Column 1T H E
P A R L I A M E N T A R Y D E B A T E S
IN THE SECOND SESSION OF THE FIFTY-FIRST PARLIAMENT OF THE UNITED KINGDOM OF GREAT BRITAIN AND NORTHERN IRELAND
[WHICH OPENED 27 APRIL 1992]
FORTY-THIRD YEAR OF THE REIGN OF
HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II
SIXTH SERIES VOLUME 241
NINTH VOLUME OF SESSION 1993-94
Mr. Ainger : The Minister will be aware of the concern expressed by many organisations, individuals, local authorities and trade unions about the outcome of the director general's review of test and evaluation. Does he agree that it would be wholly unacceptable if a significant part--or any part--of test and evaluation currently undertaken at establishments in Essex, Dyfed and west Scotland were transferred to another country in Europe or North America ? Can he assure the House that, whatever the outcome of the review, it will not mean any of that work being undertaken anywhere other than in the United Kingdom ?
Mr. Aitken : I recognise the hon. Gentleman's concern as the Member of Parliament whose constituency contains Pendine. In our quest for value for money, we are currently considering a number of options on the future of test and evaluation sites, although Ministers have reached no decision. On the information available to my Department, the transfer to an overseas location of facilities at Pendine or any other establishment does not appear to be cost-effective.
Mr. John Marshall : Has my hon. Friend made any estimate of the amount of defence equipment testing that would be undertaken in Wales and elsewhere if the defence budget were cut by 25 per cent., as some hon. Members advocate ?
Mr. Aitken : My hon. Friend makes an entirely valid political point. If Labour or Liberal Democrat conference resolutions were implemented, test and evaluation establishments throughout the country would have not nearly enough work to survive.
Mr. Home Robertson : Will the Minister acknowledge that he has an unparalleled facility for testing and evaluating a wide range of weapons at the Royal Artillery range in the Hebrides ? Will he ensure that the fullest possible use is made of those facilities by British companies and the British armed forces and encourage allied companies and armed forces also to take advantage of them ?
Mr. Aitken : I am glad to pay tribute to the equipment, facilities and personnel at the Royal Artillery range in the Hebrides. I visited Benbecula and St. Kilda last summer and am well aware of the point that the hon. Gentleman seeks to make. I am all in favour of the artillery range seeking business from overseas Governments and companies--which takes place to some extent already.
Mr. Aitken : Our latest estimates show that in 1993 we signed defence equipment export contracts worth more than £6 billion. That represents an increase of more than 15 per cent. on the 1992 figure and makes 1993 another record-breaking year for Britain's defence exports.
Mr. Jenkin : Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Britain's defence equipment manufacturers on their success in achieving dramatically increased exports--particularly Paxman Diesels in Colchester, which is currently seeking diesel engine contracts from Kuwait and Abu Dhabi ? Will my hon. Friend ensure that his excellent Department and the Defence Export Services Organisation in particular continue to provide the necessary support to British manufacturers, so that they may continue to achieve record exports ?
Mr. Aitken : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his tribute to Britain's defence manufacturers, who deserve to be congratulated on an outstandingly good success story in British exports. I am also glad to pay tribute to Paxman Diesels in his constituency, which is part of GEC Alsthom. We are aware that that company is currently hoping to win major export contracts in Kuwait and Abu Dhabi. My Department--and, indeed, my right hon. and learned Friend and I--have given it every possible help in its battle for those orders.
Mr. Donald Anderson : However remarkable and buoyant defence sales currently are, is not it clear that, over the next few years, there will be a contraction both in the domestic market and in many of our overseas markets, with major regional and employment effects ? That will clearly be a major national problem. Do the Government intend to sit back, fold their arms and leave it to the market--or do they intend, like the United States Government, to set up a special agency designed to help in that period of transition and seek to diversify into civilian use wherever practicable ?
Mr. Aitken : The hon. Gentleman has succeeded in sounding a note of lugubrious pessimism even though I am announcing some very good news. That is typical socialism. The Government do not have the slightest intention of sitting back or ceasing in the battle to win export orders for British companies. We hope to continue with some measure of success. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the likelihood is that, both at home and abroad, there will be some contraction of orders, but the recipe for solving the problem is not, as he suggests, to create a new Government quango like the Defence Conversion Agency ; indeed, he may care to note that the current United States Secretary of Defence was recorded as saying that so far the whole process of the Defence Conversion Agency was "unblemished by success."
3. Mr. Clifton-Brown : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how much money has been realised by the Defence Land Service from the sale of property in the last year for which figures are available.
