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Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South) : I am sure that the House listened with respect to the honourable and gallant Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis). I deliberately use that traditional form of address because he is an honourable and gallant Gentleman. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will have listened to his speech with respect and with careful attention because he spoke from the heart and with great knowledge and obviously he must be taken extremely seriously.
The hon. Gentleman ended his speech on a parochial note. I shall begin on one. The last time that we debated defence in the House, my county regiment, the Staffordshire Regiment, was under threat. I am delighted to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Defence and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Mr. Hamilton) for at long last listening to the pleas which we made time and again from the moment when that ill-advised merger with the Cheshires was announced until finally my right hon. Friend came to the Dispatch Box and announced that the
Column 1056regiment was reprieved. It was most frustrating for me as I was off sick that day and could not respond. But I can do now and say how glad I am.
I have rarely been more moved or impressed than I was when I went in April with the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) to a special lunch put on by the Staffords to say thank you to those who had campaigned in Parliament and outside. One met there a group of young men who were remarkably dedicated. They were thorough professionals in the best sense of that word. I was not only thrilled that the Staffords had been reprieved, which was absolutely right and necessary, but I also saw those young men-- officers and men--as the very epitome of British manhood.
There are few institutions in this country today that are regarded with unreserved pride and admiration. This place is not always held up for the admiration that it might be. There are very few in the professions who are regarded with unrelieved and unreserved pride. But I know very few people who have anything other than respect and admiration for our armed forces ; for the professionalism and dedication with which they perform the most difficult of tasks, for the quiet, understated and restrained courage and bravery that they invariably display, which we have seen so graphically demonstrated in Bosnia in recent months. It is good to begin by paying that tribute. I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell is not here. He explained to me that he had to leave and he knew that I would be referring to him. But it is a pity to approach any defence debate from the point of view of Treasury figures. The absolute overriding duty of any Government, regardless of its political complexion, is to secure the defence of the realm. Our armed forces are second to none.
My right hon. Friend referred to a reporter. It was Kate Adie. I was in the Commepts that we are singularly fortunate in having such brilliant armed forces, always the arm of civil power and never anything else, and if one accepts that it is the overriding duty of any Government to secure the defence of the realm and its interests, one cannot and must not begin with a figure and fit everything within that figure.
Of course I was as delighted as anyone in the House at the end of the cold war ; at the demise of the monolithic communist bloc. But I am as aware as anyone in the House that those old monolithic dangerous certainties have been replaced by something perhaps even more dangerous. Already it has been referred to this afternoon. Where once the Soviet Union existed as a monolithic nuclear power, regimented and controlled, there are now four nuclear powers, not very well regimented and controlled.
The danger implicit in that for the fragile peace of the world, a danger compounded by the fact that, within the decade, we may well see Iran and Iraq as nuclear powers, should make anyone realise that it is essential not to be dictated to by figures when one comes to work out the defence budget and the defence of the realm. The Conservative party has much to be proud of in the way in which it has sustained the defence of this realm. We have a great deal to be proud of in the leading role that we have enabled our country to play in NATO during the past 14 years and before. But we must recognise--this was referred to in an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), who is Chairman
Column 1057of the Defence Select Committee--that Britain is a great power. It is a leading member of NATO. It is, after all, one of five permanent members of the Security Council. It is a member of the Group of Seven, the most important economic nations in the world. It has an important and pivotal role in the European Community.
Whichever way one looks at it, Britain is a great power and that brings with it responsibilities. I should like to make that the background of some remarks about a subject that has cropped up in every speech--the situation in the former Yugoslavia. I make no apology for raising that yet again. The House is a little fuller than it was at 3.30 am one cold December morning in 1991 when we first debated the situation in the former Yugoslavia. It was the first time that the House had discussed it.
To say "the House" is perhaps a slight exaggeration. I was here, as was my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The hon. Member who had the next debate on the Consolidated Fund was here, sleeping gently on a Back Bench somewhere. Mr. Deputy Speaker was in the Chair because Mr. Speaker Weatherill had had the good sense to go to bed. Someone was reporting from Hansard and I think that two people were asleep in the Public Gallery, and that was it.
I make that point because I want to say that at that time I and a number of others were saying that if only a united and resolute show of forceful resistance to what was going on in Yugoslavia were made, the problems that were then occurring in Dubrovnik--it was then a Croatian problem--would probably have been brought to an end and there probably would not have been an outbreak in Bosnia. What was needed, of course, was not massive forceful intervention, but a naval and air blockade. If they had been instituted we might have avoided all the carnage and horror and all the rape and distress that has followed since.
We must recognise that what has happened in the former Yugoslavia during the past 18 months is an indictment of the western powers, and the European powers in particular. Yes, we triumphantly won the cold war. Yes, it was a stunning victory. But in the first real test in this new disordered order that replaced those old certainties to which I have referred, we have failed.
