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House of Commons

Tuesday 11 January 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions

DEFENCE -- Tanks

1. Mr. Riddick : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has to procure more tanks for the Army ; and if he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind) : I announced on 1 December that, subject to the negotiation of satisfactory contractual terms, we intend to place a further order with Vickers Defence Systems for up to 259 Challenger 2 main battle tanks.

Mr. Riddick : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the announcement that the Government intended to buy 259 further Challenger tanks was warmly welcomed by David Brown Gears in my constituency, because the company makes the Challenger gearboxes? When exactly will the order be placed? Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that such an order would not have been possible if the Government had had a defence policy of cutting defence spending by £7 billion, as Labour has, or a policy of cutting it by 50 per cent., as the Liberal Democrats have?

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Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend is certainly correct in saying that our announcement should have important employment implications in Leeds, in Newcastle, in his constituency and elsewhere because of the implications for many subcontractors. The actual date for placing the order will depend on the successful negotiations that we hope to have with Vickers. My hon. Friend is, of course, entirely correct in believing that such a proposal could not even have been entertained with the defence budgets to which the Labour party and the Liberal Democrat party appear to be committed by their party conferences.

Mr. Mudie : Will the Secretary of State accept the thanks of the Vickers workers in my constituency for defeating the Treasury and placing the order? Will he confirm that he is determined to resist further approaches from the Treasury and that the order will become a reality as soon as possible?

Mr. Rifkind : We were able to place the proposals before Vickers because we defeated the Labour party at the general election. If we had failed to defeat the Labour party, the hon. Gentleman's constituents would not be as satisfied as they clearly are today.


2. Mr. Barry Field : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what time scale he envisages for the tender of helicopters for the armed forces.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken) : For our attack helicopter requirement, tenders have already been received and are being assessed. For our support helicopter requirement, we are currently entering negotiations with Westland and with Boeing.

Mr. Field : Does my hon. Friend agree that the negotiations for the Royal Air Force support helicopter can be completed by the end of May this year and that the negotiations for the attack helicopter can be completed by April next year? Can he confirm those dates? Does he agree that the 50 per cent. defence cut proposed in the Liberal Democrat defence policy and a reduction in nuclear arms

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do not fit easily with the strong words of the leader of the Liberal Democrats? Is it any surprise that the music at the Liberal Democrats' parliamentary ball was provided by the Zig-Zags?

Mr. Aitken : My hon. Friend is broadly correct in his estimate of the time scale for attack helicopter procurement. The support helicopter negotiations are likely to take several months longer than he anticipated. All I can say on the zig-zags in Liberal Democrat policy is that if any Government implemented the defence cuts for which the Liberal Democrat conference called, the only helicopters that they would be likely to buy for our armed forces would be those on sale in toyshops.

Mr. Hardy : As the Wessex is in its 30th year of service with the Royal Air Force, when does the Minister expect it to be replaced? Does he believe that the Air Mobile Brigade will be able to maintain adequate heavy lift capacity?

Mr. Aitken : The Wessex remains an extremely effective and good helicopter despite its age because it has been consistently well maintained and its parts have been replaced. We are now studying proposals for replacements for the Wessex. In response to the hon. Gentleman's second question, yes, we are confident that the Air Mobile Brigade can be adequately supported by helicopters.

Sir Jerry Wiggin : Will my hon. Friend get back to the basics of warfare by reminding the generals that, at the end of the day, the important thing is to get men on the ground? Instead of spending money on tanks, which are rapidly becoming redundant, he might seek to modernise the British Army by spending the same on helicopters.

Mr. Aitken : One of the many virtues of the EH101 helicopter that my hon. Friend has championed in Adjournment debates and elsewhere is its survivability. That quality is appropriate to the future of support helicopters in addition to lift capability, which is also an important consideration.

Mr. Martlew : In April 1987, the then Secretary of State for Defence assured the House that the Ministry of Defence would place an order for 25 EH101s for the RAF. In December last year, the present Secretary of State told the Select Committee on Defence that the negotiations would start immediately for the purchase of the EH101 and Chinook. Why has the Minister told us today that those negotiations will be subject to even further delay?

A decision in June will be too late and the fact that the hon. Gentleman has said that the negotiations will last for many months beyond that will cause great dismay at Westland. Seven years' delay is long enough. Does he not realise that the EH101 creates good jobs in Britain for British industry, and that it is much needed? Why a further delay?

