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House of Commons

Tuesday 8 March 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- -- in the Chair ]


British Waterways Bill [

Lords ]


That the Committee on the British Waterways Bill [ Lords ] have leave, for the purpose of its consideration of the powers sought by the British Waterways Board in the Bill, to visit and inspect sites on the Grand Union Canal, provided that no evidence shall be taken in the course of such visit and that any party who has made an appearance before the Committee be permitted to attend by his Counsel, Agent or representative.-- [ The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means. ]


British Railways Order Confirmation Bill

Mr. Secretary Lang presented a Bill to confirm a Provisional Order under the Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act 1936, relating to British Railways (to be presented under section 8 of the Act) : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time on Wednesday 16 March and to be printed [Bill 64].

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish) : Object.

Madam Speaker : The hon. Gentleman is objecting to the presentation of the Provisional Order Bill. I am sorry, but I cannot take an objection in this case.

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Oral Answers to Questions


Iraq --

1. Mr. Dalyell : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will state the objectives of the British military contribution to the United Nations force covering Iraq.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Jeremy Hanley) : The objective of British military involvement in Iraq is to secure the Iraqi Government's compliance with all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Mr. Dalyell : May I ask a question of which I have given the Department notice ? From the pictures that have been taken by the RAF, is there any hard evidence of wanton destruction in the heart of the marshes in the area around Querna, where the Tigris meets the Euphrates ?

Mr. Hanley : The answer is yes. We are constantly gathering information on the southern marshes. Where it is suitable for public release, we shall consider doing so from time to time to raise the level of public awareness and to inform debate in the House. We have already released a video film showing villages destroyed by the Iraqi military. Since then, there has been growing evidence of drying out and flooding in the area. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the notice that he gave ; if he would like to see the video film I can arrange for that.

Mr. Wilkinson : Is my hon. Friend aware that the RAF Harrier force is doing a first-class job from Turkey over northern Iraq, that last year about one third of Harrier crews were deployed overseas and that about half its crews are likely to be deployed overseas this year ? Are not Her Majesty's forces being asked to do more with fewer resources ? When will that process stop ?

Mr. Hanley : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the subject of the RAF Harriers based at Incirlick. There are eight GR7 Harriers based there on Op Warden and they fly an average of four reconnaissance sorties each days in support of the northern no-fly zone north of the 36th parallel. We should also pay tribute to the six Tornado GR1s which also fly on average four sorties in support of the southern no-fly zone south of the 32nd parallel. My hon. Friend will be aware that the RAF takes on those tasks willingly.

Military Operations --

2. Mr. Waterson : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what assessment he has made of existing arrangements for the chartering of merchant tonnage in support of military operations ; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken) : My Department's arrangements for chartering merchant vessels are kept under constant review. Last August, we placed a one-year ship broking

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services contract with the Baltic Exchange to cover most of our requirements. We shall revisit this contract in the coming months.

Mr. Waterson : Does my hon. Friend think that there are any lessons to be drawn from the fact that during the Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations, only five out of 110 vessels utilised by British forces were British flagged, whereas 96 per cent. of those used in equivalent operations by the French forces were French flagged ?

Mr. Aitken : My hon. Friend makes a fair point, but he should be aware that the charter contracts were offered on the open market and it was quite possible for British shipping companies to take them up. As they made clear to us, they did not do so largely because they had contractual obligations, which they were honouring at that time. There is no great significance in the percentage figures to which my hon. Friend drew attention.

Dr. David Clark : The Minister will be aware of the heroic role that the merchant seamen played in the Normandy landings. Will he give the House an assurance that that contribution will be properly recognised in the D- day celebrations ?

Mr. Aitken : Yes. I am glad to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. The role of our merchant seamen was heroic in that conflict and it will be suitably recognised in the D-day celebrations.