There is no point in rescuing our reputations merely by heaping much- deserved praise on the troops. Yes, our troops have discharged themselves with marvellous fortitude and bravery. I have already referred to that. That no one can gainsay. But it is no good a politician saying that that is wonderful and all is right, because it is not. There has been a lack of cohesion and a failure to respond. An uncertain message has been sent about the effectiveness of the United Nations and of the European Community in dealing with such a crisis. The message that that conveys to warlords in many countries and to those who might become warlords in many parts of the Soviet Union is fraught with dire danger for us all.
There are various things that we can and should do. On 25 May I tabled, with the support of several of my hon. Friends, early-day motion 2082, which refers to the
Column 1058background to our failure and to the Washington accord, which had just been signed. We said that we had no confidence in that agreement.
"because it recognises, and thus rewards, unprincipled and brutal aggression and offers neither adequate protection nor reasonable hope to the victims of the worst crimes against humanity since World War Two."
I commend that motion to right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House because it sets out the position fairly well and makes the point that, with each failure, the situation has become more difficult to deal with. Something that began as an act of Serbian regression and that was not a true civil war has degenerated into a civil war, with Muslim and Croat fighting each other.
I have never advocated and I do not advocate massive ground involvement and unnecessarily putting lives at risk. However, I may say in parenthesis that when one talks to young men in the Staffordshire and in other British Army regiments, they say some very sobering things. I asked one group what they would do if they were sent to Bosnia. They replied, "We joined up to serve, and if we are sent we will go. We only hope that we will not have one hand tied behind our back, like our mates in the Cheshires." One of them said, "Sometimes, you get killed--but if you didn't recognise that, you would not join the Army any more than a young man would join the police." It is not that they court disaster and danger, but they know that it is there. I regret the emotive talk about body bags and so on, but I have never advocated mass ground involvement.
What can be done now? We can make one last supreme effort to get the parties together, but we can only do that successfully if the Serbs in particular know--although this applies now to the Croats also to a degree-- that we are prepared to take more punitive action than the mere imposition of sanctions. One tragedy of the situation has been the invalidation by ourselves of the doctrine of deterrent. For many years we taught that one deterred by having something that one was prepared to use. In the case of the Serbs, we signalled from the word go that we would not use force of any sort against them. We should have kept them guessing and we should have been resolute. Hence my advocacy from the beginning of an air and naval blockade. I do not know whether we can rescue from that carnage and despair something identifiable as a nation. We recognised it as a sovereign nation and we still do--its president was with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs at the beginning of this week. Some 200,000 people, and perhaps as many as 250,000, have died, and 2.5 million have been displaced. The statistics are overwhelming in their grotesque horror.
We can and must draw a lesson from that appalling catastrophe--that the old philosophy of NATO does not apply in the new world order. We have talked of rapid reaction and deployment and of fire brigade-type operations and forces. We must develop a new strategy to deal with situations which are far short of the threat of a world war but which are perhaps the beginning of cancerous conflicts that can destroy a nation. It is essential that we establish a group of Ministers from each of the NATO countries who should meet over the next few months, charged with the job of working out a strategy for the new, disordered world order.
Column 1059Britain has a remarkable contribution to make in that context, based on the brilliance of our armed forces, long traditions and ability to react. That tradition has never been and should not now be dictated to by Treasury figures. Of course, harsh decisions must be made on public expenditure--every right hon. and hon. Member recognises that--but the last thing to be cut should be that on which we all ultimately depend, which is the safety and security of the realm and its interests, which depend fundamentally on effective armed forces.
I was disturbed when I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster speak about the findings of his Select Committee, the length between tours that our troops are obliged to observe, and the young women in Cyprus who were left behind while their husbands went to the Falklands. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement is a man of sensitivity and imagination. I hope that he, too, was disturbed and will consider carefully the implications.
I hope also that my hon. Friend the Minister above all realises that real imagination and vision is called for in dealing with the problems that now beset us. I make no apology for giving my hon. Friend a boost and plug, because earlier this year he published one of the most remarkable, successful, well-written and brilliantly researched biographies of any living political figure. I refer to my hon. Friend's biography of Nixon. I read every word of it because I had to review it and I thought that it was excellent.
My hon. Friend the Minister analysed a man who, whatever his domestic and personal shortcomings, was in the international sense a colossus. We lack a colossus on the international stage at the moment. Perhaps my hon. Friend, through his important place in the Government and close proximity to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, will be able to play a part in fashioning just such another colossus because--by jove--we need leadership of that high order now in this dangerous world. If we are to supply it, or help to supply it from this country, we cannot do it with a defence budget that is so Treasury-dominated that real emergencies are neglected and real contingencies cannot be met.
Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East) : The hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) spoke with his usual sense and honesty in probing beyond NATO into a much more complex world. Such searching after the truth will pay dividends. The hon. Gentleman began by hailing his success in retaining his local regiment, and he is justly proud of its history and traditions. Such things simply cannot be bought, and the hon. Gentleman will sympathise with and understand the Scottish view of our regiments and their importance within Scottish culture and the Scottish way of life.
The cliche that we live in a rapidly changing world has now proved absolutely true. Cataclysmic events of historic significance have seemed to pile up over the past few years ; only now have we an opportunity to stop and take stock of the significance of what has happened. The old, ultimate cold war opponent has disappeared, to be replaced by a multiplicity of potential trouble spots. Problems of an entirely different nature have arisen throughout the world. In that context, surely we need a new and fundamental review of defence requirements and configurations.
Column 1060The old United Kingdom strategy, dominated by the cold war and nuclear weapons, must now be either justified or altered to meet changed circumstances. Is the Minister entirely satisfied with the current nuclear defence strategy, or does he admit that those changed circumstances now demand a root-and-branch review of our defence requirements? Let me again make a direct plea to the Government to scrap the plans for regimental amalgamation in Scotland : given the increased demand for conventional forces, it makes less and less sense to destroy Scotland's highly successful regiments by amalgamating them. I support the contention of Lt-Gen. Sir Peter Graham that the British Army is already overstretched with its current commitments, let alone any extra duties that may arise after the implementation of the proposed cuts.
This is very much an avoidable error. Sir Peter says :
"There is a need for more Infantry in the British Army. There is acute overstretch and the proof is that the interval between operations should be 24 months but it is actually down to 15 months! We are facing heavy commitments within a world situation which has changed If 47 battalions cannot cope, I cannot see how 40 battalions could cope!"
Sir Peter is a military strategist, and I am not ; but even I can see that conventional forces are being required on an increasing scale throughout the world, for both peacekeeping and other duties. The Government's policy is to supply even more nuclear weapons which cannot be used, while at the same time dismantling infantry regiments that provide the only effective method of operation. That is a gross misuse of resources, and a major policy error.
The Government have never really answered the point about overstretching : I hope that they will do so this evening. Their first response to the outright opposition to regimental manpower cuts was to halt reductions at 119,000 men rather than 116,000, as originally planned. However, there has been no increase or addition in the strength of either men or infantry battalions ; nor are any proposed. In fact, there has been a decrease only marginally less severe than those orginally scheduled in "Options for Change"--hence the problems of overstretch, stress and strain and grossly reduced intervals between duty tours. Those problems will continue, as will unnecessary family separations.
The price of those regimental cuts will be paid by the families of soldiers who will experience stress owing to the failure of Government policy. If finance is the Government's prime motivation, I should like to hear from them the extra costs and burdens that will be placed on individuals, local authorities and the local economies of the highlands and the north-east of Scotland. Will they do anything to help with new housing, employment and the retraining of the soldiers who would have preferred to remain in their chosen profession? At what cost will this take place, compared with the continuation of the battalions that are required by existing commitments?
Again, the price of the Government's policy will be paid by individuals, families and the local economy, which will be rocked by between 500 and 600 redundancies in an already depressed economic situation. I have not heard the Government deal with that. The highlands and the north-east of Scotland will pay a heavy price for unnecessary regimental cuts.
Let me remind the Minister that the planned amalgamations affect an area whose population is
Column 1061relatively small. One person in 3,000 joins the Army through the Queen's Own Highlanders each year : one in 19,000 does so in London. The impact of the redundancies, and the need for homes, will be disproportionate if the amalgamation goes ahead. I have never understood the logic of axing the Scottish regiments, which are popular and up to establishment--especially when, even in financial terms, recruitment is easier to achieve and retention levels are far higher.
I believe that the Government should play to the strengths of the Gordon Highlanders and the Queen's Own Scottish Highlanders, rather than destroy traditions and loyalties that have existed for centuries. Such things cannot be bought, and, once destroyed, they will be gone for ever.
In addition to all that, Scotland has another problem. Now, the economic and unemployment threat of the Rosyth closure hangs over the local population. Lord Younger of Prestwick has said :
"Before a final decision is taken, I feel I must remind all concerned of a matter of good faith which is involved here. I fought long and hard, first as Secretary of State for Scotland and then as Secretary of State for Defence, to persuade public opinion in Scotland to accept, however reluctantly, that Britain's base for the nuclear deterrent would be at Faslane on the Clyde.
One of the most powerful arguments which I deployed was that there would obviously be many jobs for Scotland associated with operating and maintaining the submarines. I know that many in Scotland would therefore feel badly let down if a major part of these jobs were now to be removed from Scotland.
I hope it will be understood that I would find it impossible to support such a move as my good faith would clearly be called into question."
