasant afternoon yesterday outside the Royal Naval college at Greenwich, which is a beautiful building, taking part in a CND demonstration protesting about the presence of, I believe, a nuclear- armed ship anchored in the Thames, only a few miles from this building. That ship is a threat, because if those warheads are set off it will spark off a nuclear war and because it is

Column 760

a magnet to someone who may want to attack. It is a threat to every Londoner, because if fire broke out on that ship millions of Londoners' lives would be at risk. Despite repeated questions, the Ministry of Defence has refused to confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons on that vessel.

The reaction of the people to whom we were talking was interesting. They agreed that Britain's expenditure of £21 billion could be better spent. Nothing could be more ironic than having this huge ship, with all its danger, might and cost, anchored in Greenwich, which this week has been told to cut its social services budget, its housing budget and its recreation programme. Councillors in Greenwich must this week decide which day centre for the elderly must be cut because of poll tax capping. It is absolutely obscene that so much is being spent on defence when there is such need so close.

I support the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield and other hon. Friends. It is the only amendment that offers a real possibility of achieving rapid reduction in arms expenditure and a strategy that looks beyond just creating a political role for NATO that will inevitably maintain, if not increase, a nuclear capability throughout Europe. It opposes what the Government and many Conservative Members continually talk about--the rather ominous term, out-of-area activities by NATO forces.

Mr. Tony Banks : More jargon.

Mr. Corbyn : As my hon. Friend says, it is more jargon, but it is serious and dangerous jargon.

The last out-of-area activity by the United States was to use bases in this country--we are still awaiting the details of its arrangements for occupying those bases, which it did in 1948 without proper treaty arrangements--to fly planes to bomb people in Libya and kill children in Tripoli. Similarly, the French have used the Foreign Legion in North Africa to remove radical Governments and to prop up elitist regimes that are under threat. I foresee a dangerous trend developing, with a new era of European imperialism that maintains wealth for itself in Europe and uses the world debt crisis to impoverish the poorest countries. When there are rebellions in those countries against the low commodity prices and the investment of multinational capital, the iron force of that imperialism will fall on them, as the Government of Burkina Faso found to their cost when they opposed the economic strategies being imposed by foreign forces.

I find much of what the Government say in the defence estimates extremely depressing. Surely to God, at this time of all times, we need a different approach in the world in view of its problems, such as the growing pollution and impoverishment of two thirds of the world population, the growing destruction of the air and sea environment, of the forests and of the savannah grass lands and the damage to the environment throughout the industrial countries. Do we need a strategy that exports that pollution and poverty to other countries, or do we need a world strategy that reduces the resources spent on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and conventional arms and instead uses them to solve the world's environmental and social problems?

Unless we change our approach and strategy, the scenario of the last few months of French activities in Africa, or, in the last few years, the American

Column 761

bombardment of Libya, will grow, because the United States now has forces in a number of central and south American countries. What are they there for? They are there to extend the influence of the United States and its interests in those countries.

Unless we change direction in the next 10 years--if we are still debating the subject then--we shall be debating the question of millions of environmental and economic refugees attempting to get away from the poverty and impoverishment of their countries that has been created by an economic system which continues that impoverishment.

There is now a chance to cut massively arms expenditure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) has pointed out, if we reduced our arms expenditure--I look forward to a Labour Government reducing it by 50 per cent. over the first Parliament of that Labour Government--many of the United Kingdom's social problems would be solved ; we could rebuild our economic base and play a role in the world that was of real benefit to the world and that would make us face up to the environmental disasters that we are approaching. Instead, we are going in for the myopic maintenance of a high level of arms expenditure, pretending that there are enemies who are about to invade when it is known that they are not. We are putting our heads in the sand and ignoring the realities of life around us.

At this turning point, with all the changes in Europe, now is the time for a real change rather than the nonsense of the imperial images of grandeur that are offered by the Government, with poverty for the people of Britain and of so many other countries.

