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Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton) : I agree with the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Minister about our past relationships within NATO. However, does he agree that NATO is now increasingly called on to act outside what is traditionally known as the NATO area of operation ? In looking at procurement and the future needs of the British armed forces, is not it time that we sat down with our NATO partners and put together a new framework to determine exactly the future role of NATO and, in particular, the NATO area of operation ? Until we have defined that, we are asking NATO to act in an ad hoc way around eastern Europe as well as within the NATO area of operation.
Mr. Hanley : My hon. Friend has raised an important matter of current debate. However, such matters are more the concern of my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to define NATO's areas. All I can say is that we had a successful summit. The nations that are part of NATO have confirmed the importance of NATO and the fact that we believe that the United States and Canada are vital to the security of Europe. Through the partnership for peace programme, we have shown a way of bringing nations from central and eastern Europe into NATO over a period. Therefore, I believe that NATO is evolving and changing. We must ensure that we keep NATO's strengths and do not damage them as we continue to debate the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning).
I want now to consider the Territorial Army. Hon. Members on both sides of the House attach great importance to the TA. The Government also continue to attach importance to a well-trained, well-equipped and deployable Territorial Army. Hon. Members will be aware of our plans to introduce new reserve forces legislation aimed at making it easier to call out the volunteer reserves in circumstances short of war.
Individual members of the TA have, of course, regularly joined the Regular Army on short-term engagements to fill
Column 735particular posts. Currently, we have 43 officers and 61 soldiers from the TA serving with the Regular Army, including those I mentioned earlier called out for service in support of our operations in the former Yugoslavia.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State announced two weeks ago an important development of that concept in the form of a pilot scheme for the use of composite TA units in support of operational commitments undertaken by the Regular Army. We plan to deploy a TA platoon to the Falkland Islands garrison from July to November this year. That platoon will be drawn from the TA in Northern Ireland and will operate in support of a regular company of the Royal Irish Regiment deploying on a four-month unaccompanied tour. We plan to follow that up with a company-size deployment from March to July next year.
That trial of the utilisation of the TA demonstrates the confidence of the Government in the ability of our volunteer reserves to play a greater part in our overall defence effort. If the trial is successful--as I fully expect it to be--it will open the way to the use of the TA in support of the Regular Army in a wide range of operational deployments, including those under UN auspices. I hope that it is unnecessary to add that the choice of the Falkland Islands for the trial does not indicate any lessening of our commitment to the defence of our dependencies in the south Atlantic. Our investment in the infrastructure at Mount Pleasant has long enabled us to minimise our in-place forces without affecting our responsibilities. There will remain a substantial Regular element to the garrison during the period of the trial. The Falkland Islands offer excellent training facilities, and the tour length is four months--rather than six on operational deployments elsewhere--which should make it easier to recruit volunteers and permit the results of the trial to be assessed more quickly.
We have not yet reached conclusions on the future size and shape of the Territorial Army, but I hope we shall be able to make announcements on this before too long. I realise that many hon. Members have strong views on the matter and I assure them that we will be taking those into account before reaching any final decisions.
Mr. Hanley : All I can say now is that the matter is being dealt with. I think that we have found a sensible compromise for clearing the remaining mines. I will write to the hon. Gentleman if there is anything that I might want to add to that. I believe that the details of the plan are acceptable to the Falkland Islands Government and to us.
Finally, I pay tribute to the many civilians of all grades who work both at home and abroad in support of the Army. They are often much maligned or forgotten. Some people even forget that they are part of the armed forces at all. Life as a civilian in the Ministry of Defence is certainly no sinecure these days, if it ever was. Far from spending their days leisurely writing minutes to each other while sipping tea, they are very much involved with all aspects of Army policy and operations. The pace can be-- and often is--fast and furious. Without them, the Army would find it extremely difficult to undertake the tasks that I have just been outlining.
Column 736Civilians have been involved in all areas of risk in which the Army has recently been engaged--the Falklands, the Gulf and, currently, in Bosnia ; as well, of course, as Northern Ireland. It is our policy to employ civilians, either directly or on contract, in tasks which do not require military skills. That is not because one is better than the other, but simply because it makes obvious good sense to concentrate the deployment of highly trained service men in roles that only they can perform.
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford) : Can my hon. Friend explain the Government's position on "Front Line First" ? The name clearly necessitates a definition of where the front line starts--all else follows from that. If my hon. Friend cannot give us a definition, which group will be charged with defining the notion ?
Mr. Hanley : The concept is easy to understand, but not straightforward to define. In essence, the "front line" refers to the overall operational capability which our fighting units, such as warships, battalions, combat aircraft and so forth, need to fulfil the military tasks allocated to them, as set out in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1993". For that capability to be maintained, of course our fighting units must be properly supported, directly or indirectly, by the remaining parts of the services and by the MOD. Support areas make a vital contribution to the front line. It would be wrong for us to think that there is either front line or support. We must be careful that, in reducing unnecessary support, we do not hollow out to the extent that the front line collapses, particularly in a transition to war.