If the Government close Rosyth, they will break their former colleague's word. They will leave Scotland with the worst of both worlds : a country that faced all the nuclear dangers will have lost any employment or economic benefits.
Mr. Mans : Earlier, the hon. Gentleman gave the impression that he favoured a transfer of defence resources from the nuclear deterrent to infantry battalions and conventional armaments. How does he reconcile that statement with his wish for Rosyth to be kept open to service nuclear submarines?
Mr. Welsh : I was quoting the words of Lord Younger, who was responsible for the policy. I am saying that, if there is to be a peace dividend and if it is to mean anything, Rosyth should be turned into a model of employment diversification and investment for the future. It appears that the Government have no such intention. I am saying that Scotland will get the worst of both worlds : we had the nuclear dangers, and it appears that, if this decision goes ahead, we shall lose the employment that such an installation would provide. I am simply giving the Government a previous Minister's view. He believes that his honour is at stake. I hope the Government will listen to that view. I also hope that they will go beyond the nuclear issue, and ensure that there is real defence diversification and a real future for Rosyth. Closure of Rosyth would bring about economic devastation. I am very worried about the general trend in the Government's policy : they tend to close such installations, rather than maintaining a presence to allow
Column 1062change, employment and a future. Once they have gone, local economies are utterly devastated. The Government have employed that policy in many spheres ; I consider it very short-sighted. In December 1992, the Ministry of Defence issued a publication entitled "Information to Local Authorities and Emergency Services on Nuclear Weapons Transport Contingency Plans". The information was intended to help local authorities to plan for, and deal with, any accident involving nuclear weapon convoys. Ministry of Defence advice from that document is that people should be advised to shelter up to 5 km from the accident locus. According to Strathclyde region, it is simply not feasible to achieve that, given the methods available for informing the public. Similarly, MOD advice is that evacuation may be necessary up to 600 m. In heavily built-up areas that may pose extreme difficulties.
We are talking about a centre of Scottish population. There would be nowhere to hide if any such accident took place. The Public Information on Radiation Emergencies Regulations place a statutory duty on regional councils to provide information and advice to the public affected by a radiation emergency. I put it to the Minister that Strathclyde regional emergency and planning officer is so concerned about the implications of the MOD guidance that he has advised that he could not effectively carry out the advice or plan for the safety of the public in the event of an accident involving the transport of nuclear weapons. He asks that hazardous convoys be either removed or made safe. I should like the Minister to address this problem, because we are talking about the central belt of Scotland and the bulk of the Scottish population.
In transporting nuclear weapons through heavily populated areas of central Scotland, what guarantees can the Government give on the safety of the civilian population? Are they aware of the alarm felt, not just in Strathclyde but by other local government planning officers, about the impossibility of dealing with a real emergency? If local government officials cannot provide safe conditions or emergency help for their civilian populations, the Government must stop the dangers from arising. I remind the Minister that I am talking about officials without any specific political input. It is their duty to carry out such measures, but they cannot do so. What steps is the Minister taking now to eliminate the dangers ? His need to transport nuclear weapons is placing at risk the population of the central belt of Scotland. Before the end of the debate, will he make clear the response that he is making to Strathclyde and the other Scottish regions involved ? Will he stop all such nuclear weapons transportation until it can be clearly and publicly demonstrated that the safety of the public is not compromised by convoy movements ?
That is another illustration of Scotland facing the dangers of radiation, but not many of the benefits. [Interruption.] The reaction of the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) explains why the Conservative party is being thrown out of Scotland. Our population has to live with those dangers and does not wish to do so. If the Conservative party listened to the Scottish population, this problem and the others associated with it would not exist. [Interruption.] The fact that the hon. Gentleman is not getting to his feet is symptomatic of why the Conservatives are being rejected by the Scottish people.
Mr. Brazier : The hon. Gentleman may be aware that, under the present distribution of regional aid, his country receives approximately 30 per cent. of the grants, although it has just under 9 per cent. of the unemployment. Talk about special pleading.
Mr. Welsh : The hon. Gentleman is on dangerous ground. The bulk of defence spending is in the south of England. Scotland has the gunnery ranges and other such facilities, but the real Government money and the real employment is in the south-east of England. The hon. Gentleman should not talk about subsidies. He has only to walk less than a mile from the House to London docklands to find out what subsidies really mean. I will not take such talk from the hon. Gentleman. His blinkered attitude towards Scotland is the reason why his party is being rejected by the Scottish people.
I know that other hon. Members wish to participate in the debate. There is a need for a fundamental review of United Kingdom defence policy to meet the changed circumstances and the needs of the late 1990s. My plea to the Minister is for the maintenance of Scottish regimental recruitment, the safety of the Scottish civilian population and the maintenance of employment in Scotland as the peace dividend allows new and unprecedented options for real change. 8.14 pm
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) : I sympathise with the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) in his plea for the Gordon Highlanders and the Queen's Own Highlanders. I pay tribute to them, having served with both during my time in the forces. They are examples of Scottish regiments that have given long, proud and loyal service to the Crown of the United Kingdom.
