Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness) : I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 to harmonise liabilities for misdescription of services and of goods ; to impose strict liability for misdescription of services ; and for connected purposes.
The Trade Descriptions Act 1968 forms one of the cornerstones of the United Kingdom consumer protection legislation and, by and large, the Act has been successful in promoting higher standards of truthfulness in describing goods and services. However, it has long been recognised that an anomaly-- some would say a loophole--lies at the centre of the 1968 Act. Whereas section 1 of the Act creates an offence of strict liability in the case of misdescription of goods, a lesser form of liability attaches to the misdescription of services by virtue of section 14 of the Act. The simple purpose of my Bill is to bring section 14 into line with section 1.
In any case relating to false description of services, the prosecution needs to prove that the person making the false statement knew that it was false or made the statement recklessly--in other words, there is a requirement of mens rea which is absent in the case of false description of goods. This extra requirement contained in section 14 has made it extremely difficult for trading standards officers to bring successful prosecutions in these cases. The figures from the Office of Fair Trading confirm the scale of the problem. In 1992, there were 1,441 prosecutions for false descriptions of goods, but in that same year there were only 171 prosecutions relating to false statements about services. The discrepancy in the figures cannot be justified or rationalised by the argument that there were fewer false descriptions relating to services. I think that the experience of most hon. Members in the House is directly contrary to that.
In recent memory, there was the fiasco over the Hoover air flight tickets promotion, and all our constituents experience continuing problems with false statements made in holiday brochures. Many people also experience difficulties in getting their motor vehicles repaired in garages. Those examples confirm that there is a genuine problem that the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 is presently failing to address.
I do not believe that the distinction in the Act between liability for false descriptions of goods and false descriptions of services can be justified any longer. In many individual cases, the distinction between goods and services is not always clear--as in the provision of meals in restaurants, for example. In numerous circumstances, the provision of goods and services always goes together, as in the case of car repairs where replacement parts are supplied as part of a garage's service. In such cases, the distinction between the treatment of goods and of services has little common sense from the consumer perspective.
Column 722In addition, all the major consumer organisations, including the Consumers Association, the National Consumer Council and the Institute of Trading Standards Administration, support the case for reform of the Trade Descriptions Act. Indeed, that support for reforming the 1968 Act goes beyond the scope of the consumer protection organisations. The Department of Trade and Industry, back in 1990, in a consultation document on reforms to the Trade Descriptions Act, commented :
"there would seem to be a"
"case for this"
reform, meaning the harmonisation of liability. Four years after that consultation paper was published, we still await the DTI's conclusions on what reforms are appropriate to the Trade Descriptions Act. The Act was reviewed in the Methven report in 1976, which recommended that strict liability should apply to offences relating to the supply of services.
There is a further case for the reform that I propose. The developing case law under section 14 has highlighted a specific problem with that section of the Act. I think specifically of the decision of the House of Lords in 1984 in the case of WINGS Ltd. v. Ellis. That case has confused the issue of when liability can arise under section 14, creating the possibility that already strict liability might pertain. The purpose of my Bill is to clarify liability under section 14 once and for all.
My Bill will not, however, impose impossible burdens on traders. It will simply require them to be honest.
It should also be remembered that a general defence under section 24 of the Trade Descriptions Act is always available to a defendant, and the section 24 defence allows a trader to argue in the court that he made a genuine mistake of fact and took reasonable steps to avoid the commission of any offence under the Act. In other words, there is a guarantee--a safeguard-- in the Act to protect the genuinely innocent trader.
My Bill would enhance consumer rights and ensure fairer competition between businesses. There should be no place in the market for cowboys and conmen. My Bill proposes a modest but important change to the 1968 Act. That change is long overdue.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Hutton, Ms Diane Abbott, Mr. Robert Ainsworth, Mrs. Barbara Roche, Mr. Kevin Hughes, Mr. Geoffrey Hoon, Mr. Alan Milburn, Ms Janet Anderson and Mr. Peter Mandelson.
Mr. John Hutton accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 to harmonise liabilities for misdescription of services and of goods ; to impose strict liability for misdescription of services ; and for connected purposes : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 20 May, and to be printed. [Bill 104.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Conway.]
