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Mr. Brazier : With regard to the impact on other theatres of operation, will my right hon. and learned Friend tell us when it is next intended to hold a brigade or divisional exercise ? The removal of infantry for various tasks--vital tasks such as those that have to be undertaken in Northern Ireland and others such as are being discharged in Bosnia--has created an overstretch that many of us feel has prevented the remaining formations from carrying out such exercises. When is the next brigade exercise planned ?
Mr. Rifkind : That will be for the Army to decide. However, the work being done by our forces in Bosnia and elsewhere is regarded as very valuable training and experience. Thus, it is seen as being in no way irrelevant to their true purpose or role.
13. Mr. Mandelson : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make proposals for greater burden sharing of military expenditure among European members of NATO and the Western European Union.
Mr. Rifkind : The recent NATO summit agreed that European allies should take a greater responsibility for common security and defence. This will be achieved through the development of a European security and defence identity, expressed through the WEU, which will in turn strengthen the European pillar of the alliance.
Mr. Mandelson : In view of the further development of pooled European defence arrangements which, as the Secretary of State has said, were agreed at the NATO summit and were foreshadowed by the Maastricht treaty,
Column 13does he agree that common European defence policies require common thresholds of military spending by member states ? Will the Government therefore give much greater impetus to devising new approaches to European defence spending in the run up to the intergovernmental conference in 1996 ?
Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman should not get too obsessed with percentages when he compares the defence expenditures of various European countries. It is perhaps significant that the United Kingdom, France and Germany spend much the same sums of money on defence because in each case they have substantial commitments to the NATO alliance and to their other responsibilities. The three countries--which are, of course, the three senior European members of NATO--have comparable levels of defence expenditure, and that is no coincidence.
Mr. Bill Walker : Will my right hon. and learned Friend tell the House when, as a result of those splendid arrangements, we can expect to see the Wehmacht committed to operations such as those in Bosnia and elsewhere which have a direct reflection on NATO and on western security ?
Mr. Rifkind : I think that my hon. Friend is perhaps referring to the Bundeswehr, and not to the Wehmacht. I do not think that even my hon. Friend would be anxious to see the Wehmacht carrying out the responsibilities which he suggested. The Federal Government of Germany have indicated their desire to see the Bundeswehr carry out such responsibilities as soon as the German constitution permits such a task.
Mr. Jim Marshall : Does the Secretary of State agree that if some of our European allies continue to reduce their defence expenditure at the current rate there will be a real possibility that the concept of the WEU as a European pillar of NATO will fast become a joke ? [Interruption.]
Mr. Rifkind : I agree that, at a time of general instability in Europe when NATO is being called upon to carry out new tasks, it is important that all member states of the alliance--including the smaller states--should continue to make a credible contribution to the defence needs of the alliance. [Interruption.]
Madam Speaker : Order. I would be much obliged if the House would settle down. It is very noisy this afternoon, and even the Secretary of State has difficulty in hearing the supplementary questions--let alone me.
Mr. Hanley : On 1 February this year, the total trained strength of the infantry was about 29,400. On 1 April 1990, it was about 35,900. These figures exclude 3,460 Gurkhas, 6,800 Royal Marines and soldiers from other arms deployed in the infantry role which are regularly about 1,280.
Column 14able to discharge the United Kingdom's obligations in Hong Kong, Northern Ireland and Belize, and for the defence of United Kingdom itself ?
Mr. Hanley : The answer is yes. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State announced last November that certain amalgamations would be withdrawn and that there would be 3,000 extra back-up troops because we keep under regular review the need to meet our commitments. At current levels, we believe that the forces which we have meet those commitments, and meet them well.
Dr. Jones : Is not it a disgrace that the Defence Export Services Organisation spent £16.3 million last year in promoting world instability ? Would not more jobs be secured if that money, and other subsidies for arms manufacturers and support for the arms industry, were spent in helping them to diversify into civil manufacture ?
Mr. Aitken : The hon. Lady seeks to condemn the Defence Export Services Organisation for spending £16 million and says that that creates instability. I assure her that she is completely and utterly wrong. As I said in an answer to an earlier question, last year our defence exporters aided by DESO managed to clock up the remarkable total of £6 billion of defence exports--a record-breaking figure. That creates jobs, prosperity and economic strength for this country and an overwhelming number of hon. Members on both sides of the House warmly welcome that success.
Mr. Hanley : As at 31 December 1993, my Department owned 10,108 vacant married quarters and 151 vacant Ministry of Defence houses. In addition 1,468 vacant married quarters and 44 vacant MOD civilian houses were in the process of being sold. The majority of the vacant married quarters were either undergoing or awaiting major works or modernisation, held for unit deployments, or already allocated to service families who were due to move in shortly.