9 pm

Dr. Charles Goodson-Wickes (Wimbledon) : It is the hope of most hon. Members that their speeches will stand up to examination in future years. To take part in this debate appears to make one peculiarly vulnerable in this respect : seldom, if ever, has a defence debate taken place in peacetime with the world in such a state of flux. I speak as someone who, when serving in BAOR, regularly took civilian visitors to see the Berlin wall. It never failed to move me or them, and never in my wildest dreams did I conceive that it would be removed within my lifetime. We live in exciting times. Nevertheless, there is a risk attached.

There are two themes on which I will concentrate--first, the battle that was won against unilateralism, and its aftermath ; and, secondly, the battle that has yet to be won against terrorism and steps to combat this.

On the first issue, I doubt whether a single fair-minded hon. Member would deny the credit due to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and successive Secretaries of State for Defence over the past 11 years in their determination to negotiate from a position of strength within NATO. The events speak for themselves. The Soviet Union has been brought to its knees not by a battle on a conventional battlefield but by an economic battle, in an unsuccessful attempt to match the installation of sophisticated defence systems. However, now that the Warsaw pact is defunct, a reassessment of the position of

Column 762

NATO and of Britain's role within it is clearly inevitable. It is doubtful whether this reappraisal will take place in a Europe which is significantly more stable than hitherto.

One hears from some quarters of nostalgia for the cold war, because at least everyone knew where they were. As every day passes, the fragmentation of the Soviet Union, under pressure from nationalist and ethnic feelings-- so long suppressed--becomes more likely. Civil wars in the newly emerging democracies in central Europe and the Balkans cannot be discounted--there is precious little history of democracy on which to build--and border disputes between them may erupt.

Against this background, we have been prepared for further delay in reaching agreement on the conventional armed forces in


If I were President Gorbachev I would have certain reservations about the presence of thousands of demobbed lieutenant colonels, let alone their troops, with time on their hands and without jobs, roaming around the Soviet Union. Some former Warsaw pact nations have even developed a sudden enthusiasm for inspection, not of a former enemy's force levels, but of force levels in the Soviet Union itself.

Overshadowing all that is the forthcoming unification of Germany and the formidable political, economic and military implications of that process. In the circumstances, I urge my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his colleagues--indeed, if they need any urging--to adopt the utmost caution. Nothing is nore dangerous than instability. In the face of instability, we must retain, to coin a phrase, flexibility in response. If President Gorbachev falls victim to his own revolution, who can tell to what use the superiority of Soviet armour will be put?

Quite apart from our role to reinforce Europe, we have our out-of-area capability. Hon. Members have heard the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) describe that as jargon. Jargon it may be, but at least we know what we are talking about. We must maintain and protect British interests in a world that is still an inherently dangerous place, not least because of the spread of nuclear weapons to unstable countries.

For example, I hope that we will have reassurance from my hon. Friend the Minister of State that the vital and little-discussed importance of our supply lines across the world will not be neglected. After all, we rely significantly on imports. According to the best figures that I can find, we are only 75 per cent. self-sufficient in food and raw materials.

Recently it has become fashionable for sources close to the President of the United States to describe NATO as predominantly an expression of shared political ideals rather than a framework for a defence strategy. That seems to have been picked up on this side of the Atlantic. It must be a new theory. I doubt whether the United States felt comfortable with Portugal, Greece and Turkey when they were dictatorships within NATO. Indeed, the main influence for fostering democracy in western Europe was not NATO but the European Community.

It is my fervent hope that those statements from Washington are not a prelude to United States military withdrawal from Europe. The conference on security and co-operation in Europe--CSCE--which was well described by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg), is all very well as a vehicle to give a sense of reassurance within the so-called common European home, but a continued American defence

Column 763

presence is vital, with the British providing the historical link between the United States of America and the continent of Europe. I hope that that role will be developed, given our proven talents in the leadership of multinational military formations.