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Jeremy Hanley) : At a time when pictures of Army personnel are seldom out of the papers or off the television screens, I very much welcome the opportunity to debate their role. I do not need to remind the House that the Army continues to be heavily engaged in operations throughout the world. I am sure that all hon. Members will wish to join me in paying tribute to the quiet professionalism of Army personnel in the many difficult environments in which they find themselves.
I have no doubt that there will be references during the debate to the defence costs study, especially following recent media speculation. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement intends to report in his closing speech on the progress of the defence costs study, but it may help if I remind the House now that it is not aimed at reducing our military capability or our commitments. Its real aim is encapsulated in the alternative title of "Front Line First".
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State explained when he announced the study at the beginning of December, we were confident that a radical review of our support and management arrangements could produce the required savings without reducing our military capabilities or effectiveness. The defence costs study was intended to confirm that and to develop specific proposals, and I believe that it is now in sight of both objectives. That is a tremendous achievement by all concerned. But I remind the House that any further comment about individual items would be pure speculation, as no ministerial decisions have yet been taken. A full report will be made to the House by the Secretary of State in July.
The operations of the British Army in Bosnia and in Northern Ireland are often conducted in the glare of media interest. Many other operational deployments, often involving hardship and danger, take place unnoticed and unsung. I should like to give three examples.
In July last year, major flooding in Nepal killed more than 1,000 people and destroyed many roads and bridges. Katmandu was almost completely cut off from the outside world-- the source of all its food and fuel. In response to a request from the Nepalese Government, we deployed a squadron of Queen's Gurkha engineers, who erected three major bridges and successfully reopened communication links. Also last year, British elements of the United Nations force in Cambodia were caught up in a number of serious incidents orchestrated by the Khmer Rouge in the run-up to the successful elections. Actions by British Army personnel were recognised in the recent gallantry awards.
Since September 1991, we have had a small military team in northern Iraq as part of a coalition presence in the security zone created to enable Kurdish refugees to return to their homes in the mountains. The two officers who died in the tragic accident on 14 April were our contribution to that coalition effort. They were performing a most valuable task, and I wish to record that the Government do not underestimate how much we rely on the skills, resilience and versatility of our service personnel in these and similar
Column 724tasks. I wish also to convey my condolences publicly to the families of the two officers so tragically and publicly struck down in the course of their duties far afield.
The Army has also been engaged in the important task of providing aid to the civil community here at home. As hon. Members will remember, the Army came to the rescue of people affected by the floods in the south of England last winter. Thousands of sandbags were filled by troops from various units to reinforce flood defences. In addition, in October the Household Cavalry Regiment gave shelter to families in the Windsor area. In January, following the extensive flooding around Chichester, 36 Engineer Regiment was asked by West Sussex county council to restore road communications, which it did by building Bailey bridges at West Hampnett and Merston and leaving them in place for several weeks. Members of the Territorial Army, from 127 Field Squadron Royal Engineers (Volunteers) at Brighton, gave valuable assistance to their Regular colleagues in this operation.
Mr. Winston Churchill (Davyhulme) : I should like to join in the tribute that my hon. Friend has paid to our armed forces worldwide for the excellent job that they are doing and, specifically, to the families of the men who recently lost their lives in northern Iraq and in Bosnia.
With regard to the deaths of the young officers in the unfortunate incident over northern Iraq, may I ask my hon. Friend whether the Government will look once again at the levels of compensation payable in such cases of bereavement ? It would be a scandal of enormous proportions if the families of officers in the prime of their earning capacity who have been struck down in the line of duty were to get a penny less than an Army major who chooses to become pregnant.
Mr. Hanley : My hon. Friend speaks for many people. This is a most difficult issue. Other hon. Members may raise the subject, but I can assure my hon. Friend that the sad incident in Iraq is being investigated very carefully. A British officer and a British Treasury solicitor are involved in the investigation, and all aspects will be very carefully considered by the Ministry of Defence.