Mr. Aitken : The last time the hon. Gentleman intervened in a debate on this subject, he accused me of deliberately rushing through decisions on helicopters for party political purposes. Now he has accused me of going too slow. The reason that there has been a delay since 1987 is that, unlike the Labour party, the world has changed since then and there have been important security alterations in the balance of power. We have, quite appropriately, had to consider carefully what helicopters are necessary for that changed security environment. We

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are now moving forward at a pace which we believe pleases most objective observers, including those at the helicopter companies.

Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Greenwich

3. Mr. Peter Bottomley : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he is having discussions at ministerial level with the Department of Health concerning the future use of the Queen Elizabeth hospital in the borough of Greenwich.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Jeremy Hanley) : Discussions are continuing and, subject to the resolution of outstanding issues, both Departments would hope that agreement on the question of the possible sale of the hospital to the Greenwich Healthcare Trust will be achieved in the near future.

Mr. Bottomley : I welcome that information. May I say that the services provided by the hospital are held in great regard and affection in Eltham, Woolwich and the rest of the borough of Greenwich. It would be a fine thing if the Queen Elizabeth military hospital could become the replacement for the Brooke on the other side of Shooters Hill and absorb some of the services from Greenwich district hospital as well.

Mr. Hanley : Satisfactory levels of medical and clinical activity will be sustained during the period, and we envisage that there will be shared use at the hospital. I am pleased that the resolution of matters is now rapidly concluding. Some financial and other details need to be dealt with in the next few weeks, but I hope that the matter can be put out for consultation in late spring or early summer, resulting, possibly, in a sale by the end of the year.

Mr. Raynsford : Can the Minister be a little bit more precise about the implications of shared use? How many beds are likely still to be required by the MOD at the hospital in the years ahead? How long will the MOD require millitary use of that hospital, thereby determining the date on which it will finally become available to the national health service?

Mr. Hanley : Two hundred and three beds, by 1998.


4. Ms Hoey : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the latest developments in Bosnia.

Mr. Hanley : The Government will continue to provide support to United Nations humanitarian relief operations in Bosnia through the winter.

Ms Hoey : I am sure that the whole House will want to pay tribute to the work that our British troops are doing in Bosnia. Is the Minister aware, however, of the credibility gap that is undermining both NATO's role and that of the UN because of their failure to take sufficiently severe action against Serbian aggression? Will the Government now support immediate selective air strikes to get the airport at Tuzla reopened and, most of all, to lift the siege of Sarajevo?

Mr. Hanley : The hon. Lady is absolutely right to pay tribute to what is being achieved by the British contingent in Bosnia. I know that the whole House would want me to

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congratulate it, especially as we approach the most difficult months of the winter. So far, 1,675 convoys have been escorted by British troops--more than 80,000 tonnes of aid. In addition, more than 1,000 flights have been carrying aid to Sarajevo and more than 14,500 tonnes of aid have been delivered in that way.

The hon. Lady is not right, or fair, to say that there is a credibility gap. We are helping to save countless thousands of lives in Bosnia, and countless thousands of people are being kept alive by our efforts. We believe that there is a balance to be achieved in carrying out that United Nations resolution. I repeat the NATO summit declaration that we restate our commitment to air power. The NATO summit also called for further action by UNPROFOR to draw up plans to deal with the blockage of the rotation of troops at Srebrenica and we are considering ways in which to make efforts to examine whether Tuzla airport can be reopened. We are doing a great job of which I am proud.

Mr. Wilkinson : May I express my appreciation for the appointment of Commander, United Kingdom Land Forces, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose as general officer commanding-designate of United Nations forces in the former Yugoslavia? Will my hon. Friend tell the House whether the general officer will go out to the theatre with any new political instructions from Her Majesty's Government or other United Nations countries with troops assigned to the theatre?

Mr. Hanley : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his tribute to Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose. He will assume command of the United Nations protection force in Bosnia-Herzegovina soon, and shall be out there by the end of month ; and I know that he will carry out his task superbly. He is a magnificent soldier, and no change in role is foreseen.

Mr. Menzies Campbell : Does the Minister agree that the language of declarations threatening air strikes is much less significant than the political will that lies behind such declarations? The Government have shown little enthusiasm for air strikes over the past 12 months. What has changed that we should now believe that the Government have the political will to carry them out?

Mr. Hanley : If the hon. and learned Gentleman is questioning the political will of the nations that came together at the NATO summit and reconfirmed the commitment to air strikes, as they had done in August, he will see that it is the strongest commitment that could have possibly been given towards air strikes. If he watches in the days ahead, he may realise that our commitment is a darn sight more than his party's commitment to defence. Instead of mouthing generalities, NATO is getting on with the job.