Mr. Shersby : Does my hon. Friend recall the importance of Atlantic Conveyor during the Falklands conflict and the serious consequences that flowed from the loss of that vessel ? Will he assure the House that, in the event of any similar conflict in other parts of world, the Department will have access to suitable merchant vessels capable of carrying helicopters and other similar equipment ?

Mr. Aitken : We certainly have taken careful heed of the lessons of the Falklands war, including the sad destruction of Atlantic Conveyor. Some 52 British ships were either requisitioned or chartered during the Falklands war. As I told the House in a debate on 9 July, despite a diminution of the number of British-flagged ships, we still believe that there are sufficient ships on the UK and dependent territories register for our defence needs.

Bosnia --

3. Mr. Macdonald : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the current British deployment in Bosnia.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind) : The current Army battalion group--1st Battalion, Coldstream Guards and its support units--will be relieved in April and May by the 2nd Battalion, Royal Anglian Regiment. At the request of the United Nations, we have also deployed a Cymbeline mortar-locating troop and a number of additional observers and monitors.

Mr. Macdonald : Is not it clear that General Rose has transformed the situation in Bosnia in the past month, building up for the first time a genuine momentum for a just peace in that country ? Therefore, is not it shameful that the Government are still refusing, according to the answer that the Secretary of State has just given, to respond to

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General Rose's request for extra forces of a high calibre and instead have been handing out redundancy notices to troops already there ? Should not the message from the Government to General Rose be, "You are doing a magnificent job. Keep it up. Regardless of what other countries do, we will not let you down" ?

Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman should at least do the House the courtesy of checking his facts before he makes rather foolish and ill- informed accusations. An elementary perusal of this morning's newspapers would have informed him that, yesterday, a meeting was convened at the United Nations--it was a British initiative--to discuss additional troops being sent to Bosnia. The United Kingdom has already made it clear that it believes that there is such a case for sending additional troops and that we look to other countries to join us in carrying out that initiative.

Mr. Cormack : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there will be a widespread welcome for what he has just said and, indeed, for anything that can be done to assist a brilliant British general in charge of United Nations forces ?

Mr. Rifkind : I happily pay tribute to the remarkable work that General Sir Michael Rose is doing in Bosnia. A number of important initiatives have been making healthy progress in the past few weeks, including the success of the operation involving the removal of heavy artillery from Sarajevo and the Croat-Muslim ceasefire. I understand today that there may be substantial progress with regard to the handing over of Tuzla airport to the United Nations. Against that background, we are all anxious to do what we can to build on that important window of opportunity because, clearly, a gradual implementation of a ceasefire throughout Bosnia will not only be of enormous relief to the people of Bosnia but will provide the best opportunity of bringing back United Nations troops to their own countries at the earliest possible date.

Mr. Hardy : Earlier this afternoon, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces informed the House of the contribution made by the Royal Air Force in restraining Iraq. In addition to telling the House of the military contribution in Bosnia, will the Secretary of State tell us what contribution is currently made, or has recently been made, by the RAF and by naval aircraft ?

Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman is correct to remind us that the contribution in the Adriatic is being provided by all three services. The RAF has Tornado and Jaguar aircraft while the Royal Navy has not only ships in the Adriatic but Sea Harriers based on the carrier. That is a formidable tri-service operation, which illustrates that, even for a United Nations operation, sophisticated modern equipment is needed to ensure that the United Nations tasks can be fully carried out with the high degree of professionalism that we rightly expect.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend : Will my right hon. and learned Friend bear in mind the wisdom of the ages--that it is all too easy to commit troops to battle and all too hard to get them out again afterwards ? Some of us remember that when British troops were first deployed in Northern Ireland, it was not expected that they would have to stay for more than a few years. Now we have over 17,000 there.

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Does not he feel that extra commitments bring into question the whole Government policy of cutting back on our armed forces ?