Having dealt with some smaller issues-- smaller but, none the less, important to hon. Members on both sides-- with regard to the Army's role during the last few months, I should like to refer to some more weighty matters, such as the events in the former Yugoslavia. When we last debated Army matters, the first British battalion group to deploy to Bosnia, the Cheshire Regiment, was just four months into its tour. It was relieved last May by the Prince of Wales Own Regiment and a squadron of Light Dragoons from Germany. A third roulement took place last November when the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards and another squadron of Light Dragoons took up the mantle. In March this year, we deployed a second battalion group, the 1st Battalion of the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, and a further Light Dragoon squadron in response to General Rose's request for additional troops to monitor the Sarajevo and Muslim-Croat ceasefires.
The whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to those who have served and those who are serving in that theatre of operations. Although today we are focusing on the Army's contribution, let us not forget the important role of the other services in, for example, the humanitarian airlift to Sarajevo, the provision of close air support and the
Column 725naval operations in the Adriatic. Invaluable assistance has also been provided by reservists from all three services, mainly with linguistic and public information skills, who have been called out for service. On 1 April, the Territorial Army element comprised 27 personnel serving in the UK as part of the defence debriefing team, and one officer based in Split, Croatia.
The UK contribution to current UN operations in former Yugoslavia is second to none in terms of its professionalism, efficiency and effectiveness. Our two battalion groups on the ground, with their supporting units, comprise some 3,300 personnel. Only the French contingent is larger. The composition of the two battalion groups and their support reflects the many different capabilities and skills which their formidable task and its logistic back- up demand. The Royal Engineers have played an essential role in opening and maintaining vital supply routes, both for humanitarian aid and support of UNPROFOR as a whole, in mountainous and muddy terrain in severe weather. Other specialist troops, for example in transport and communications, are involved, and those troops at the logistics base in Split are vital to the success of the whole operation. Inevitably, however, the two battalion groups in central Bosnia have tended to capture media interest. Since the first deployment in the autumn of 1992, BRITBAT 1, as it is now called, equipped with Warrior and Scimitar armoured fighting vehicles, has been escorting humanitarian convoys taking supplies from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warehouses to destinations throughout central and north-east Bosnia. In that primary role, the British contingent has assisted with the delivery of over 120,000 tonnes of aid. That is a remarkable achievement in difficult and often dangerous conditions in the face of obstructions and, at times, outright hostility from all three parties.
Our troops have shown tremendous courage under fire, determination, tact in negotiating access for humanitarian aid, and the sheer will to get the job done and done efficiently, which is the hallmark of the British Army. The contribution of the UK contingent is warmly appreciated by the UN and fellow troop contributors alike. Hundreds of thousands owe their lives to the supplies provided by the UN's humanitarian operation, and British service personnel can feel justifiably proud of the part that they are playing in it. Success, however, has a price. Following the sad death of Lance Corporal Edwards in January 1993, this year has seen four further British fatalities in Bosnia. On 19 March, Corporal Barney Warburton of the Royal Engineers was killed while preparing to destroy a mine handed in at a UN checkpoint. On 15 April, Corporal Fergus Rennie, who was serving as a joint commission officer, was killed as a result of Bosnian-Serb fire at Gorazde. The following day, Marine Timothy Coates, who was serving on attachment to the UNHCR in Sarajevo, was shot dead by personnel manning a Bosnian Government checkpoint in the city. On Friday 29 April, Captain Stephen Wormald of the 2nd Royal Anglian was killed and two other British Army personnel were injured when the Land-Rover in which they were travelling struck an anti-tank mine.
I am sure that the House will join me in expressing deep condolences to the families of those five brave men
Column 726tragically killed while attempting to relieve the suffering of the ordinary people caught up in that dreadful, senseless conflict. The recent Sarajevo and Muslim-Croat ceasefires in Bosnia have added to the roles and responsibilities of British troops. In addition to their primary role of escorting humanitarian aid convoys, they have been extensively involved in monitoring the ceasefires, patrolling buffer zones and confrontation lines, manning observation and check points, weapons collection points and liaising between the warring factions. I pay particular tribute to Lieutenant General Sir Michael Rose who has made such an impressive and successful contribution to the developments and in many other areas since his appointment as UN Commander, Bosnia-Herzegovina Command. He is a real model of a modern general.