Mr. Cormack : Does my hon. Friend accept that any ultimatum given to Serbia or the Serbs following today's declaration must be clear and unequivocal, and that if it is not accepted, it must be followed by action?

Mr. Hanley : I accept that threats are credible only if it is believed that they are likely to be carried out. However, we hope that the action that they are threatening will not take place. If the actions by others not to carry out the sort of acts that have occurred recently-- happily, it seems that there have been fewer shelling attacks on Sarajevo

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yesterday and today--perhaps the threats will have worked. There certainly remains the political will and the military capability to carry out those threats if necessary.

Dr. David Clark : The Prime Minister's much-touted claim this morning to have persuaded NATO to strengthen its stance on bombing of the Serbs in Bosnia stands ill with the long official communique from NATO which merely dismissed the matter in two short sentences beginning with the words, "We reaffirm". In view of that, can I ask the Minister whether there has been any change in NATO and Government policy, or whether this is merely another example of PR hype?

Mr. Hanley : Of course it is not a matter of pure PR hype.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : Is there any change?

Mr. Hanley : The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) degrades the efforts of the NATO countries in coming to their conclusions and in bringing clearly to the attention of the world their intentions with regard to Bosnia.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : Is there any change?

Mr. Hanley : It is easy to be dismissive of help in

Mr. Campbell-Savours : Is there any change?

Mr. Hanley : The hon. Gentleman at the back is chattering away and saying, "Is there any change?"

Madam Speaker : Order.

Mr. Hanley : There is change daily in Bosnia. We react daily to the situation in Bosnia. We are helping to save lives in Bosnia, and we are making sure that we have the wherewithal to act if the situation gets worse in Bosnia. We will continue to do that. There is no media hype. The Prime Minister will report to the House in due course on the summit.

Mr. Viggers : Does my hon. Friend agree that air strikes, however selective, increase the risk that the British forces, as part of the United Nations, could be perceived as the fourth side in the civil war? Will he ensure that Her Majesty's Government do not enter into any commitment that they cannot fulfil?

Mr. Hanley : I can assure my hon. Friend that if there were air strikes, they would not be taken unilaterally by the United Kingdom forces but would be part of the international effort. Therefore, I do not believe that the United Kingdom should be seen to be a fourth party. However, my hon. Friend is right to say that air strikes change the situation and make it more difficult to deliver aid on the ground. That has to be borne in mind with each passing day.

Home Defence

5. Mr. Flynn : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what new proposals he has to improve the defence of the British Isles.

Mr. Rifkind : The Government's plans for the defence of the United Kingdom and for our wider security interests are detailed in the White Paper "Defending Our Future", and in my evidence to the House of Commons Defence Committee on 1 December.

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Mr. Flynn : Is not the greatest danger to Britain and the rest of the world the proliferation of nuclear weapons, especially to the new tyrannies that are growing up from the right and the left? Is it not an act of insanity for Britain to commission THORP, which will create enough plutonium to make 50,000 nuclear weapons in the next 10 years, and to export the plutonium to the four corners of the world? Was the Secretary of State consulted on the defence implications of the commissioning of THORP?

Mr. Rifkind : Naturally, I was involved in the discussions that took place on the matter. I am entirely satisfied that the hon. Gentleman's assertions are plain nonsense. First, we have not the slightest intention of exporting any of the material to countries that do not conform absolutely to their international commitments. Secondly, the material in question could not, without the most extreme difficulty, be converted for any military purpose. The hon. Gentleman appears to be unaware of that.

Mr. Mans : In relation to the defence of the United Kingdom, will my right hon. and learned Friend look closely at the potential threat that is likely to develop towards the end of the decade of a surface-to-surface missile attack on this country from various emergent nations in the middle east?

Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend is correct to draw attention to such a problem. We already have reason to believe that countries such as Libya have a missile capability that could threaten Italy or parts of southern France. As the years go by, it is possible that a range of such missiles could penetrate much further north. It is one of the new emerging threats of which NATO as a whole and Britain must take increasing account in our future defence plans.