To meet the changed circumstances, we have the current "Options for Change" review. There are many who are better qualified than I to assess the arguments that are filtering through from the inner circle, but I trust that consideration of such matters will be based on one principle, and one principle alone--the need to address a continuing, if diminished, threat. We need a balanced though smaller Army with a job defined first and funds made available. It would then be for the Army to come up with suitable detailed structures to achieve that aim. One sometimes feels that financial reductions may be recommended, but conclusions about the fate of specified infantry battalions and armoured regiments are made before the military implications are thought through. I trust that that is an illusion. In any case, I welcome signs from my hon. Friend the Minister of State of an enhanced role for the Territorial Army and Reserve forces and possible joint training exercises for contingencies which, after all, range from a major war to international disaster relief.

There are two relevant questions. First, do we have adequate strength? Secondly, do we have the right balance? If the answer to either question is no, we have gone about the task in the wrong way. The second issue I wish to touch on is terrorism. The recent atrocities that were carried out by the Irish Republican Army in this country and on mainland Europe have highlighted the dilemma over security for our troops. I am conscious that I am making these remarks in the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire. East (Mr. Mates), the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee. The introduction of new security measures at military installations throughout the country was an obvious step, but I question certain aspects of that policy. Of course, its purpose is entirely defensive, but perhaps those measures cut off the Army from the community that it serves. Not only does service life imply risk, but there is the added danger that the terrorists will either upgrade the weapons used against military targets or shift their attack to soft targets. Unfortunately, it seems that the latter is already happening, with tragic results.

I understand that £30 million was allocated in 1989-90 to physical security measures, but I wonder whether such a sum would be better spent on intelligence. I recognise that this is a peculiarly difficult balance to strike and I do not expect my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement to answer on the Floor of the House questions that relate primarily to the Home Office budget. However, I am confident that as a distinguished former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, whom I am pleased to see taking his place on the Treasury Bench, will give that matter due consideration.

As it is likely that more troops will be stationed in this country in due course, I am certain that there will and should be more contact between the Army and civilians. Given the unique good will that exists, perhaps a type of military neighbourhood watch scheme should be

Column 764

considered as it could, at least, be an effective adjunct to barbed wire and chain fences. It is in the interests of all of us in the country that terrorism is defeated.

In conclusion, may I make the plea for early reassurances to be given to the armed services, which exist as much to prevent wars as to fight them-- contrary to some of the things that we have heard from Opposition Members this evening? The armed services need to be told of the value that we place on their activities, and especially on their ability to adapt to the unexpected.

The level of recruitment may be satisfactory at present, but the retention of trained and experienced personnel is proving increasingly difficult in these changing times. Morale has been knocked in so many ways. The general mood of uncertainty has been aggravated by the postponement for nine months of the retention bonus scheme, by the moratorium on new contracts as a result of the unfortunate defence budget overspend, and by the ban on civilian recruitment for the more mundane tasks. It may seem a trivial point, but in an all-volunteer Army, a trained soldier should be doing what he has been trained to do and should not, for example, be cleaning the cookhouse.

The armed forces have no wish to be immune from the concept of financial accountability, which has been promoted so vigorously by this Government. In due course, there will be a peace dividend, allowing more resources for health and education and all the other issues that we recognise need the Government's attention. However, there is nothing more radical, in the true sense of that word, than the sense of security that comes from well- trained, well-equipped, well-housed armed forces, with reduced disruption of family life, and more contact with the community. That is the service dividend and I am confident that my right hon. and hon. Friends will not neglect it in the days ahead.

9.13 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : As one who did his national service in a tank crew, with the 31st land infantry brigade, I should like to pay tribute to the brigade's commander at that time, General Victor Campbell, who died earlier this month. Victor Campbell was unfairly portrayed in the brilliant film, "Tunes of Glory", and was played brilliantly, as Colonel Barlow by Sir John Mills. However, it was an unkind caricature of a considerable man to whom many people have cause to be grateful.