The House will not expect me to predict how long the tragic situation in the former Yugoslavia will continue. Earlier this year, the ceasefires that I have mentioned resulted in the return to a semblance of normality of life in Sarajevo and generated a mood of optimism that a Bosnia-wide ceasefire would be achieved. All three parties seemed sufficiently war-weary to negotiate seriously towards an overall settlement. The events at Gorazde in recent weeks have been a setback to those hopes.
However, the NATO ultimatum to the Bosnian Serbs has led to an end to their attack on the safe area and a withdrawal of their heavy weapons from the exclusion zone. Let us hope that that will set us back on the right road which, with the establishment of new arrangements to draw together the efforts of the European Union, the United States and the Russians on the peace negotiation front, will lead to a lasting peace settlement in the region.
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam) : I thank my hon. Friend for giving way at that important juncture. Bearing in mind that a considerable movement of Serb men and equipment is advancing on Brcko, what plans, if any, do Her Majesty's Government have for our own troops in that area under the control of the United Nations ?
Mr. Hanley : My hon. Friend is right to say that there are movements of troops throughout the theatre in Bosnia. We keep a daily watch over their safety, because the safety of our troops is paramount. They are being deployed by UNPROFOR, which keeps in touch with us if there is a requirement for any major diversion of our troops. Therefore, the answer is that we are keeping an eye on the situation daily.
Dr. David Clark (South Shields) : We in the Labour party completely associate ourselves with the Minister's statement about the bravery and professionalism of our soldiers whom I visited last week. We also associate ourselves completely with the Minister's commiserations to the bereaved families of the soldiers who have died.
As the Minister said, in bringing some form of peace to central Bosnia under which 1.5 million people now live a life of some normality, the British Army's role there has changed from escorting humanitarian convoys to patrolling the battle zone. That means that a new risk faces the British soldier in the form of land mines. I know, having spoken to our commanders and General Rose out there, that probably tens of thousands of land mines pose a threat to our soldiers. What is the Government's approach to that and what role do they see the British Army playing in the
Column 727defusing of those land mines ? For example, is it the view of the Army-- [Hon. Members :-- "Come on."] This is important because it affects the lives of British soldiers.
What is the Government's line on those land mines ? Are our soldiers expected to defuse the land mines to try to ensure that civilian communication lines are kept open ? I ask that out of helpfulness. I simply want to know the position, as does the Army.
Mr. Hanley : The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that important issue. Before I answer, I welcome him back from his recent visit to Bosnia. I am pleased that he is showing no long-term harm from the injury that he suffered while he was there. Obviously, the matter that he raised is of grave importance to our troops. Land mines pose a great danger. We have already heard of the death of one of our contingent while he was trying to defuse a land mine.
We are acting there for the benefit of the United Nations in trying to help the people to receive aid. Obviously, the decision whether it is safe to defuse an item has to be taken on the ground. We keep the matter carefully under consideration, but ultimately it is for commanders on the ground to decide whether it is safe for an item to be dealt with. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, because of his recent experience, about which he has told the House, I shall consider most carefully the point that he has raised.
Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East) : May I raise another matter ? It may not be of such immediate importance as the other two that have been raised, but I suspect that it concerns hon. Members on both sides of the House.
I refer to the way in which our forces, acting on behalf of the United Nations, are remunerated while serving in the former Yugoslavia. There is some unrest because soldiers from other countries serving under the same UN mandate are remunerated rather more generously than British forces. I appreciate that that is a complicated matter, but if there are to be further such operations the question of how British forces are remunerated while doing the same job as other soldiers in the same theatre is likely to become more acute.
Can the Minister comment on the Government's attitude towards those matters and say whether any long-term thinking is taking place on the problem ?