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Jeremy Hanley) : During the financial year 1992-93, which is the last full year for which figures are available, my Department realised some £68 million from the sale of land and buildings.
Mr. Clifton-Brown : My hon. Friend will be aware that the defence budget is to be held in actual terms over the next three years. Would it not be right to redeploy into the defence budget some of the capital receipts from sales of property so that we can have an increased defence budget to deal with inflationary increases ? That would help to pay for front-line facilities for troops to deal with such threats as that displayed by the grizzly bear Zhirinovsky during his recent visit to Paris.
Mr. Hanley : My hon. Friend is right that sales of surplus land and buildings can be very valuable within the defence budget--indeed, that is our policy. We are looking at the sale of land and buildings, again under the defence cost studies, and in due course will announce the results to the House. We greatly value those receipts. We look to sell surplus property whenever possible, and co-operate with local authorities in that, too.
Mr. Tony Banks : So does the Minister have some sympathy with local authorities, which are sitting on some £5 billion-worth of accumulated capital receipts that the Government will not let them spend on services ? While he is thinking of a miserable, pathetic, cringing answer to that question, may I also ask him how many vacant properties the Ministry of Defence currently holds that should be let to the homeless ?
Mr. Hanley : The Ministry of Defence currently owns about 70,000 domestic residences, of which approximately 10,000 are vacant-- [Hon. Members :-- "Disgraceful".] The Opposition might prefer it if there were no homes to which our soldiers, sailors and airmen coming back from abroad could go. The Opposition might feel that the homes of service men do not deserve to be repaired or put into proper condition for letting and occupation. Perhaps they have been so long away from having to look after such property that they have lost all sense of reality.
Mr. Aitken : Once an affordable operational requirement has been agreed, it takes between eight and 12 years to design and build a modern frigate, depending on the complexity and development programmes of the weapon equipments to be fitted. Follow-on vessels to an existing design take some four years to build.
Mr. Gill : Does not my hon. Friend's answer underline the fact that, to all intents and purposes, the only naval vessels that we shall have in any future conflict or war are those that are in the fleet at present ?
Mr. Aitken : No, that is not correct. There is, for example, a continuous rolling programme of vessel replacement and vessel building. There are currently 37 destroyers and frigates in the fleet, but three new type 23 frigates will be accepted into the Navy this year. Three are under construction and we hope to issue an invitation to tender for the next batch later this year. From that simple summary, my hon. Friend will realise that, in the event of hostilities breaking out, we should quickly be able to strengthen the number of ships available to the fleet.
Mr. Aitken : I am sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman, who is usually a staunch supporter of defence, suddenly indulge in knocking copy. Although the Royal Navy has, of course, reduced the size of its fleet since the days of the cold war, it remains one of the most powerful and effective maritime forces in the world. The fleet consists of some 122 ships, including, as I said, 37 destroyers and frigates, 20 submarines, 18 minehunters and three aircraft carriers, and other ships are under construction, including the landing platform helicopter ship. From that simple record, it is quite clear that the Royal Navy has not lost touch with reality.
Mr. Garnier : Can my hon. Friend tell me the equivalent time required by the Russian navy to build a modern frigate ? Am I right in thinking that the Russians continue to build frigates and other front-line warships at an accelerating rate ?
Mr. Aitken : The Russian shipyards are, indeed, continuing to build warships and submarines such as the Kilo submarine, some of which are being exported to countries such as Iran. I am afraid that I am not an expert on the time taken by Russian shipyards, but if Russian labour practices are anything to go by, they are considerably slower and less efficient than our own commendable yards.
Mr. Hanley : More than 2,000 service dogs are kept at Ministry of Defence establishments worldwide. They provide valuable and cost-effective security. In addition, there are some dogs privately owned and kept at personal expense ; if they are kennelled at Ministry of Defence establishments, their owners are charged for the use of any Ministry of Defence property.
Mr. Jamieson : Following his recent written answer to me, will the Minister confirm that the taxpayer is getting good value for money by subsidising dog kennels so that senior officers can go hunting during duty hours ? In particular, will he confirm, following a written answer to me on 14 March, at column 520 , that hunting with dogs promotes "good tactical . . . appreciation" ? How can officers serving in the Navy use such tactical appreciation aboard Her Majesty's ships ?
Column 6in all three and that military capability for a leading officer in the Royal Navy is just as great as that for such an officer in any of the forces. The forces share their expertise. I can assure the hon. Gentleman, who has pursued this issue quite vigorously recently, that hunting never interferes with any military commitments. It is a legal sport and, while it remains legal, the Ministry of Defence will co-operate with those who wish to undertake it.