Mr. Austin-Walker : Does the Minister recall the statement by his fellow Minister, Viscount Cranborne, that many sales to housing associations were either delayed or terminated because of lack of funding ? Does he accept that the Government's restrictions on capital expenditure are resulting in thousands of Ministry of Defence homes remaining empty while thousands of people are homeless ?
Mr. Austin-Walker : Does the Prime Minister recall that not a single vote was cast in the House on Second Reading against the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill and that 231 hon. and right hon. Members voted for it ? Will he assure the House that nothing will be done by the Government side to obstruct the passage of that Bill and that an early opportunity will be found for the Report stage and Third Reading ?
The Prime Minister : As I have indicated to the House before, we share the aim of eliminating discrimination against disabled people. We have done a great deal for disabled people in recent years and will do yet more, both in this Parliament and the next. What we need to do in Committee and thereafter is to look at the practical implications of the Bill, and that will be done.
Sir Peter Tapsell : Following his recent success in encouraging and welcoming the introduction of Russian ground troops into the former Yugoslavia, as part of the United Nations Protection Force, will my right hon. Friend try to use his influence to improve communications between the Secretary-General of the United Nations and President Yeltsin, so that the Russian President will not feel excluded from the implementation of resolution 836, for which Russia voted in the Security Council on 4 June 1993 ?
The Prime Minister : As my hon. Friend clearly indicates, Russia has a very important part to play in the peace process and I very much welcome the actions by the Russian deputy Foreign Minister during the past 24 hours to support the ceasefire negotiations. As far as the recent close air support is concerned, UNPROFOR and NATO acted in accordance with the Security Council resolution that my hon. Friend mentioned. Both resolutions 836 and 844 were at the time accepted by Russia. In that instance, the close air support operation did not require further consultation with any Government and in those circumstances it was correctly authorised by the Secretary-General's special representative, but clearly, where it is militarily practicable, it is wise to seek the support of those countries that supported the resolution.
Mrs. Beckett : Is the appearance of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury at yesterday's manifesto launch of Westminster city council--a council that the district auditor said wasted £21 million of taxpayers' money--an admission that the Government are happy to condone waste and incompetence ?
The Prime Minister : Yesterday, I had the pleasure of spending some time in Birmingham, which I much enjoyed. If the right hon. Lady wishes to talk about waste and incompetence she might look at some of the activities of Birmingham city council in recent years.
Mrs. Beckett : What is the country to make of the fact that the Minister in charge of the nation's purse-strings openly endorses a council that sold three cemeteries for 5p each, which had to be bought back at a cost of millions of pounds, and that the district auditor says has wasted £21 million of public money ? What kind of standards are these ?
The Prime Minister : I should be more impressed with what the right hon. Lady has to say if she applied precisely the same criteria to many Labour authorities, not just Birmingham-- [Interruption.] --that I have mentioned. Some of my hon. Friends have just mentioned others and there are many to draw from.
Mrs. Beckett : Does not the Prime Minister understand that he and his Government deceived the public about the poll tax, deceived the public about income tax and deceived the public about value added tax, and are now trying to deceive the public about council tax and about their record on local authorities, that no one believes the Government any longer and that that is why the local elections and the Euro elections will be a referendum on the record of the Prime Minister and his whole Government ?
The Prime Minister : I am bound to say that that was just a touch laboured. If she wants to talk about deceit on taxation, the right hon. Lady might look at her hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) who, on the council tax, was forced to admit after weeks of prevarication that Conservative councils were noticeably less expensive to the council tax payer than Labour authorities. Whatever band of council tax one takes, the answer is the same : Labour councils tax more than Conservative councils.
Mr. Fabricant : Is my right hon. Friend as alarmed as I am at the unusual comments made by Vladimir Zhirinovsky in France this morning when he spoke about the possibility of a nuclear attack on France ? Does he agree with me that now is not the time to talk about nuclear disarmament as some Opposition Members have done ?
The Prime Minister : I agree with my hon. Friend about that. There should be no doubt that we will maintain our nuclear deterrent in its strength, quite unlike Opposition Members who for many years have been prepared to abandon it unilaterally.
Mr. Ashdown : Will the Prime Minister reaffirm that apart from the action taken by the United Nations being consistent with UN Security Council resolutions, as he has suggested, it was also necessary to support the authority of the UN and it was required for the protection of UN peacekeepers ? Does he also agree with me that now is the time to keep our nerve, maintain our military determination and increase diplomatic pressure on the Serbs in order to
Column 17persuade them that they have more to gain from returning to the peace process than from aggression or from further challenges to United Nations authority ?