Mr. Hanley : Some individuals in the House--I do not accuse the hon. and learned Gentleman of being one of them--have tried to exploit the subject of our soldiers' pay in Bosnia for political purposes. They have tried to undermine the morale of our forces for their own political ends. I am sure that the House knows about the way in which we pay our soldiers : we give them what is called the X-factor--a sum to take into account what another nation might call danger pay--on a regular basis throughout their careers. In other words, when they go to a place such as Bosnia they are not paid extra for the additional dangers ; they have accepted the bargain of being paid the same amount even when they are back in barracks in England--and that is higher than the basic pay of soldiers from other nations. If one were to compare the pay of one of our soldiers with that of a French soldier of equivalent rank and ability, one would find that the French soldier would be paid much less when not in Bosnia, but more, because of the element of danger, when he was in Bosnia. I believe that so long as we ensure that our soldiers are not overstretched in terms
Column 728of deployments to such theatres, most of the armed forces will regard what they receive as a fair bargain, and as fair recompense for the services that they perform in the interests of the nation. Of course, a review of pay and allowances will be carried out during the coming year and no doubt such matters will be considered then. In the meantime, I make it clear to the House that our soldiers are paid well. Those based in Germany receive an element of local overseas allowance, too, while they are in Bosnia, even though they may not be incurring some of the expenses that they would incur were they in Germany. We do not receive complaints from soldiers on the ground about the level of their pay, because they understand the issues. The complaints come from Members of Parliament who try to exploit the position.
I was coming to the end of my comments about Bosnia, and I was saying that we hope that the European Union, the United States and the Russians will continue the negotiations and that they will lead to a lasting peace. That would be the best way for our troops to return home. In the meantime, the British contribution to the United Nations operations will continue. The fourth roulement of BRITBAT 1 is taking place this month, with the second battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment replacing the Coldstream Guards. I have no doubt that they will uphold the outstanding example set by all their predecessors, and I am sure that the House will join me in wishing them well.
Mr. Churchill : Will my hon. Friend give way ?
Mr. Hanley : I shall allow another intervention, but I have a great deal more to say.
Mr. Churchill : Before my hon. Friend leaves the subject of Bosnia, may I ask him a question ? He rightly said that the safety of British forces there is paramount. Will he say what steps are being taken to provide our combat pilots and Hercules crews with missile approach warning systems, which are standard in many of the air forces of the world ? Those would provide them, for instance, with full protection against a SAM 7, which is probably what caused the downing of the Sea Harrier the other day.
Mr. Hanley : I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) for raising the issue. I shall not answer him today because he wrote a detailed letter to the Secretary of State, which my right hon. and learned Friend received only yesterday. My hon. Friend will receive a full reply, of course, as soon as possible. The issue is important and we have it on our agenda for answer.
It is one of the many privileges of my present appointment that I have been able to maintain my connection with Northern Ireland, and to improve my knowledge and understanding of the work of the armed forces there. I draw the attention of the House to the essay in "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1994" that explains the role and organisation of the armed forces in Northern Ireland.
Although the majority of the tasks related to providing effective support to the Royal Ulster Constabulary fall to the Army, we must not forget that vital support is also provided by elements of the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines and the Royal Air Force. The House will join me in acknowledging the value of the contributions of all three services to this joint operation, under the leadership of the
Column 729General Officer Commanding, Lieutenant General Sir Roger Wheeler, who is the first member of the Royal Irish Regiment to fill that appointment.
The armed forces have supported the RUC for nearly 25 years. During that time, more than 300,000 service personnel have served in Northern Ireland, many of them on repeated tours of duty. They have made an immense contribution to the maintenance of law and order in Northern Ireland, and their efforts have prevented countless terrorist murders and outrages. The whole House understands that and admires the sheer professionalism and bravery with which our service men and women carry out their duties, year after year. They fully deserve--and receive--our whole-hearted support.
Force levels are kept under continual review to ensure that they remain appropriate to the prevailing level of terrorist threat. We are satisfied that the present force levels are right. I assure the House that we can and will maintain forces at the present level for as long as the terrorists make it necessary.