To take up a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack), I remind the House of the old adage that the first duty of the Government is the defence of the realm. I pay tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State. He is doing a difficult job in difficult times. I pay particular tribute to his steady handling of the Bosnian situation. We hear many calls for intervention, such as "taking out the Serbian artillery", as if it could be done in a neat surgical operation with a scalpel. However, anyone who knows anything about high explosive knows that its use is not a neat operation. It spreads its destruction all around. That is a reflection of the ignorance of defence that one finds in the House. That ignorance surprises me, having had a career in the Army. It is exemplified by those who call for intervention while, at the same time, calling for further cuts in defence expenditure.
That ignorance of defence is paralleled in the country. That is not surprising as it is nearly 50 years since the end of the second world war and 30 years since the end of national service. I should like to see the House raise the standard of debate and have a proper public debate about defence.
"Options for Change" radically reduced the armed forces in pursuit of what we call the peace dividend. We have had the dividend in terms of saving, but there has been a conspicuous lack of peace. Since the launch of "Options for Change", we have had the Gulf war, Bosnia and Somalia--another example of the "surgical" use of air power was seen there last night--and there have been many other United Nations operations.
Column 1064Since the announcement of the planned reduction in the armed forces, we have been faced with an increasing number of potential tasks and commitments. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) said, with hindsight we can see that 1989 was the wrong time to review what was going on. We had seen the collapse of the Warsaw pact and the Soviet empire, but we had yet to see the breakdown of the Soviet Union. The world is now becoming much less stable and this is not the time to reduce our defences. Many have seen parallels with the 1930s in the instability in central Europe and in the difficult economic situation. Some time ago, I heard "Options for Change" defined within the Ministry of Defence as an "internal defence review". I must tell my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench that we must look again at all the assumptions behind it.
Last weekend, I went to the Queen's birthday parade--trooping the colour-- where the second battalion of my old regiment was, sadly, trooping its colour for the last time before marching off into the sunset. It was a sad occasion. I will not make any special pleading for my old regiment. The decision to reduce the number of Guards battalions may or may not be correct. However, it was sad to see that that set-piece affair had only six Guards battalions instead of the eight that it had last year and in the year when I took part. Some people say that they are just ceremonial troops. That is nonsense. While the second battalion of Coldstream Guards marched into the sunset, the first battalion was being warned off for service in Bosnia. I have seen those troops serve in the Gulf and Northern Ireland.
I am not saying that the decision to reduce troops is wrong, but it does typify the situation. In that Guards battalion, as elsewhere, morale is inevitably very low, for many reasons, but particularly because of uncertainty. There has been a huge take-up of redundancy packages, even in a recession when jobs are difficult to find. We have not had great success in recruiting officers. The armed forces has always been a respected profession, but we cannot now recruit officers even in a recession.
I know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State will say that his Ministry of Defence advisers tell him that all is well, and that we are experiencing a little local difficulty. I am reminded of the divorce between staff officers and troops on the ground, as appeared to happen in the first world war. We are not in such a war, but there is nevertheless a divorce between the thinking of the Ministry of Defence and many of those in the front line. I shall expand a little on the standing of the armed forces, a topic to which my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South also referred. Although we may not all have read it, the police sent us a survey on the standing of the police in the eyes of the public. The police received a rating of about 60 or 65 per cent., a rating of which they are justly proud. The survey also showed that the standing of the armed forces--the approval rating, or whatever one wishes to call it--was about 87 per cent. I wish that the House had an approval rating of 87 per cent. The armed forces are an admired and respected part of British society. They are an admired and respected institution whereas other British institutions have, frankly, fallen on hard times.
What will happen to the armed forces if good-calibre recruits are not attracted to become officers or join the other ranks? Their standing will fall and performance will
Column 1065decline. Morale is already at rock bottom and in need of attention, and things will continue to get worse. What type of armed forces do we want in the future? Do we want high-calibre, professional armed forces? If so, we need to raise the level of debate and put the subject into the public domain.
I assure the House that I am not a radical, although I may sometimes look like one with my long hair, but I believe that we need an appraisal. I do not want radical change, but we must not allow a valued national asset to be lost by default. That valued national asset is definitely under threat.