I now make a complaint to the Secretary of State for Defence. As his parliamentary colleague for many years, I say to the right hon. Gentleman that it was quite wrong that he did not ensure that the official Opposition and the Liberal party were represented when he went to Gallipoli. That broke all precedent. Two of my right hon. Friends, who are Members for Leeds constituencies, would have represented the Labour party with great distinction, as would my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill). But there should have been a representative. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) should also have been asked. I hope that the representation at the Gallipoli commemoration is in no sense a precedent for such occasions.

While we are on the subject of anniversaries, I pay tribute on its 50th anniversary to something that is forgotten--

Column 765

Mr. Tom King : The only request that we received was from the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). We offered to arrange for him to attend, but he did not take us up on it. I cannot understand why he chooses to raise the matter at this time. In no sense--I deplore the idea--is the commemoration of Gallipoli a party political matter, and I certainly sought to respond to any request.

Mr. Dalyell : The offer to me was not to go with the official party or to have anything to do with it.

Mr. Ian Bruce : Wrong again.

Mr. Dalyell : No, I am not wrong. No offer was made, as it certainly was when Jim Callaghan was Prime Minister or in Harold Wilson's time--my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) will correct me if I am wrong. But no offer was made to the Opposition spokesman.

My personal view is that I no longer see any need for this country to have a new battle tank. A long time ago I was a member of a tank crew. In the present context, I feel for tank crews and think that nowadays they would easily be "brewed up"--I think that is the right term. Is it not a fact that the Americans have under development a SADARM, a search and destroy armoured missile? There are heat-seeking missiles--doubtless the Soviet forces have them, too--against which a tank, however well armoured, would stand little chance.

The American weapon, which will certainly soon be developed by other countries, is designed to take out the most modern tanks. What is the Ministry of Defence's assessment of heat-seeking and other related weapons taking out tanks? If my argument is right, is it sensible to go ahead with the expense of a new main battle tank? The tank is heading for obsolescence in the modern European battle field. It is conceptually obsolete because we want defences that do not make the other side worried and create instability. The tank is basically an offensive weapon.

In his opening speech, the Secretary of State for Defence gave various figures on how we should take into account the fact that eastern Europe was not disarming to the extent that it was supposed in some countries. Are my statistics accurate or not? Is it not a fact that the Czechs have already cut their forces by 30 per cent., the Hungarians have cut theirs by 35 per cent. and the Soviet armed forces will be out of Czechoslovakia and Hungary by the end of 1991? Is it not a fact that 10,000 Soviet troops have already been withdrawn from Poland ; that East Germany has reduced its forces from 165,000 to 100,000 in two years ; that Soviet tank production has been halved ; and that last year the Soviet Union cut its forces by 5 per cent.? My figures come from the CIA-- [Interruption.] --so perhaps I am all right.

Not only our so-called enemies but our friends have been making cuts. The West Germans have cut troop levels from 495,000 to 400,000. I want to associate myself with the arguments of my hon Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) on this.

What discussions have taken place about these matters with the chiefs of staff? I do not believe everything that I read about their not being consulted, but enough has appeared in the press to legitimise my question. I remember that when I was first a parliamentary candidate--the Minister of State, who is a military historian, will remember this well--Duncan Sandys carried out the 1957

Column 766

defence review behind closed doors. It will be in the collective memory of the Ministry of Defence that that created great difficulty at the time of the 1957 White Paper.

What do we want? My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East suggested an end to BAOR. I say that BAOR could realistically be cut by a third within18 months and by two thirds in three years, bearing in mind the accommodation problem. I believe that the RAF in Germany should be cut forthwith from seven squadrons of Tornadoes to three--I refer to the GRI which is the strike arm, not to the interceptor arm which, as far as I know, is based in the United Kingdom. That would send a signal to the Soviets that we were serious about cuts. For the moment, we should keep in place the Phantoms, the interceptors, and the Harriers, the close air support.