Although it is the infantry who make the most obvious contribution to supporting the RUC, they simply could not operate without the Royal Engineers, the Army Air Corps, the Royal Signals, the Royal Logistic Corps and the other arms and services. I take this opportunity to remind the House of the essential contributions which these personnel make, which are often not sufficiently recognised. Both the full-time and part-time elements of the Royal Irish Regiment continue to provide an essential contribution to the Army's support to the RUC. I never cease to admire the bravery and commitment, especially, of the part-time members. They continue every week to meet the demanding training and operational requirements of the Army, in addition to their civilian employment. Many of them have carried out that dangerous task for years on end. We owe them a great debt.
It is with sadness that I have to remind the House of the continuing terrorist campaign to murder serving and former personnel of the Royal Irish Regiment and of its predecessor, the Ulster Defence Regiment. Last Thursday night, terrorists murdered a man who had left the UDR nearly four years ago. In the early hours of Saturday morning, three soldiers from the 5th Royal Irish were killed in a fire in their base in Magherafelt and eight were injured, one of them very seriously. The House will wish to join me in extending profound sympathy to the next of kin of those who were killed and good wishes for the recovery of the injured.
Rev. William McCrea (Mid-Ulster) : I join the rest of the House in expressing appreciation for the professionalism of our soldiers in every war zone in which they are involved and for the service and professionalism that they display in Northern Ireland. On the latter point, last weekend I visited the base that the Minister mentioned a moment ago. I visited those soldiers who, thankfully, had escaped and whose lives were saved by the excellent work of all the services that were at hand.
Does the Minister understand the grief in the hearts of many people in the Province ? Three young soldiers who had retired to the resting bay were burnt to death. Will he assure the families that an in-depth inquiry will be carried
Column 730out to find out not only what happened and how the fire started, but whether there was any negligence ? Will the matter be looked into in depth ?
Mr. Hanley : Yes, I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. There is a full inquiry being carried out at the moment. It needs to be very thorough because of the extent of the tragedy that has occurred and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall keep him informed as the inquiry continues. I also spoke to the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) last night about the matter. I know that the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Rev. William McCrea), who represents the constituency in which the awful tragedy took place, has taken an interest in the matter. As I say, I can assure him that the inquiry will be very deep and thorough. If we have anything to learn from the incident, we will most certainly take action. There are good relations between the armed forces and the community in Northern Ireland. Indeed, that is essential. One important aspect of relations with the local community is the existence of a credible and effective complaints system. The armed forces have made continuing efforts in recent years to ensure that the complaints system is as effective as possible.
The Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1991 established the office of independent assessor of military complaints procedures in Northern Ireland. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has today published Mr. David Hewitt's first report as independent assessor. Mr. Hewitt finds much to commend in the present arrangements, but makes a number of recommendations for improvement, which, I can assure the House, we will consider very carefully.
None of us takes any satisfaction from the need for the armed forces to continue to support the RUC over 25 years, but there are no short cuts to eradicating deep-rooted terrorism in a democracy, while acting, as we must, within the law. The armed forces have no desire to continue in the task for a moment longer than necessary. Once the terrorists on both sides renounce violence, and fully demonstrate their commitment to doing so, the armed forces will progressively be withdrawn from the streets and return to their normal peacetime role. In the meantime, it is only the actions of the terrorists on both sides that keep soldiers on the streets of the Province. It is up to the terrorists whether soldiers continue to patrol the streets for a further 25 years. For the terrorists must make no mistake--so long as their criminal attacks make it necessary, the armed forces will continue to support the RUC steadfastly and professionally, as they have done for the past 25 years.
Lady Olga Maitland : I thank my hon. Friend for giving way a second time. In the battle to combat terrorism in Northern Ireland, does not he agree that it is absolutely essential that our armed forces in Northern Ireland should have close co-operation with the Irish Army and conduct joint exercises and joint patrols ? Is he aware that, at the moment, we are unable to carry out any helicopter surveillance on the border and certainly not over the border ?
Mr. Hanley : I am aware of the views of my hon. Friend, but I should say that relationships between the forces on both sides of the border have never been better. We are making very constructive progress in a number of areas, but I shall willingly raise the issue with the GOC when I next see him.