In a changing world, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State is moving to consider defence as part of security. I approve because security is no longer a question of NATO versus the Warsaw pact. We need to consider the totality of security : defence against terrorism some of it state backed--and security in foreign policy. Of course,
"war is a continuation of diplomacy by other meansin that context. For those reasons, we must reconsider our strategic needs. I fear that there will be further cuts in our armed forces by stealth. At the beginning of April, there was a reduction of 5,000 out of a total of 55,000 in the Navy. A 10 per cent. cut in the Royal Navy without proper debate is extremely disappointing. Last week, further cuts in the Royal Air Force were annouced, and today there has been talk of a reduction in the Royal Naval Reserve and the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. However one presents them, they are cuts in the armed forces, and we cannot ignore that. Our defences are deteriorating by stealth. We need an open, public debate. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer several questions. Will future units be smaller but better, as we were promised in "Options for Change"? I hope that the Minister will asure me that, in the coming years, all units will be fully manned and up to strength. What are the implications for defence expenditure of the long-term costings for 1993 and the projected long-term costings for 1994? What are the implications of the current review of public expenditure? What will the public expenditure survey round bring? What effect will Treasury pressure have on the Ministry of Defence?
I deal now with the much vaunted Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps. Can we man it? Some people suggest rather glibly that it will be an arm of the Western European Union, but the WEU is an organisation without a command structure, control or communications, direction or intelligence. NATO has served this nation, western Europe and the world extremely well. For good or ill, the United States provides an enormous part of the command, control and communications network which runs NATO. I have visited most NATO headquarters in Europe, and I can assure the House that that is the case. The United States provides strategic lift. If we move to the WEU, will we provide the strategic lift. and from where will we get command, control and communications? My hon. Friends may disagree, but I suspect that the ARRC may be little more than a political statement, perhaps allied to the aspirations of some European politicians and some of our partners. It would
Column 1066be a tragedy if the ARRC were to become nothing more than words which can never be employed. There is little flexibility in it as currently constituted.
As I said, we should have a full, public appraisal of our strategic needs. The Army is overstretched because there is a mismatch of resources and commitments. We currently have 12 battalions in Northern Ireland. They are usually infantry but, following "Options for Change", we shall have only 42 infantry battalions and commandos, minus the Gurkhas, available for service in Northern Ireland. Maths was never my strong point, but I envisage some difficulty in managing 24-month tour intervals with 42 battalions. A 24- month tour interval looks increasingly unlikely.
My right hon. and learned Friend mentioned the reserve forces, but he should not regard them as an easy and cheap option. He spoke of professionalism and training. I welcome the further involvement of our excellent reserves in active duties, which can be offered to them as an incentive for their hard work. However, reserve forces are being cut. We won both world wars with our reserve forces and Territorial Army ; they were not won by our regular forces. The British expeditionary force and the regular forces were slaughtered in the first world war and we then had to rely on our reserves, but they are now being cut. In these difficult times, it is essential that we do not cut them further.
My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) noted how cheap reserves are, but they should not be regarded as a cheap option in peacetime. I agree that they cost much less than fully trained, pensioned soldiers, but if we want a professional Army and highly trained troops, we have to have professionals who are highly trained. That takes time ; it cannot be done in a couple of weekends a year. I in no way want to criticise the reserve forces, because they are excellent, but they are not the solution to all our problems.
I heard that units would be half-manned by reserve forces. I have to say that that means that they will be undermanned. It is not a realistic option in which we should take pride. The reserves are not full-time personnel. Of course, some are on the dole and might welcome employment, but most of them are not. It would be disappointing if the Government wished to employ people without pension rights. They are not trained to the same standards, and it is futile to pretend that they are. If we want a reservist army, as some of our neighbours have, let us say so. We should look again at the whole question of our reserves and, for that reason, we should have a sensible, open and public appraisal of our requirements.
I believe that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has the interests of the country and its defence close to his heart, but I would consider it tragic if such an able and committed Secretary of State were to oversee further deterioration in the state of our armed forces.
There has been a paucity of suggestions from the Opposition, but if we had an open debate it would allow more suggestions to be made at a more sensible, raised level. We do not want a debate at a financial level ; we want to discuss the country's defence needs. What is essential for our defence? What sort of armed forces do we want in the long term?
Currently, there are threats all over the globe--it is not a safe world. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State said earlier that we have just seen the
Column 1067most radical change in the armed forces since the 1940s, yet we have done so without looking properly at our commitments and resources. We are seeing not so much salami slicing as butchery behind closed doors.
Ignorance extends to the general public, who expect the armed forces always to rise to the occasion, such as in the Falklands and the Gulf. We need to educate the public about what we can and cannot do. We cannot march into Bosnia with all flags flying and expect to be taken seriously. I remind the House of Kipling's "Tommy" : "Oh, It's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' Tommy, go away' ; But it's Thank you, Mister Atkins,' when the band begins to play." We always turn to the armed forces in time of need. We hope that they will be there in future because the country will not forgive the House if the armed forces, including the reserve forces, are not able to rise to our need when the country is threatened.
The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) was absolutely correct to say that a strategic review is not the solution. However, at least after such a review we would understand the problems. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to arrange a proper strategic review of the defence of the nation. Only then will we understand and solve the very real problems facing our armed forces today.
Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West) : I have listened to most of the debate, apart from essential visits out of the House, and was particularly interested in the last two speeches. I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) saying that he did not think that the standard of defence debates was all that high and that there is some ignorance about defence issues. He joined the Secretary of State for Defence in criticising Opposition Members for what he alleged to be a lack of interest or of useful suggestions. I certainly hope to put forward some ideas. Labour Members take a strong interest in defence, but Conservative Members sometimes misunderstand our interest. I hope that they will not take it unkindly when I say that perhaps they confuse their own interests in defence. From my experience of the armed forces, I know that they can certainly be said to represent the officer class, whereas for obvious reasons we tend to represent the other ranks. That is the nature of the way in which the Army is recruited--a point that was made by the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) in relation to the Gordon Highlanders.
There is a relationship between levels of unemployment and deprivation and recruitment into the armed forces. It is partly tradition, but partly the lack of alternative jobs. In areas of high recruitment there is a lack of alternative jobs, so naturally we take an interest in the people who are recruited into the armed forces because we want to ensure that they are used properly. I hope that Conservative Members will not take that remark unkindly.
I refer to the clash between some of the claims that are made in the defence estimates and the realities as they have emerged in the past month during the saga, fiasco or foul-up at RAF St. Athan over the modification contract for F3 Tornadoes, which has reached the media following the termination of the Ministry of Defence contract to refit the 18 aircraft. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) referred to this and I wish to point out
Column 1068what conclusions the Ministry of Defence should draw from the way in which the exercise has gone wrong and how it conflicts with the claims that are made in Cm 1981.
Paragraph 322 of the estimates says :
"Contractorisation of support services continues to achieve savings in the RAF support area."
Paragraph 313 refers to the aim of "total quality" in the merger of the Defence Research Agency with the directorate of quality assurance, which has also played a major part in this saga, as I hope to show shortly. It refers to the fact that the Government have appointed Mr. Littmoden, formerly of Marks and Spencer, as head of the merged agency to try to achieve higher standards of quality.
I am a great admirer of some of the work of Marks and Spencer in raising the efficiency of its textile suppliers. It was always said in management that only two bodies take a hands-on interest in trying to improve the efficiency of their suppliers--the Ministry of Defence and Marks and Spencer. They often compared notes and told suppliers, "You could be producing these goods at half the price if only you bought better machinery and did it this way. These are the places where you should be buying that better machinery. These are the people who you need to run it, and you could produce the same goods for us at half the price, make a bigger profit and we would both be better off. We will show you how to do it." Marks and Spencer went further and took shares in supplier companies. The Ministry of Defence obviously could not do that, but they were the only bodies that injected a drive to improve the efficiency of their own suppliers through a proper, active hands-on quality assurance directorate.
That was some 20 years ago when I was in the civil service, at which time I had interesting conversations with Ministry of Defence civil servants. The position seems to have deteriorated a great deal since because of the almost theological belief that the market will now do the job that active, hands-on, backside-kicking, engineering and value analysis expertise within the Ministry of Defence used to do. There is now total reliance on the market.
That was referred to by the Public Accounts Committee in its report, the first page of which says :
"We note that the Department generally rely on market forces to achieve value for money at the contract re-let stage and that they rarely prepare an in-house option to compare against bids from firms. We stress that this places a premium on maintaining effective competition between potential contractors, especially as the in-house staff who previously provided the service will often no longer be in post."
Fortunately, the RAF St. Athan and Airworks Services saga had not gone that far. As a result, in-house staff who were not allowed to bid for the modification contract for F3 Tornadoes have already started some remedial work on the two mildly damaged Tornado F3s of the 18 that were referred to by the shadow Secretary of State. Thank God they are still in post and have not been dispensed with in favour of putting everything out to compulsory competitive tendering, contractorisation, privatisation or some other variant of the Government's theology-driven alternatives to in-house capacity for carrying out improvements, modifications or life extensions to key equipment such as very expensive aircraft, which at the equivalent price today would cost £25 million each.
What happened at RAF St. Athan? When the Department decided to have a life extension exercise for the F3 Tornadoes, because of the amount of service that they had seen, to see whether their effective flying life could
Column 1069be doubled--that was a sensible idea--the initial contract was given to British Aerospace. Again, the RAF was not allowed to bid. The contract appears to have been completed successfully on the first 15 aircraft. But British Aerospace lost the contract for the next batch to Airwork Services from Bournemouth.
The RAF still had not been allowed to bid, although I understand that it did a ghost bidding exercise, just to test, and that its estimate came out about halfway between the rather high British Aerospace price and the low Airwork Services price, which has now turned out to be such a bad bargain-- although litigation may remedy that. For obvious reasons, I shall not go into that possibility tonight, although the Minister may want to say something about it later.