I now approach a delicate issue that affects my constituency. The Secretary of State asked earlier what would happen in Edinburgh if there were any cuts in the European fighter aircraft programme. Is it not highly likely that the West Germans will cancel their participation in the EFA? If so, someone had better make contingency plans for the many skilled people in Edinburgh--

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Alan Clark) : The hon. Member must know that, thanks to the continuous and dedicated efforts of my right hon. Friend, the Germans have signed up for the relevant stage of the EFA contract. I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman searches his memory he will recollect that.

Mr. Dalyell : In that case, many people in Edinburgh will be reassured ; but were the Germans to cancel, we should have to make plans for arms conversion. Many people who are worried about their jobs will be relieved in the short-term by that assurance, if I have interpreted the Minister aright.

We must take advantage of the peace dividend, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East that we have to use it for the industrial base of the 21st century. Britain's security is economic and depends on reinvesting in industry.

The worst danger that we face would be the discontent of the peoples of eastern Europe if we were unable to help them economically. Some of us think that, without exaggerating and being too dramatic, the best thing that we could do for our own security would be to have some kind of Marshall-type plan for eastern Europe. Anyone who says that that is fanciful should contrast the treatment of Germany in 1918 with its treatment in 1945. Which is preferable? The treatment from 1945 to 1955 led to a far more stable West Germany than the Germany that began to go wrong before 1929.

In that context I refer to the Dublin conference which has just taken place. At that important conference, for the first time western and eastern Environment Ministers met to see what we could do to help eastern Europe overcome its monumentally appalling environment problems. Unless we have the wealth to solve that problem, we can do very little to help those eastern European countries. Some of us heard Carlo Ripa di Meana, the European Commissioner, say how important it was for the countries of western Europe to do something to help the east.

There are many other problems in which we should become involved in furtherance of the peace dividend. They are the conservation of energy and metals, projects for anti-corrosion, recycling technology, the problems of

Column 767

winning metals from lower grade ores and the problems of creating efficient public transport. All those matters have far more to do with our security than the making of tanks or other military expenditure to which we seem to be committed. We need to return to the Op Macc--operation military aid to the civil community--schemes of General Sir Derek Lang and do what the United States corps of engineers did in the 1920s and the 1930s. They made a great contribution. We must think in terms of personnel and encourage many in the forces, and not only officers, to take university degrees so that those who remain in the forces can make a high quality contribution and be fairly certain of a welcome into civilian life when they leave. Otherwise there will be no career.

Speaking about his union members, Bill Morris, of the Transport and General Workers Union, said :

"Defence workers are proud people ; they're not ashamed of what they do, they're highly skilled and very patriotic. But they haven't made a conscious decision to produce weaponry. Circumstances have taken them into it. They now see their future and security threatened as a result of world events. They are looking to the unions, and to opinion-formers and decision -makers to help them reshape the events which affect their lives and to give them a more secure future. My union believes that we have to make real demands of political parties."

That is the demand that we must face. We must do something constructive for our armed forces.

9.29 pm

Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South) : I appeciate that there is only a very short time before the Front-Bench speeches are due to begin. I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) for enabling me to make a brief contribution to the debate.

I commend to the House the report of the conference of the Inter- Parliamentary Union at Bonn on disarmament. I shall not go into detail about it because there is not time to do so. It was a co-operative conference which was attended by delegates from throughout the world.

I appreciate the figures on our balance of payments to which the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) referred. I think that West Germany may lose about £10 billion. I look forward to seeing additional tank troops based in south Dorset. My constituency could do with the foreign exchange.

I have something sweet to put around the bitter pill, which involves the sea systems controllerate. About two and a half years ago I became aware that the controllerate in my constituency, at which there are about 650 jobs, was to be centralised somewhere near Bath. That sounded qute a good idea until it was investigated. I discovered that the employees at Bath were rather fed up with their tatty offices, at which there are 2,500 employees, and that they had a lovely plan to persuade the Ministry of Defence to build brand new offices for 4,000 employees. They persuaded a predecessor of my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement that if the staff were cut by about 10 per cent. that would pay for the £40 million that the move would cost over 10 years.