Mr. Maginnis : Is the Secretary of State aware that, in terms of the defence of the United Kingdom, and despite the wishes of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, the IRA has already decided to reject any opportunity of peace, and is simply trying to find a way of rejecting the Downing street declaration? Is he satisfied, in the light of that information, that regiments such as the Parachute Regiment are adequately manned for the role that they have to carry out in Northern Ireland? There are reports that such regiments are having to depend on the territorials to make up numbers. Can the Secretary of State tell us what the knock-on effect on our special forces will ultimately be?

Mr. Rifkind : First, I am sure that the whole House will unite in condemning the vicious attack in the past 24 hours in Crossmaglen, which resulted in serious injury to two soldiers serving in Northern Ireland. It is not unusual for individual territorials to serve in Northern Ireland, but I am conscious of the fact that it is important that any unit, whether serving in Northern Ireland or elsewhere, should be as fully manned as possible. One reason why I announced last December an increase of some 3,000 in the field Army was precisely to help ease the difficulties that occasionally occur.

Mr. Devlin : On maximising resources for the defence of the United Kingdom, why is my right hon. and learned Friend allowing the Navy to empty a large office building in my constituency at the Royal Navy spare parts

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department and then to construct a new building--to all intents and purposes exactly the same--in the Bath area, as part of the new Naval Support Command?

Mr. Rifkind : I understand my hon. Friend's natural concern on behalf of his constituents. I assure him that the proposal to which he refers was strenuously examined. We concluded that it was right to go ahead with that proposal only because we were satisfied that there would be substantial cost benefits for the armed forces.

Mr. Donald Anderson : The Secretary of State must have been made aware over the past months of the anxiety among senior Territorial Army officers that, although the forces at their command are adequate now, if the proposed cuts are implemented, they will not be adequate for the task of regenerating British forces. What reassurances can he give our TA that it will have the capability to carry out the assigned task of regenerating our forces?

Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman refers to proposed cuts in the TA. I am aware of no such proposed cuts. A review is going on into the future size and structure of the TA, but it has yet to make recommendations to Ministers. The hon. Gentleman's comments are premature, to say the least. He should be joining in the welcome that the TA has given to the Government's proposal to make much wider and more flexible use of the reserves. We published that proposal recently and, as the hon. Gentleman should be well aware, it has been widely welcomed throughout the Territorial Army.

Tracker Radar

6. Mr. Burns : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he hopes to place a contract for the conversion of type 911 tracker radars to meet the requirement for vertical launched Sea Wolf on type 23 frigates.

Mr. Aitken : An order for the conversion of the type 911 tracker radars is currently planned for the spring.

Mr. Burns : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, which will be warmly welcomed in my constituency. If the contract is placed with Marconi Radar, it will help to safeguard jobs there. However, will my hon. Friend seek to clarify exactly what "the spring" means? Is there a chance that the contract will be determined before 31 March? Will the contract be similar to the original contract bid put out in August 1992?

Mr. Aitken : All that I can say in response to my hon. Friend, remembering his assiduous representations in Adjournment debates and at other times on that subject, is that we will do our best to try to ensure that spring comes a little early to Chelmsford this year.

Mr. Nicholas Brown : Will the Minister take this opportunity to congratulate the shipyard workers of Tyneside on the quality of the type 23 frigates that they have already delivered to the Royal Navy? Will he also confirm that the Ministry of Defence regards Swan Hunter as an important supplier of equipment to the Royal Navy, and that it envisages a future for Swan Hunter, in spite of its present difficulties? Will he now list the work that could be immediately available to Swan Hunter were it purchased by a private sector shipbuilder?

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Mr. Aitken : I am certainly glad to pay a warm tribute to the high skills of Tyneside shipbuilders in general and Swan Hunter in particular. I confirm that we should like to do everything possible to ensure that Swan Hunter has a future. For that reason, we have not only let the existing type 23s continue to be finished there but have provided some extra work in the shape of the rectification contract on Fort George. In terms of future work that Swan Hunter might be able to win, I believe that a tender is now out for a ship life extension programme of landing ship logistics for which I think Swan Hunter may be bidding. Of course in future we should like to see a new owner for Swan Hunter to guarantee its viability, but in terms of technical quality there is no reason whatever why Swan Hunter should not submit a first-class bid for that or other MOD work.

Defence Budget

7. Mr. Alan W. Williams : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what was the defence budget for 1992-93 as a percentage of gross domestic product ; and what are the planned figures for 1993-94 and 1994-95.

Mr. Rifkind : The defence budget was equivalent to 4.1 per cent. of gross domestic product in 1992-93. It is expected to be 3.7 per cent. of gross domestic product in 1993-94 and 3.5 per cent. in 1994-95.