Mr. Whittingdale : My hon. Friend will be aware that, immediately before Easter, a number of boxes of anti-personnel mines were lost from the testing station at Shoeburyness and washed up on the beaches of my constituency
Madam Speaker : Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman is a very good trier, and the Minister may have a reply, but that question does not relate to that on the Order Paper. Let us hear about dogs being washed up.
Mr. Hanley : There is no doubt that you, Madam Speaker, nearly smelt a rat on that one. My hon. Friend makes a good point because although the majority of dogs used by the Ministry of Defence are used for guarding, 355 are trained for specialist detection duties, which include arms and explosives searches, drugs detection and tracking. As to the event to which my hon. Friend referred, an urgent investigation is being carried out.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind) : The Government attach a high priority to preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the United Kingdom will continue to contribute positively towards international efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation.
Mr. Rifkind : The United Kingdom has indicated a very substantial reduction in its nuclear weapon capability. For example, we have got rid of all nuclear tactical weapons. We have said that we shall not go forward with the original proposals for a sub-strategic nuclear capability, which will in future be based on our Trident facilities. We have also indicated that our Trident nuclear weapons will have an explosive yield comparable to that of Polaris. The United Kingdom can hold its head high on the basis of making a positive contribution to the reduction of nuclear weapons in the world.
Mr. Ian Taylor : Has my right hon. and learned Friend recently made an assessment of the reports of the proliferation of nuclear weapons going from the ex-Soviet Union to Iran ? The disturbing events in the Crimea also seem to be related to rumours that nuclear weapons may be being traded through to the middle east or even used
Column 7internally in the Ukraine. Those reports are disturbing at this sensitive moment and I should therefore be grateful if the Secretary of State could clarify the issue.
Mr. Rifkind : There is no indication that either the Russian or the Ukraine Governments have been involved in any trading of that kind. With the very large number of weapons that exist in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, it is possible that certain materials may have been offered or transferred. We have no hard evidence to support that proposition, but the situation certainly needs to be carefully monitored.
Mr. Rifkind : The existing non-proliferation treaty recognises the position of those countries that are currently nuclear weapon states. We are a signatory of the non-proliferation treaty, as are the United States and a number of other countries. We are all working together to ensure that the proliferation of nuclear weapons does not take place. In the real world, which may not be one with which the hon. Gentleman is familiar, one has to take into account the historical fact that nuclear weapons currently exist.
Mr. Hanley : The United States air force in the United Kingdom currently operates airfields at the three main operating bases of RAF Mildenhall, RAF Lakenheath and RAF Alconbury, and the standby deployment base of RAF Fairford. However, flying will cease at RAF Alconbury by the end of March 1995.
Mr. Spring : Is my hon. Friend aware that some 1,500 additional United States service personnel will be coming to RAF Mildenhall and RAF Lakenheath in my constituency during the course of the year ? Is my hon. Friend aware of the extent to which my constituents welcome that, and of the fact that community relations in my constituency are considered to be the best in the world ? Will my hon. Friend join me in celebrating the strong British-American link which for 50 years has served so well the cause of freedom and democracy ?
Mr. Hanley : I warmly welcome my hon. Friend's comments. It is true that the number of active duty service members in the Mildenhall and Lakenheath area is expected to increase from just over 6,000 to almost 8,500 by April 1995. Although that presence is welcome, it naturally brings with it pressures, especially on housing, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on the direct efforts that he has been making with the United States embassy and with the Ministry of Defence to ensure that adequate housing is provided in due time.
Mr. Rifkind : There are at present no plans to withdraw the British contingent. The timing of its ultimate withdrawal will depend on progress towards an overall peace agreement and developments on the ground.
Mrs. Gillan : I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply and I am sure that we all look forward to the ultimate withdrawal of troops from the former Yugoslavia. In the meantime, and in the light of the events of the past 48 hours, will my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that British troops will not be drawn further into the conflict but will continue to remain dedicated to their impartial peacekeeping role in the former Yugoslavia ?
Mr. Rifkind : As my hon. Friend says, it is, indeed, crucial that all United Nations forces recognise their non-partisan role. The recent decision of the UNPROFOR commander, General Rose, to ask for close air support was taken because of the threat faced by UN forces in Gorazde. It is also crucial that the existing mandate of UNPROFOR forces, including those from the United Kingdom, be sustained over the weeks and months to come.
Mr. Menzies Campbell : The Secretary of State will recall that when he recently announced the decision to send additional British troops to Bosnia, he also told the House of the successful diplomatic initiative at the United Nations which had resulted in promises of some 8,000 additional troops from other countries. Does he share the disappointment of many people that, because of the unwillingness of a number of United Nations members to meet their obligations to that organisation, the figure of 8,000 has had to be revised down to 3,500 ?