The difference between front line and support is, by their nature, that they are capable of engineering a separate analysis. That is why the defence costs study is looking into areas of support to maintain our front line. We want to make sure that our front-line units receive the essential support which they need, but that there is no money being spent unnecessarily on support. Any penny that is spent on support is money wasted from the front line.
I hope that that has helped my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Duncan Smith)--it has certainly helped me. I can assure my hon. Friend that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement and I have spent many hours during the past three months dealing with the defence costs study. In each area of support we are conscious that the front line is dependent on that, and we must make sure that we do not undermine our front line in that way.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) : I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, as I know that he has been putting up with a lot of interruptions. If that is the definition of front line--and therefore of "Front Line First"--can he tell the House what is second ?
Mr. Hanley : That one is easier. "Front Line First" means that we will spend our money first on maintaining our front line. The Labour party wants a full defence review, which means that it wants to question every commitment and the way in which we carry them out. If necessary, it wants to reduce our front line and our capabilities. The Government want to preserve our front line because we believe that every single one of the commitments that we have been given can only be carried out properly with the equipment given to us for that job.
Column 737There were 50 tasks set out in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1993", and those tasks are vital to the interests of our nation. We believe that we should preserve those tasks with the men, the training and the equipment to do those jobs. We believe that, in preserving our front-line capability, we must maintain our commitments. We believe, therefore, that money must be spent first on equipping our troops properly to do the job. The Labour party believes in querying everything and putting the whole of our nation's forces into a period of instability ; we are not prepared to accept that.
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : Will the Minister tell us whether nuclear weapons are in the front line ? If they are not, and if the policy is to put resources into the front line, should not this country be cutting seriously--much more seriously than the Government are doing--its nuclear weapons ?
Mr. Hanley : I am always grateful for giving way to the hon. Gentleman, because it is through him that we hear the authentic voice of the Labour party. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the nuclear deterrent, which is the minimum necessary to deter, is very much in our front line, and that is why we are investing so much training and money in its creation and maintenance.
We are fortunate to have in the British Army probably the most respected army in the world. It is the Government's intention to ensure that, through proper equipment and training, it retains its capability to operate in the full spectrum of military activity from high-intensity conflict to peacekeeping. I believe that our plans will ensure that that is the case.
We are the best peacekeepers in the world, but one becomes the best peacekeeper by being the most credible and best soldier. I believe that our plans will make sure that that continues, and that the Army of tomorrow will be as well able to meet its challenges as the Army of today. It is evident that it is able to confront the challenges of which I have spoken. It is a credible Army, it is a great Army and it is one of the best armies in the world.
Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North) : It is a sign of the times that we are debating the Army on the eve of the local elections in Scotland, England and Wales. Ministers have obviously chosen today because they knew that the House would be full.
I have to congratulate the Minister on the attendance on his Benches. Conservative Members have undoubtedly come along here to give him uncritical support for his reconstruction of the British armed forces. Alternatively, I was thinking earlier that, if I was a Conservative Member with the choice between sitting here today or going out and meeting the voters, I would probably sit here.
One is that there is a political war going on outside, and one of the first rules of war is to concentrate one's forces where one's enemies are weakest. We have done that
Column 738today, by sending them out to meet the great British people. The second reason is that my colleagues have absolute faith and confidence in my ability to deal singlehandedly with the massed ranks of, as a senior member of the 1922 Committee would say, "that lot on the other side". Therefore, they did not feel compelled to come along today.
If I have not answered the question of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), I shall give way to him.
Mr. Robathan : I should just like to point out that many of us here have already been out canvassing in support of our local candidates, but felt that the debate was an important enough occasion to come back to the House to listen to the hon. Gentleman's pearls of wisdom, which I am sure we are about to receive.
It is a bit of a cheek for the Minister to attack my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen), who normally makes helpful interventions in support of those on the Front Bench. If the Minister cares to read the "Statement on the Defence Estimates" issued by his Department less than a couple of weeks ago, he will see on page 19 in paragraph 3 an unqualified, absolute statement about nuclear disarmament :
"Complete and general nuclear disarmament remains a desirable ultimate goal".
I can see no difference between that and the expressions of the Labour party conference. So let us have less of it from the Minister.
Conservative Members may be concerned about the prospect of a Labour Government taking over, but let me tell them that they have an even more worrying prospect ahead of them. In the context of the remarks that I am about to make, I can give a relative welcome to the fact that both junior Defence Ministers are still at their post, and that the Secretary of State for Defence is still at his.
All things are relative. The qualification of my welcome is the rumours now sweeping the House that, as an outcome of the internecine warfare in the Conservative party, the Secretary of State for Defence might soon be replaced. That first hit the leader columns of the newspapers this morning, although it has been doing the rounds for some time.
I notice that, in considering the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo), The Guardian has blown the gaff :
"Why not, then, give Mr. Portillo a proper, grinding job ? And top of the list, surely, would be defence."
So The Guardian and one or two others are beginning to suggest that the Chief Secretary might be put in charge of defence. That comes as a revelation to me. I thought that he had been in charge of defence for the past two years.