The Government had gone in for a low-cost option and it appears that in the specifications for the contract there was almost no check on how Airwork Services, or any other lowest bidder, would carry out the contract. The contract had been given to the lowest bidder, with all the attendant dangers that that firm might neglect aspects such as supervision, craftsmanship and a quality assurance trail. Would there be any longstop to ensure that the aircraft were modified to the proper standard, without collateral damage being done in the course of the work? No, there was no quality assurance trail at all. RAF St. Athan sent warning signs to the Ministry of Defence quality assurance directorate, which was told, "It looks to us as though something is going wrong on the contract." Having been notified, the quality assurance directorate staff went to RAF St. Athan and asked to look at the firm's quality assurance certificate, the ISO 9001--the international equivalent of the BS 5750 quality systems certificate. That certificate is proliferating like a plague throughout British industry ; people refer to it as, "never mind the quality, feel the certificate". I do not think that I am being unfair ; I am reflecting an opinion that is widespread throughout industry, including the service industries, about those certificates, which have little meaning.
The Ministry of Defence said, "If the firm has a certificate, we do not want to look at the aeroplanes. Has it got a valid ISO 9001? If the answer is yes, we do not want to look at the planes." The MOD staff went back to London satisfied that the certificate was in order. They did not look at the aeroplanes, so they did not see the damage being done by the inappropriate trade practices and inappropriate tools until four of the aircraft had returned to their operational bases at RAF Leuchars, RAF Leeming or RAF Coningsby. I am not sure exactly which bases were involved, but they were among the three bases where F3 Tornadoes are normally used.
The damage was not discovered until four aircraft had gone back, which means that by the time it was discovered the aeroplanes could have been used operationally, in training exercises over the Lake District or mid Wales, at 50 ft off the ground. I am told that, as the fasteners had not been properly refastened and so were loose, two things could have happened. First, a fastener could have worked completely loose and because damage had been caused around the engine intake area, a loose fastener could have been sucked into the engine and sheared off the blades of the turbine from the shaft, which would have resulted in
Column 1070catastrophic engine failure. Secondly, as there were a lot of loose fasteners around the engine intake area, the engine itself could have sheared off. The lives of the air crew and of civilians unfortunate enough to live in the area over which Tornadoes usually perform low-level training, and also the lives of livestock such as sheep, could have been threatened in those two ways.
I find that frightening, especially as it was an avoidable risk. As the hon. Member for Blaby and many other hon. Members have said, there are unavoidable risks in operating a defence establishment. People do not join the armed forces because they think it will be all ENSA theatre parties and so on. They realise the risks of getting killed. But one does not expect people, including civilians, to be killed because of inefficiency or incompetence, especially when warnings have been given halfway through the saga but ignored because of an obsession with dodgy quality certificates that were not worth the paper they were written on.
Eighteen aircraft have now been damaged. Four of them, which are at RAF Leuchars, RAF Leeming or RAF Coningsby, have been cleared to limp back to RAF St. Athan, rather like a squadron of Lancasters that hit heavy flak over Hamburg in November 1944 and just made it back to Britain. The Tornadoes can just make it back to RAF St. Athan. However, 12 of the aircraft at RAF St. Athan have been classified as "seriously damaged". Those words are from the Ministry of Defence official statement on the affair. Two have been classified as superficially damaged and those two will now be rectified by RAF St. Athan in-house staff. They are mostly civilian staff, but I believe that about 120 service craftsmen have been transferred from their duties back to RAF St. Athan to assist the staff there in the remedial works on the two aircraft that are mildly damaged. The 12 other aircraft are so seriously damaged that I understand that they have not yet been cleared to be towed on the ground from the modification hangar into the storage hangar to be taken out of the way and left free for examination purposes so that other works can proceed. They are not safe to tow along the ground in case further damage occurs to the structure of the aircraft, the engine intake areas and the longerons--the lengthways engineering members of the aircraft around which it is constructed.
We understand that damage was caused by the classic type of corner-cutting that occurs when a contractor is under pressure to complete a contract taken on at a low price and he knows that there is no active quality assurances specified in that contract, because it is totally reliant on certificates of quality systems and no one will come along and say, "Never mind about the certificate. Are you doing the job properly?" The contract was totally reliant on the idea that since the contractor had the certificate he must be doing the job properly. However, if a contractor bids very low in order to get the work, under the pressure of competitive tendering, he is likely to skimp on supervision and on the quality assurance trail. Unfortunately, that is what has happened since the Ministry of Defence deliberately omitted, or forgot, to provide an effective quality assurance check of its own, despite the risks to air crew and civilians which could result from faulty work.
I understand that the faulty work arose from the use of power tools that were far too powerful in an attempt to dismantle the aircraft so as to get at the insides. Pneumatic guns were used to remove the fasteners that attach the side