Column 731May I turn to the size of the Army ? With the Army heavily engaged in operational commitments throughout the world, it is right that we should keep its size, especially its front line, under review. Hence, in February last year, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced that we would be increasing the size of the Army by 3,000, compared with previous plans for the mid-199Os. As part of that, we decided not to proceed with the amalgamations involving four infantry battalions, thus increasing the number of infantry battalions planned by 1998 from 38 to 40. As a result, by next year, even if we were to continue to have two infantry battalions in Bosnia, average emergency tour intervals for the infantry would meet the 24-month target. Any reduction in our current level of emergency tour commitments would permit a significant increase in that figure.
However, the Army comprises more than just the infantry, and the decision that we made in December to make available an extra 3,000 personnel to increase the size of selected field Army units had, as a principal objective, increasing the resilience of operational logistic support units. About 1,000 of the extra posts will be allocated to front-line Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Royal Logistic Corps, Royal Army Medical Corps and Royal Signals units.
As I have already mentioned in the context of Bosnia and Northern Ireland, the profile of such units may not match that of the teeth arms, but I am sure that the House would wish me to state that we acknowledge the vital contribution that they make to the success of operations and our overall military capability.
We have not reached final decisions on the allocation of all 3,000 posts, but I would expect the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers also to be enhanced as a result of this addition to the front line. The Government are committed to sustaining and, where possible, enhancing the Army's front- line capability in accordance with the plans set out under "Options for Change", as subsequently adjusted by the announcements to which I have referred. The overall strength of the Army that is required to sustain this capability will continue to be kept under review, and will be informed by progress in achieving greater efficiency in the support area, not least as a result of the defence costs study.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) : Is my hon. Friend aware of the dismay in the armed forces, and especially in the Army, at the way in which we seem to have one study after another, continually reviewing structures and continually moving goal posts ? Is he aware that last year an infantry battalion had 223 nights away from home without spending even one day on an emergency tour ? That happens as various commitments continue to expand, as the goal posts move and as the Army continues to shrink.
Mr. Hanley : I accept that when we talk about overstretch we tend to talk about entire battalions. When considering the pressures that we impose on individual soldiers and officers, we must ensure that they are not overloaded. Almost all the soldiers and officers whom I have met relish the tasks that they are given. Indeed, they joined up to be able to help the nation in that way.
I know that there are few in this place who are as experienced in Army matters as my hon. Friend, but whenever he speaks in the House on Army affairs he asks
Column 732us not to use the Army for something. The best morale is achieved when soldiers are busy doing what they joined up to do. Of course, families must be, and are, taken into account. We will continue to ensure that we do not overstretch any individual soldiers or officers.
Mr. Brazier : Soldiers do indeed join up to undertake operational tours. I shall give my hon. Friend a specific example of another battalion, the 2nd Battalion of the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, a fine regiment. It provides an example which could be applied across the board as it applies to any infantry unit. Why is it that on returning from an operational tour--the sort of tour which men joined up to undertake--and before moving on to an exercise of the sort that men joined up to participate in, they spend months and months on end away from their families performing buckshee tasks that have nothing to do with operational purposes or training ? One such task is several weeks as administrative extras at the Royal Tournament.
Mr. Hanley : My hon. Friend is, therefore, giving notice that he would not mind if the Royal Tournament were scrapped. Many members of the armed forces greatly value the Royal Tournament and the ceremonial and other tasks that are part of the fabric of our society. According to my hon. Friend, they would rather spend perhaps the 24 months between active operations blancoing boots and painting stones white. I am sure that my hon. Friend will recognise that to be a member of the armed forces is to engage in a multi-faceted role. The training and other tasks that are taken on are taken on willingly.
I say to my hon. Friend--I shall do so again and again--that we will ensure that we do not overstretch any individual units. There are, however, many tasks that our soldiers wish to carry out. I believe that my hon. Friend, while exercising what he believes to be the conscience of our armed forces, will find that most of our men are engaged happily on the tasks that they are asked to carry out.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I do not take upon myself the consciences of the armed forces. He might consider whether his comments about blancoing boots and painting stones white are worthy of a man in his position. I assure him that young men and, these days, young women join the armed forces for action. They relish action, involvement and the duties that they carry out in the name of the House, among other institutions. They do not relish being treated as skivvies and being made to work every hour that God gave, without much appreciation. Furthermore, they feel that, having been in Northern Ireland, as the Coldstream Guards were until the middle of last year, it would be reasonable to have some opportunity to speak to their wives, or to find a wife if they are single, before being sent out to Bosnia. They relish being in Bosnia, but they want some time to enjoy themselves as well.