Mr. Williams : Against that background of contraction in the defence budget, the Minister will know of my concern about the proof and experimental establishment at Pendine in my constituency. I understand that the final recommendation on rationalisation of the direct labour test and evaluation is on the Minister's desk. Can he give some idea when decisions will be made and say whether they will be announced in the form of a statement to the House?

Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman is correct in assuming that we are at a fairly advanced stage in considering the matter to which he has referred. We hope to come to a conclusion in the next few weeks.

Mr. Allason : Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the figures include alleged savings made by the closure of HMS Malabar? Will he explain why that closure was announced on the day before Christmas recess when very few hon. Members were present, although he had given an undertaking that important closures of that kind, of strategic Royal Navy bases, would be made in the House and not leaked to the press the day before an announcement was made?

Mr. Rifkind : I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is being most uncharitable, and that is in increasingly characteristic form. He ought to be aware that the naval significance of the base that he mentions is not of the same order as in the past. At present, it is largely used merely for rest and recreation. Modern frigates do not require refuelling in the way that was required in the past. We have had full consultations with the Government of Bermuda, and it is right and proper that we should not incur unnecessary expenditure. I pay great tribute to the important part that HMS Malabar played in past years. However, modern technology and requirements mean that it is no longer necessary.

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Ms Rachel Squire : Does the Secretary of State agree that a sensible approach to public expenditure on defence is to seek value for money? If he does, will he explain why he is planning to waste taxpayers' money and lose control of vital strategic interests by going ahead with the privatisation of the two dockyards?

Mr. Rifkind : I do not think that there is any question of losing control in the way that the hon. Lady suggests. As she is aware, both yards were contractorised and have been run by the private sector for several years. That has led to substantial improvements in both yards. It is in the long-term interests of the yards for them to be transferred to the private sector.

Mr. Streeter : Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that any reduction in the budget for 1994-95 will affect support services and not our front-line capability? In particular, will he confirm that every aspect of our support services, including fleet maintenance, will be subject to impartial and rigorous scrutiny so that we can ensure value for money for the Navy and the taxpayer?

Mr. Rifkind : Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. It is right and proper to have rigorous scrutiny of ways of reducing the cost of providing the defence services that are needed. I am happy to confirm that, in doing that, we are determined not to reduce the fighting capability of our armed forces.

Russia and European Security

9. Mr. Gapes : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he next plans to meet the Russian Defence Minister to discuss European security.

Mr. Rifkind : I expect to meet General Grachev at a meeting of NATO Defence Ministers and their counterparts from the member states of the North Atlantic Co-operation Council, to be held later this year.

Mr. Gapes : Does the Secretary of State share my concern at the rising support in Russia for the fascist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a man who has threatened a third world war? Is he aware that even the Yeltsin Government have so far failed to recognise the borders of Ukraine, which is contrary to the requirements of international law under the CSCE agreement, to the Paris charter, and to yesterday's NATO communique ? When he next meets hisRussian counterpart, will he impress on him the fact that if we are to get the Ukraine to carry out its policy of getting rid of nuclear weapons, it will be vital to obtain firm assurances from Russia that there will be no intervention in neighbouring states, either in the so-called near abroad or in any of the former republics of the Soviet Union?

Mr. Rifkind : Naturally it is important that Russia recognises the independence and integrity of all the former republics of the former Soviet Union, and it is also crucial that neither Mr. Zhirinovsky nor others in Russia harbour any illusion that somehow the old Russian empire could be recreated. There is every sign that in the near future there will be an announcement of an agreement between Ukraine and Russia, in which President Clinton seems to have played a major part, and which will help to resolve the long-standing problem of nuclear weapons in Ukraine and help to bring further stability to that important region.

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Mr. Duncan Smith : Has my right hon. and learned Friend noticed that recently, in rejecting calls for cuts in defence expenditure, the Swedish Defence Minister went on to say that Sweden should increase its spending by about 30 per cent. because the Russians had failed to cut the number of their troops near Sweden? Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that that has a huge bearing on us? In his future discussions with the Treasury will he draw that fact to its attention and point out that there is still a strong potential threat from Russia?

Mr. Rifkind : It is undoubtedly true that Russia remains a nuclear super-power, and also a formidable conventional power. The reductions in the defence forces of the NATO states have taken into account the massive reductions made by Russia, but I entirely accept that it is necessary to monitor the situation carefully and to ensure that throughout Europe, including Russia, the various countries concerned are not in any way rearming or imposing new threats.

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