The Prime Minister : On this occasion, I am able broadly to agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Close air support will remain available to the UN commanders, and they will be able to call on it again if they consider it necessary under either resolution 836 or resolution 844. I hope that those who may be prepared to attack UNPROFOR will draw the appropriate lesson from what has happened so that further use of close air support is unnecessary. As regards keeping our nerve, we are determined to do whatever we can to try to bring about a full settlement. A huge amount has been achieved in the past eight weeks or so. We need to build on it in the weeks ahead, and there will be no loss of nerve here or, I hope, anywhere else.
Mr. Bates : Has my right hon. Friend seen the latest edition of Plant Location International which has carried out a poll of the world's best regions for foreign direct investment in which Shenzhen, China is third, Cape province, South Africa is second and the northern region is first ? Does not this excellent news demonstrate how the economic fortunes of the north-east have been transformed since 1979 under the present Government ?
The Prime Minister : I am afraid that that particular publication was not part of my Easter reading, but I am delighted to hear what my hon. Friend has to say and I certainly share his view about the renewal of prospects, not just in the north-east, but in the whole of the northern part of England.
Mr. Donohoe : Making reference to the statement made earlier by the Prime Minister in connection with Birmingham, will the right hon. Gentleman condemn the lies and deceptions contained in last week's Tory party broadcast ?
councils--Coventry, Waltham Forest, Derbyshire. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) knows all about Derbyshire and the chairman of the finance committee.
Mrs. Beckett indicated assent .
The Prime Minister : The right hon. Lady may contemplate that before she asks me again about Westminster or any other Conservative authority. So I think that the hon. Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) ought to consider the depth of corruption and despair that there is as a result of Labour local authorities.
Mr. Steen : In view of the Prime Minister's success in persuading the Commission of the need for greater deregulation, will he try and persuade the other European leaders of the need to embark upon a compliance cost assessment before any directive is implemented, so that every country in Europe knows the cost to its taxpayers before a directive is enforced and implemented ?
The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of compliance cost assessment, and we are actively encouraging other member states in the Community to introduce systems similar to our own. We are seeking to strengthen the Commission's systems, so ensuring that all proposals for Community legislation are justified in terms of their costs and of their benefits, because the only rational way for Europe to behave in terms of its future legislation is to ensure that Europe becomes more competitive and avoids unnecessary on-costs and over- regulation.
Mr. O'Hara : Talking of Westminster, Library statistics tell us that Tory Westminster spends £78 more per capita than Liverpool and yet it manages to do that on a band D council tax which is less than one third of Liverpool's. What possible justification can the Prime Minister give for such flagrant politically motivated gerrymandering of central Government support to Westminster ?
The Prime Minister : One of the great differences between Westminster and many of the local authorities that the hon. Gentleman is so fond of is that Westminster collects its rents, for example. If one were to consider-- [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman
The Prime Minister : If the hon. Gentleman were to examine the list of local authorities that have a bad rent collection record, he would find Labour local authorities heading that list and running right down it. He would find the same if he considered local authorities in debt, and the same with local authorities who have empty dwellings. The reality is, on any realistic measure of local authority performance, the worst local authorities are socialist local authorities.
Column 19the first movie was shown in this country, in 1890 ? Will my right hon. Friend join me in saluting the extraordinary contribution of film and theatre to this country's economy and standing ; a contribution best exemplified by the unique career of Sir John Gielgud, who is visiting Westminster today and who celebrates his 90th birthday this week ?
The Prime Minister : I am certainly happy to join my hon. Friend in his tribute to the film and variety industry, to the city of Chester and to Sir John Gielgud. I did not myself hear it, but I gather that those who did hear his remarkable King Lear over the weekend regarded it as one of the finest Lears that they had ever heard. He will be very welcome in Westminster, and I should like to add my congratulations to Sir John on his 90th birthday.
Mr. Hughes : If the Prime Minister is unwilling to change his most popular policies, which have reduced his support from more than 45 per cent. to 26 per cent. in the capital, would he like to consider changing his least popular policies and not close hospitals such as Guy's which have now been shown to be part of a health service in which there is no surplus of beds, no surplus of resources and a huge amount of still unmet London- wide need ?
The Prime Minister : What the hon. Gentleman either fails to understand or fails to mention is the fact that the changes in the hospital structure in London are mirrored by changes to primary health care that will deliver very dramatic improvements in primary health care for all Londoners. There is no doubt that that is necessary and that, as a result of these changes, Londoners will both deserve and receive the standards of health care that I believe they should have and that are enjoyed elsewhere.
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