That was a ridiculous proposal, yet £40 million has been set aside to increase the defence establishment by building yet more offices at Keynsham. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench to reconsider that arrangement. For about two and a half years reorganisation has been blighted within the organisation. I am sure that the controllerate could work

Column 768

more efficiently. Indeed, a 10 per cent. staff reduction has already been made without moving staff through natural wastage. I do not believe that another three years of blight should be allowed to take place. Reorganisation is overdue and there should be a careful examination of what is happening. I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to review the decision.

9.31 pm

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington) : This could be the most important defence estimates debate for many years because of what is missing from the estimates and not because of what is in them. We are on the verge of a major transformation of relationships between the states of Europe and between the super-powers, and that is not confined to diplomats. We must recognise that changes in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union--I hope that the debate will reflect this fact--mean major changes within the United Kingdom and western Europe generally. The days when military force, or the threat of it, was seen as a credible means of solving international disputes are numbered. The ever-increasing opinion is that western Europe is no longer seriously threatened militarily. It will be increasingly difficult to convince the tax-paying public of Europe of the necessity to vote for defence budgets which are based on the assumption of an imminent attack by the Soviet Union.

In an interview during "The World at One" on 14 April, Lord Carrington said :

"the truth of the matter is that if there isn't a threat or a very serious threat, from the East, there is no way in which public opinion is going to continue to support defence spending--and nor should it--on the basis that we have at the moment."

Moreover, with an ever-decreasing threat, fewer and fewer young people will be attracted to the military as a career, because the values that it projects and represents are no longer considered appropriate.

Having twice been to the base on the Falkland Islands, I agree with everything that the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) said about the conditions there. They are awful and must be improved. I do not agree-- this is only a point of view that is exchanged between us--that the soldiers are happy down there. Many of them dislike living in such conditions and being so far away from Port Stanley. I agree generally with what the hon. Gentleman had to say about the soldiers in the Falklands.

I do not wish to denigrate the Government's review of defence commitments before it is completed. It would be silly to do so. I hope only that the Secretary of State's "Options for Change" will be bold enough to tackle the major issue of civil-military relations. If it is not, the Government will create severe problems for the future, which the Opposition will not be afraid to address when we form the next Government.

As I said in the Army debate earlier this month, we do not like the secrecy surrounding the Government's current defence review. I hope that, when we eventually hear what they have decided, we shall find that their plans include not only consideration of the nitty gritty of forces structure and of procurement decisions but an open, objective assessment of the current and future military threats to Britain.

The Secretary of State acknowledged that the Warsaw pact is moribund as a military organisation, and that was

Column 769

publicly accepted by the NATO defence planning committee at its meeting last month in Brussels, which the Secretary of State attended.

What of an attack by the Soviet Union? Last November, the Washington Post and New York Times published substantial parts of a leaked paper to the Defence Secretary that spelt out a new assessment by the United States intelligence community of the scale and nature of the Soviet threat. It concluded that there is no longer any justification for NATO maintaining its forces on readiness for a short-warning attack. The standard period quoted for a considerable time was 10 days, but the report said that the size and posture of the Warsaw pact forces meant that NATO would now have at least 33 to 44 days' warning of an attack, and possibly much longer.

When I attended Sealink in Anapolis last year--and I know that some Conservative Members were there, too--it was made clear that the major difficulty was getting men, munitions and other goods across the Atlantic, whereas the Soviets could trundle through eastern Europe using the railway system. When I put that to a senior retired admiral, he said that under present conditions he would much prefer to cross the Atlantic than try taking trains through the countries concerned to reach the German border. When I was in Moscow just before the Secretary of State, I put that point to one of the senior Soviet foreign affairs staff, and he said that if he had a choice, he would agree with the retired admiral.