Mr. Rifkind : The United Kingdom has fully complied with its commitments, and additional British forces are of course now serving in Bosnia, as are forces from several other countries. As the hon. and learned Gentleman said, however, several of the countries that expressed a willingness to send troops have not yet done so. We very much hope that they will meet their commitments in the earliest possible time frame, because the success of General Rose's efforts, like that of the United Nations effort in general, depends on his having the forces available to carry out the important task with which the UN has entrusted him.
Dr. David Clark : Is the Secretary of State aware that when I led a small delegation of hon. Members from both sides of the House into Gorazde last September, we found only 11 UN soldiers guarding that 750 sq km enclave ? The Opposition support the aerial intervention to protect the safe area, but does the Secretary of State share our belief that more ground troops are needed ? Will he put pressure on our American allies to contribute some of those troops, and at the same time use his diplomatic skills to ensure that the Russians are not left out in the cold again ?
Mr. Rifkind : The purpose of UN personnel in Gorazde is not to protect the city ; there is a very small number of UN personnel there. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important for the UN to have the forces that it requires.
Column 9The United States has said that it would be prepared to provide ground forces in the event of a peaceful settlement in Bosnia. I shall be in the United States over the next few days and I am sure that I shall discuss these matters with my American colleagues.
Mr. Gunnell : Does the Minister share the view of his ministerial predecessor, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton), that it was rather a waste of time talking to local authorities, because they did not have the money to pay for the married quarters that they might wish to possess ? Given that one in seven Ministry of Defence houses is vacant, and that the total is therefore far greater than the number needed for any returning service personnel, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be sensible for the two Departments to get together ? Would not it be sensible for the Department of the Environment to ensure that capital receipts are available for local authorities to spend on married quarters so that they can purchase houses that the MOD wishes to sell and which the local authorities would like to possess ?
Mr. Hanley : The hon. Gentleman made several points, and I have sympathy with many of them. The Ministry of Defence is managing its housing estate. I said earlier that there are about 70,000 married quarters, of which about 10,000 are vacant. However, it should be remembered that most vacant properties are undergoing major works, many are being held for deployments, and many are already allocated to service families but have yet to be occupied. We have also been co-operating with the housing task force and trying to sell as many vacant properties as possible. We sold 2,000 vacant properties last year alone, and we intend to sell a further 5,000 over the next five years. We enter into discussion with local councils not only because we like to take their advice on what housing associations might be useful but because many of them are leasing properties from us on a short-term basis.
Mr. Viggers : Is my hon. Friend aware that the local authority in Gosport, which I represent, has found the Ministry of Defence to be helpful and imaginative in its housing policy, as best exemplified perhaps by the recent Rowner Heights development ? Does he agree that the transfer of MOD housing stock to the private sector should result in more efficient management and a reduction in the level of vacancy, which has so annoyed my constituents over the years ?
Mr. Hanley : I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right that in Gosport there has been a model of co-operation between the local authority and the Ministry of Defence. Indeed, returning service men are being housed properly. As for the housing trust to which my hon. Friend alludes, that has been welcomed by the housing task force and the report recently published by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Inner Cities and
Column 10Construction. Indeed, we look forward to the establishment of the housing trust so that the estate of MOD housing can be even better managed.
Dr. David Clark : Bearing in mind that the cost of an average house in the United Kingdom is £62,500, does the Minister consider that the price of £7,000 per house which he intends to offer the Ministry's housing to the housing trust is a fair deal to the taxpayer ?
Mr. Hanley : I do not honestly believe that, when one is looking at the number of houses that we are talking about, and the people for whom the houses will be held, the hon. Gentleman is making a straight comparison. What he is doing is trying to deal with the 70,000 houses as though there was a bulk sale and exaggerating the price. It is a bulk sale, but it is for the benefit of people in the armed forces.
11. Mr. Wilkinson : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what progress he has made in augmenting the strength of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force to compensate for cuts in the front line of the Royal Air Force imposed under "Options for Change".
Mr. Hanley : The strength of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force has increased from 262 in April 1979 to some 1,700 now. We keep the numbers under regular review. For instance, the reduction in the threat to United Kingdom home bases means that we will no longer require the four Royal Auxiliary Air Force defence flights formed to protect key points, but Royal Auxiliary Air Force personnel are now being given the opportunity to operate as an integral element of two regular RAF Regiment Rapier squadrons. We also intend to undertake trials of reservist aircrew for the first time on Hercules and Wessex aircraft.