Mr. Rifkind : I am very conscious of the points that my hon. Friend made in the earlier part of his question. Of course we are all anxious to ensure that the strategy pursued is that which has the best prospect not only of bringing peace to Bosnia but of allowing the early return home of British and other United Nations forces. As for the second part of my hon. Friend's question, he should remember that although we have 2,500 troops in Bosnia, we are also in the process of reducing our presence in Germany by some 40,000 compared with what was required during the cold war. The comparison illustrates why it is reasonable to plan for a smaller Army than was necessary during that period.

Dr. David Clark : A battalion of the Duke of Wellington regiment, with its Saxon armed cars already painted white, has been on standby for nearly three weeks. Why have we had to wait to be able to respond to General Rose's request for an attempt to keep the peace ? When will the Government stop vacillating, and when will we dispatch those extra troops ?

Mr. Rifkind : I know that the hon. Gentleman is motivated more by a daily search for sound bites than by the need to develop a sound and coherent policy. I must remind him, however, that the operation in Bosnia is not a purely British operation ; it is a United Nations operation. As the hon. Gentleman likes to pride himself on being a great admirer of the UN, he should welcome the lead that the United Kingdom is giving to try to ensure a co-ordinated and united UN resolve and response to the request for additional forces.

Trident --

4. Mr. John Marshall : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement about the progress of the Trident programme.

Mr. Aitken : The Trident programme continues to make good progress, with HMS Vanguard due to enter service on time around the turn of the year.

Mr. Marshall : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, which will be welcomed by all who are anxious for the freedom of this country and the defence of freedom worldwide. Does he agree that that progress would not have been made if we had listened to the Labour party in 1987, and would not be made if we were to listen to the unofficial leader of the Opposition today ?

Mr. Aitken : My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the important role that the Trident force will play in safeguarding our freedoms. He is also right--although not quite up to date--in his criticisms of the Labour party. He may be unaware that at its last conference Labour passed, by an overwhelming majority, composite motion No. 48, which demanded the immediate scrapping of the Trident programme--a policy which would leave British workers unemployed and Britain undefended.

Mr. Jim Marshall : Will the Minister try to explain how a system that has been developed to produce massive and unthinkable damage-- especially in the Soviet Union, to

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prevent it from making a first strike--will deter any small state from developing its own nuclear weapons or threatening to use those weapons ?

Mr. Aitken : I do not think that the hon. Gentleman begins to understand the whole principle of deterrence. In regard to Russia, he may not have noted the important announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and President Yeltsin that no countries would target their missiles on each other any longer ; his references to Russia are out of date. As for any conceivable involvement of a bandit state or an evil dictator, I think that both would probably be deterred by the threat of Trident missiles, which are likely to be sub-strategic as well as strategic.

Mr. Streeter : Is my hon. Friend aware that many thousands of people in the west country will be employed in the early years of the 21st century in maintaining the Trident submarine ? Can he confirm that the Government remain committed to the fourth submarine, unlike the Labour party ?

Mr. Aitken : Yes, I can indeed confirm that we remain committed to a fourth Trident submarine, for a very good reason : experience has shown us that the only way in which to be absolutely certain that we can maintain continuous patrolling of Britain's independent nuclear deterrent in our submarines is by having four boats available.

Mr. Donald Anderson : When will the Government take the danger of nuclear proliferation seriously ? Last November, when the Government had a chance to reduce the number of nuclear warheads, they failed to do so ; they reduced only the firepower on our nuclear submarines. Did not that send a negative signal to the countries in unstable parts of the world that have started, or are tempted to start, along the road to a nuclear capacity ?

Mr. Aitken : The Government are firmly committed to

non-proliferation and to encouraging that in all possible ways. As for signals, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has made it clear that no Trident submarine will deploy with more than a maximum of 96 warheads and that, if our present plans continue, the total explosive firepower on a Trident submarine will be much the same as that deployed on Polaris submarines. Moreover, by the time that Trident is fully deployed, we expect that our whole operational nuclear arsenal will be some 25 per cent. less than our entire operational nuclear arsenal in 1990, so there is a reduction.