It has been said for a long time that a threat would be posed by tanks coming through central Europe, but that does not take into account the fact that between Moscow and Germany there are some 50 nuclear power stations. The consequences of a tank battle in central Europe with that many nuclear stations around would be incredible. The leaked report to the United States Defence Secretary addressed the nature of the Soviet threat before any of the cuts announced in Gorbachev's speech to the United Nations in December 1988 took effect, and before any of the massive upheavals in eastern Europe that occurred in 1989. Without the political and logistic support of neighbouring countries, a Soviet attack would be impossible. Many of the countries that Russian troops would have to trundle through have thrown out their old Governments and rejected Soviet domination. None of us regrets that.

According to the latest CIA threat assessment released on 20 April, at least three of the six tank divisions that Gorbachev promised in 1988 to disband have gone, as have three quarters of the 8,500 artillery pieces and 800 aircraft that he promised to cut. Soviet defence spending is in decline and morale is so low among Soviet forces that the USSR would have great difficulty in launching any attack, let alone a short-warning attack.

That leaves the threat of a Soviet nuclear attack. In what possible circumstances would the Soviet Union, which clearly has no intention and, more importantly, little or no capability now to attack western Europe with conventional forces, want to start a nuclear war? We can now make the transition to a more mature form of international relations where the de facto situation of constant and deepening interaction between east and west

Column 770

in trade, technology, culture and environment may be matched by the abandonment of the xenophobic nuclear chest-beating which has characterised the past 40 years.

The nuclear supporters would say, "But what about instability in the USSR?" The Secretary of State and I were in the Soviet Union at similar times, and we are well aware of what is happening in some of the states. People ask what the Soviet military would do if Gorbachev continued to squeeze them, or, what is worse still, if Yeltsin takes power and attempts greater cuts in the Red Army's resources, power and status. Would not there be a risk of a military coup? Again, we must be realistic. Even if the army took over, what could it do? It could not hope to turn the clock back, and since it could not hope to deliver economic reforms, it is a spent political force.

When I was in Moscow earlier this year I saw the immense economic and social problems which face the Soviets--by gum, they are immense. It is now obvious that the military could not solve those problems. The most that it can do is to delay the process of reductions in Soviet military strength-- which it seems that it is doing--by slowing down progress in arms control talks and reducing the pace of some withdrawals from eastern Europe.

Even the CIA has publicly acknowledged that there is no danger of the Soviet Union reverting to the Brezhnev era, when the military's political power was at its height. When the director of the CIA expressed such a view to Congress earlier this year, it was much to the chagrin of United States Defence Secretary Dick Cheney, who was trying to persuade Congress to tone down its defence cuts, as a hedge against the hawks regaining control in the Kremlin. Some notable United States Sovietologists, such as Stephen Meyer at MIT, have recently been predicting that Gorbachev will appoint a civilian as Defence Minister later this year, for the first time in Soviet history. That will be another sign that the chances of the hawks regaining control in the Kremlin are nil.

Therefore, a Soviet attack on western Europe is inconceivable, even as a result of Gorbachev being deposed. What about the risk of nationalist unrest in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union? What if the problems of Lithuania or any of the other states become so great that they lead to widespread civil unrest and military intervention? Could not that lead to war engulfing the whole of Europe? Even if Gorbachev decided to send troops to quell nationalist unrest, the chances of internal problems spilling over into a wider international conflict are minimal--there would be enough to deal with at home without risking a wider war. In such circumstances, what on earth could NATO do, other than to take diplomatic measures? The only possible contribution it could make would be to act as a symbol of political cohesion between states. Perhaps it could play a part in developing and promoting within Europe the type of political relationships and structures which minimise the risk of nationalist uprisings occurring in the first place, and which maximise the chances of solving problems when they occur.

Mr. Ian Bruce rose--

Next Section

  Home Page