Mr. Hanley : I do not believe that anyone could disagree with my hon. Friend, except for one thing : I am sorry if I made a mistake, but one blancos belts and polishes boots.
My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) makes an important point. We shall not allow our forces to be overstretched or to be put at risk. We take their families, their private lives and the times when they can
Column 733relax seriously. The Army is an excellent employer and has the good will of the forces well in mind, as do the House and the Government.
Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset) : As my hon. Friend is having brickbats thrown at him, I thank him for his excellent work in consolidating the 18 base workshop in Bovington in my constituency and for accepting the excellent management bid. The workshop is trying to increase civilian management. How many uniform personnel have been released back to the Army as a result of administrative jobs being performed by base workshops ? Are not the Government ensuring that people who sign up for the armed forces are used in active duties rather than in back-room jobs ?
Mr. Hanley : I cannot give my hon. Friend the exact answer that he wants, but I can say that, because of the changes, it now takes 18 weeks instead of 34 weeks to service a main battle tank. We are seeing, therefore, the benefits of that policy.
The Labour party keeps calling for a defence review. I am sure that it will not be lost on my hon. Friends that if there were a defence review, the front-line capability of the armed forces would be almost equivalent to the number of Labour Members in the Chamber. Under our policy, consider the talent that we have paraded here. I think the importance that the Conservative party attaches to defence is shown by the number of Conservative Members who are in the Chamber. It would be right to dwell on "partnership for peace." The changed strategic environment is reflected in the partnership for peace initiative, launched by NATO at the January 1994 Brussels summit to develop military and political co-operation with central and eastern Europe. Fourteen states have joined the partnership and we hope and expect that Russia will join soon. Plans for PFP activities are still being developed by NATO and we hope to see at least one land-based and one maritime exercise under the auspices of PFP this year, both with British participation.
Nationally, we are pursuing a vigorous and comprehensive programme of defence-related co-operation with central and eastern Europe. Details were set out in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1994", which were published last week.
I should like to highlight our plans for a military exercise later this month in Poland. It will involve the deployment of a company from the 1st Battalion, Devonshire and Dorset Regiment, which is stationed in Germany, to Poland for five days of peacekeeping-related exercises with the Polish armed forces in the near future. It will be the first time that British forces have exercised on the territory of a former Warsaw pact country.
The initiative is important not only in terms of the United Kingdom-Polish defence relationship, but as being very much in the spirit of PFP. Later this year, elements from 5 Airborne Brigade will exercise with their Polish opposite numbers.
We are also looking at exercising in Hungary, both on a bilateral basis and with the Germans, and during his recent visit to Moscow my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agreed in principle with President Yeltsin to the idea of exercising with the Russian armed forces. There is
Column 734also a continual and wide-ranging series of exchanges involving small delegations from the Ministry of Defence and various other units.
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) : Before my hon. Friend finishes his point about the Germans and the Russians, will he consider seriously the future of Britain's land commitment to the central front in Europe ? Is it reasonable or right that after 31 August this year, if the Russians leave the eastern part of Germany on time, we should continue to deploy a large, static, inflexible Army in Germany at a cost of £1.3 billion a year and employ more than 10,000 local German civilians as cooks, mess stewards, batmen, gardeners and so on ? Would not the money be much better spent on stopping mergers of good regiments like the Gurkhas and the Gordons and on securing the very best equipment for our armed forces ?
Mr. Hanley : My hon. Friend raises an important point which is certainly part of an on-going debate. However, we have NATO commitments which must also be considered in conjunction with our own national interest. NATO is a partnership which has served us extremely well over the years and I believe that our NATO commitments are very important. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) that we will consider exactly what he has to say.