Mr. Brazier : Does my hon. Friend accept that some of us are deeply concerned that we might be confined to a sea-launched nuclear capability because nuclear proliferation means that in the long run we may face nuclear enemies in the third world for which we shall need an air-launched capability to provide effective deterrence ?

Mr. Aitken : It is important to recognise that the announcement that we have made about the sub-strategic role of Trident means that our nuclear strike capability could reach almost anywhere from a Trident submarine with a targeted sub-strategic missile. We shall have the capability, although it is not an air-launched capability. We shall of course retain an air- launched capability until approximately 2007 as a result of retaining the WE177 bomb.

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Training --

5. Mr. Ainger : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will list those countries for which his Department provides or has provided training in this country or elsewhere in defence-related matters in the last 10 years.

Mr. Rifkind : Since 1984, students from some 116 countries have attend training courses in British military establishments. Also, I am pleased to announce to the House that today I have formally agreed that the United Kingdom will contribute to the training of a Baltic joint peacekeeping battalion composed of contingents from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia as part of a phased multinational programme of assistance. The United Kingdom's contribution will be led by the Royal Marines who will provide individual and company-level training.

Mr. Ainger : May I assure the House that that was not a planted question ? Can the Secretary of State give the House an assurance that the Government are not providing military training to any country that is in breach of any UN resolution, in particular to Indonesia which, as the Secretary of State will I am sure know from seeing the documentary "Death of a Nation", has carried out a policy of genocide against the people of East Timor ?

Mr. Rifkind : There have been times when we have provided training to Indonesia, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we take into account the human rights record and other activities of any Government in determining whether military training would be appropriate.

Mr. Devlin : Is not it the case that many countries in the third world and the Caribbean, and especially some in Asia such as Nepal, have close links with this country because of the long-standing co-operation in military matters that we have undertaken with them ? Will not the fact that many of their senior officers have been trained at British military academies provide a good basis for a relationship for us in the future ?

Mr. Rifkind : That is indeed the case. Some of the most impressive training that we have provided has been to the new Governments in Zimbabwe and Namibia and it has enabled the integration of the various elements of their armed forces. We are, of course, currently providing a similar service in South Africa at the request of the South African Government and the African National Congress.

Menwith Hill --

6. Mr. Madden : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence why he has refused permission for a group of Labour hon. Members from Yorkshire to visit Menwith Hill station in North Yorkshire.

Mr. Hanley : For operational and security reasons, such visits are not in general allowed.

Mr. Madden : Is not it extraordinary that British Ministers should refuse elected Members of the British Parliament the opportunity to visit bases on British soil ? Were British Ministers afraid of the information that American personnel might give us or did they feel that we could not be trusted with the mess silver ?

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Mr. Hanley : I have nothing to add to my previous answer.

Mr. Riddick : Is my hon. Friend aware that a few years ago, when I was a little younger and when I was chairman of the North Yorkshire Freedom Association, I organised a rather successful anti-CND demonstration at Menwith Hill ? Is he further aware that, at that time, the station authorities refused access to the CND squatters camping outside ? Does not it make perfect sense for the authorities now to refuse access to mischief- making Labour Members of Parliament with CND sympathies ?

Mr. Hanley : My hon. Friend is absolutely right but I can tell him one thing : were a group of Conservative Members of Parliament to apply to visit Menwith Hill, it would receive the same response as the group of Labour Members.

Mr. Cryer : Is not one of the outrageous truths about Menwith Hill that it has never received any authority from Parliament and that it is operated by a foreign power, whether or not that foreign power is sympathetic ? Therefore, it should be accountable to the House. Is not the Minister denying democratic accountability through the House by refusing to allow Members of Parliament to go to what is a secret eavesdropper on telecommunications from the United Kingdom, which operates without any implied or expressed authority from the House of Commons ?

Mr. Hanley : It is a Ministry of Defence-owned property and it is Ministry of Defence controlled. Therefore

Mr. Campbell-Savours : Have you been there ?