Mr. Wilkinson : Is my hon. Friend aware that since the decision was taken under the "Options for Change" review, the air defence element of the Royal Air Force has reduced by some 30 per cent. and the strike attack element by some 40 per cent., and therefore the Royal Air Force is smaller but, effectively, weaker ? As a consequence, could he increase significantly the reserve element by the creation of flying squadrons, as is so effectively done in the United States, Israeli and Swiss air forces ?
Mr. Hanley : The answer to my hon. Friend's last point is that we will certainly look at that because there is a future for the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. I mentioned that the number had increased from 262 to some 1,700. Even before the removal of the four flights, that will still be an increase of up to 1,300 with possibly more increases to come. As for the RAF Regular Reserve, the number was 3,250 in 1979 and it is some 17,500 now.
Mr. Martlew : Is it not correct that in "Options for Change", the plan was to increase the number to 2,000 ? The Minister has announced that it is only 1,700 at present, so in fact there has been a reduction of 300. That is another idea of the Government's lack of clarity towards their armed forces. In 1983, it was announced that the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and part of the Royal Air Force Voluntary Reserve would be amalgamated. There is a problem with that ; to carry that out, we need primary legislation. Can the Minister guarantee that we will deal
Column 11with the Reserve Forces Bill next year in the House ? Will that Bill include clauses that will allow the amalgamation to take place ?
Mr. Hanley : As I have said--and the hon. Gentleman clearly heard me --we keep the numbers of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force under review. That means that occasionally there will be reductions if threats change, and there will be increases when new roles can be found. As for the Reserve Forces Act 1980, what the hon. Gentleman said is exactly the intention of the Ministry of Defence--to enact a change in the legislation next year.
Mr. Mans : In relation to the Royal Air Force Reserve, will my hon. Friend have discussions with his opposite number at the Home Office before any decisions are taken over the air cadet movement because of the great social good that that movement does in terms of providing useful occupations for youths and preventing them from going down the wrong road towards crime ?
Mr. Hanley : Naturally, I agree that many benefits flow from joining up with the Territorial Army, or the reserves. Those to which my hon. Friend has pointed are just some of them. The defence of the realm must primarily take account of the needs of the kingdom to be defended. This is not a purely social service, but there are certainly social service benefits. Indeed, many benefits flow from military discipline.
Mr. Rifkind : The United Kingdom currently has some 3,300 service men on the ground in the former Yugoslavia, with a further 3,000 deployed offshore and in Italy. Our contribution naturally takes into account our operational commitments elsewhere.
Rev. Martin Smyth : While I welcome the right hon. and learned Gentleman's statement, can he assure the House that, with the overstretch in the emergency plot and the planned reductions, the United Kingdom will have sufficient forces in the years ahead to undertake its rightful peacekeeping role, maintain its presence in Northern Ireland and, at the same time, make provision for engagement in collective brigade and Army training ?
Mr. Rifkind : It is our intention to meet all those commitments. Our plans envisage that the emergency tour interval will meet the target of some 24 months by the end of the draw-down period. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that our commitment to Northern Ireland will be of the highest priority. We believe that the first obligation of our armed forces is the protection of the territory of the United Kingdom wherever a legitimate contribution can be made to that end.
Lady Olga Maitland : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that while we must indeed undertake our own role in overseas operations, this must not be done at the expense of operations in Northern Ireland ? In particular, does my right hon. and learned Friend realise that there is a serious shortage of helicopter flying hours for
Column 12surveillance purposes ? Surely it is essential that we demonstrate that we are absolutely resolute in countering terrorism in the Province.
Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend is correct, but she should take into account the fact that there has been a massive increase in helicopter activity in Northern Ireland. Helicopters have been found to be a most valuable means of meeting our security commitments, and there has quite properly been a major deployment of helicopter assets in the Province. We shall continue to try to ensure that the availability of those assets is consistent with operational requirements.
Dr. Reid : At this critical juncture for our troops in the former Yugoslavia, will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to lay to rest some of the fears that have been expressed both at home and abroad by assuring the House that the use of military force in Bosnia, under United Nations mandate, will continue to be related to specific achievable and impartial humanitarian objectives and that forces will not be allowed to stumble into an ill-considered partisan or futile intervention of a more general nature in that theatre ?
Mr. Rifkind : Yes, of course, it has been Her Majesty's Government's view, since the very beginning of this conflict, that crucial to the authority of the United Nations and its forces is the need for them to remain bipartisan in making a contribution at the humanitarian level and at the peacekeeping level so that the country may see the United Nations as the protector of all its peoples, as an organisation that is not partisan in the way it carries out its responsibilities.