Mr. Hanley : I spent a day there on 27 January. There is no lack of democratic accountability. There have been 40 questions in two years on that subject--four tabled by the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer). If he were to request something such as an Adjournment debate, the matter may be discussed further. Opposition Members have not taken the democratic opportunities available to them.

Mr. Robert Banks : Does my hon. Friend agree that the Menwith Hill base is an extremely important communications centre for the North Atlantic alliance and that we should be grateful for the security that we obtain from the presence of the United States service men and our own RAF service men at that base ? Is he aware of the number of jobs that emanate from the workings of the base and that excellent relationships exist between United States servicemen and the people of Harrogate ?

Mr. Hanley : I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right. Menwith Hill is vital to the security of the United Kingdom and to the United States and nothing is done there that is not consistent with the security of the United Kingdom. I also agree with my hon. Friend about the jobs because there are 600 United Kingdom nationals and 1,200 United States nationals and therefore there is a considerable community. Relations in the area are absolutely excellent.

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Nuclear Arms Reductions --

7. Mr. Clapham : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what contributions the Government are making towards the process of strategic nuclear arms reductions.

Mr. Rifkind : The United Kingdom maintains only the minimum deterrent required for our security needs. If in the future there were further substantial reductions in United States and former Soviet strategic stockpiles and if defensive capabilities had not significantly enhanced, we would consider what further contributions we might make to nuclear arms control.

Mr. Clapham : I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, but earlier he announced that the firepower of Trident is about equal to that of the Polaris system that it replaces. However, the Trident system has more warheads, it is more accurate and those warheads can be independently targeted. What sort of message does the Secretary of State think that that sends out to other nations as we approach the non- proliferation treaty extension conference in 1995 ?

Mr. Rifkind : Trident certainly has a substantial capability, but we have made it clear that the warheads that will be carried by Trident will have a destructive yield approximately the same as that of Polaris. It is precisely because of the self-restraint that we are exercising that we are able to send the kind of signal to the international community that the hon. Gentleman ought to be supporting.

Mr. Dickens : Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the world is full of military turbulence and uncertainty at the moment and that, while we have the Trident submarine lurking beneath the oceans of the world ready to deliver an unacceptable response to anyone who may attack the United Kingdom or our allies, we are safe ?

Mr. Rifkind : Not only is that correct, but the reality is that even Russia and the United States, when they have fully implemented all their commitments under START, will each have 3,000 strategic nuclear warheads, which illustrates the need for the United Kingdom to maintain its own national deterrent.

United States Forces --

8. Mr. Foulkes : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he expects to meet the United States Defence Secretary to discuss deployment of United States forces in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Rifkind : I spoke to Dr. Perry earlier this week. We discussed a range of issues of mutual interest.

Mr. Foulkes : Is the Secretary of State aware that 29 American bases and facilities have closed over the past five years, with disastrous effects on local economies, adding to the existing effects of the loss of British defence jobs ? When the right hon. and learned Gentleman talks to the United States Secretary of State, will he obtain details of the $1.5 billion that the Americans spend on defence conversion, and learn something from them ?

Mr. Rifkind : When the hon. Gentleman complains about the effects of American base closures he should remember that he belongs to a party which calls for far more serious reductions in British defence. He should also

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be aware that our resettlement policies for people who leave the armed forces are the most generous in the world-- considerably more so than those in the United States.

Mr. Bill Walker : Will my right hon. and learned Friend remind people that in 1945 the United States forces went home, and that it was only the Berlin airlift of 1948 that brought them back to the United Kingdom ? We should never repeat that mistake. While the world is unstable, we require the presence of the United States and other NATO allies in order to deter.

Mr. Rifkind : Indeed, the United States has sent its forces to help in the defence of Europe three times this century. Once it was because of a threat from communism, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact. On the two other occasions, the threats to Europe were of a different order. That suggests that the links and the mutual interest between north America and western Europe antedated the cold war, and will continue to have relevance in the years ahead, although communism is no longer in Europe. Europe's security is of great importance to the United States, which justifies the continuation of the Atlantic alliance.

Dr. Godman : The Secretary of State knows that the United States navy has departed from Holy Loch, but that occasionally its submarines come back into United Kingdom waters. Is he satisfied that when United States nuclear submarines are sailing in our waters their officers stick rigidly at all times to the code of practice for the safety of our fishing vessels ?

Mr. Rifkind : We expect all submarines to take into account the crucial importance of protecting the fishermen operating in those areas, and I have no reason to believe that the United States is anything other than conscientious with regard to those obligations.

Tracker Radar --

9. Mr. Burns : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence, pursuant to his oral answer on 11 January, Official Report , column 8, if he is yet in a position to place the order for the conversion of type 911 tracker radars.

Mr. Aitken : I am pleased to announce that formal contractual discussions with Marconi Radar and Control Systems of Chelmsford have commenced. Contract placement with the company will depend on the satisfactory conclusion of negotiations, which I hope will not take much longer to finalise.

Mr. Burns : I thank my hon. Friend for that extremely reassuring answer for my constituents. May I urge him to ensure that there are no subsequent hiccups, and that the contract is wrapped up, signed, sealed and delivered as quickly as possible ? Can my hon. Friend say how large he expects the contract to be, as it is crucially important for job security and for the safeguarding of employment in Chelmsford and elsewhere ?

Mr. Aitken : In answer to the second part of my hon. Friend's question, which he is right to raise--he has been vocal on behalf of his constituents in support of the contract--although obviously the value will depend on price negotiations, I expect it to be about £20 million. I share his hopes about getting the contract signed, sealed

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and delivered as soon as possible, but I must add that the ball is rather in the company's court and that it takes two to tango.

Minehunters --

10. Mr. Denham : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what action he intends to take to ensure value for money in tendering for new minehunters.

Mr. Aitken : To secure best value for money, competitive tenders have been invited from all United Kingdom warship builders for a core batch of four Sandown class single-role minehunters, with options for three more.

Mr. Denham : The Minister will be aware that Vosper Thornycroft of Southampton will be anxious to submit a competitive bid for those orders. Will he also acknowledge that investment both by the Government and by Vosper Thornycroft has given that shipyard a world lead in many areas of naval technology, benefiting both the Royal Navy and British export orders ? In the light of recent press speculation, will the Minister take great care before allocating any naval orders to foreign-owned shipyards which could possibly undercut Vosper Thornycroft's position in world export markets ?

Mr. Aitken : First, I share the hon. Gentleman's understandable pride as a constituency Member of Parliament in the achievements of Vosper Thornycroft. I visited the company, and I regard it as not only a British leader in its field but a world leader. On the hon. Gentleman's second point, I can assure him that, so far as I know, we have no intention of contemplating awarding British warship orders to foreign yards. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman may take some comfort from the fact that we have excluded foreign hulls from this particular competition. It will be a British built contract for Sandown class minehunters.

Infantry Battalions --

12. Mr. Eric Clarke : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is the current average emergency tour plot interval for an infantry battalion.

Mr. Hanley : The average emergency tour interval for infantry battalions in 1993-94 is 17 months. On the basis of current commitments, we expect this to rise to 20 months in 1994-95, and to 30 months thereafter.

Mr. Clarke : Can the Minister confirm that 24 months minimum to allow the battalions to do their training is the figure for which we should aim ?

Mr. Hanley : Certainly, 24 months is the target when we have completed the draw-down in 1995-96.

Mr. Robathan : Does my hon. Friend agree that the large number of applications for voluntary redundancies reveals how low morale is currently in the armed forces, and that this is caused by overstretch and the number of emergency tours because there are insufficient troops currently in our Army ?

Mr. Hanley : The large number of voluntary redundancies is, first, a measure of the generosity of the voluntary redundancy terms and, secondly, the sign of an improved economy outside.

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