I warn Conservative Members. When we told the Government that they would need to put the infantry back, they said that they would not, and then they did. When we told them that they would cancel the tactical air-to-surface missile, they said that they would not, and then they did. Indeed, in the last debate, when we told them that they would start to purchase cruise missiles to put in their submarines, they laughed. I understand that they are now considering purchasing cruise missiles.
Let me make another prediction : Conservative Members, many of whom consider themselves to be on the
Column 739right of the Conservative party, will rue the day that the present Chief Secretary to the Treasury transferred to the Ministry of Defence.
I do not know what the Chief Secretary does to the enemy, but he frightens the life out of me, and I know that he will frighten the life out of members of our armed forces. If he assumes that post, it will no longer be a case of someone from the Treasury emasculating the armed forces of this country from a safe distance. He will be stationed at the Ministry of Defence, making it even easier for him to wrap his hands around the neck of the British armed forces. It will be a sad day if that person ends up in charge of the British armed forces. [Interruption.] The Minister thinks that this is a despicable personal attack. I am not concerned about the merits of the individual ; I am concerned about the British Army. The only thing worse than lions led by donkeys is lions led by a Treasury hyena who will pick over the bones of what is left of the defence budget.
Mr. Hanley : In no way was I commenting about any attack that the hon. Gentleman might make in his speech. I merely said that it was surprising that, in the first five minutes of his speech about the British Army, the hon. Gentleman should take a small snippet from a newspaper, pile conjecture upon all sorts of guesswork and then try to base the future defence policy of this nation upon something which he had picked up as a fag end from a political journalist. It is not worthy of the hon. Gentleman.
Dr. Reid : Is it not funny how the guesses from this side of the House, based not on the tremendous back-up of 100,000 civil servants but on fag ends and snippets, almost inevitably turn out to be correct ; whereas the Minister, with all his advice from across the road--whether it is about the infantry, a strategic nuclear weapon, mismatch, overstretch, continual defence cuts or the lack of a defence review--inevitably turns out to be wrong ?
I raised this subject precisely because I believe that the politics represented by the right hon. Gentleman will be bad for the armed forces. Time will prove the Minister or me correct. I will be gracious enough to apologise to him if my guess is wide of the mark, as he will apologise to me. Should it happen, I warn our colleagues on the Back Benches that it is a mid-19th century political trend. It is a political trend which, unlike the last Prime Minister, is not only committed to the free market but absolutely opposed to any form of Government expenditure. It is particularly opposed to unproductive forms of public expenditure such as expenditure on the armed forces. I place that warning on record. As I said earlier, Back Benchers in the Conservative party will have time to judge that trend when it arrives.
Dr. Reid : I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will. Incidentally, the Minister was on his feet for 57 minutes, and said nothing. I hope that I have been slightly more substantial in seven minutes than the Minister was in 57. At the beginning of such debates, it is customary to dispense with party politics.
Dr. Reid : The right hon. Gentleman laughs. I am about to pay tribute to those who have served and died in the British armed forces. In the annual service debate, it is customary for hon. Members on either side of the House to begin their contributions with a tribute to service men and women. I reiterate what the Minister said earlier : I believe that we possess not one of the finest armed forces in the world but the finest, as the British Army continues to demonstrate in Bosnia, Northern Ireland and elsewhere.
We are fortunate to have at our disposal officers of the highest calibre, who command men and women with a sense of discipline and skills that are truly exceptional. It should be a matter of pride for everyone in this country that those qualities of professionalism and dedication are recognised the world over.
That fact was reflected most recently in the decision of South Africa's transitional executive to request British military advice on how to reform its security forces for the post-apartheid era. I hope that the Minister and the Secretary of State will be able to give that request speedy and sympathetic consideration. I understand that it is being considered at present.
In paying tribute to the men and women of the British Army, it is also important to remind people, as the Minister did, of the human cost attached to the dangerous and demanding commitment associated with serving in the armed forces. Since the last Army debate, about 130 soldiers have died while in service other than from natural causes. In choosing to risk their lives for their country, they deserve our abiding respect and, as the Minister said, our sympathies are with their friends and relatives.
The Minister also referred to the tragic deaths last week of three young soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment, following a fire at their base in Northern Ireland. I am glad that the Minister was able to assure us today that a full inquiry into the incident has been instigated. I also hope that a safety review of all British Army bases will be conducted in an effort to ensure that there is no repetition of this dreadful incident.
I know that the capital costs of renovation and reconstruction are extremely high--particularly in Northern Ireland, because of threats to contractors and so on--but I hope that, apart from the investigation of the specific incident, a review will be conducted of the construction and fire safety of Army bases throughout Northern Ireland.
I turn from those tributes to Bosnia, a subject which I think will feature most prominently in tonight's debate. It is now 19 months since British troops were deployed as part of the United Nations protection force in Bosnia-Herzegovina. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) has just returned from meeting our troops in Bosnia, where he discussed current events with them.
At the beginning of our intervention, the British contingent numbered about 2,300 personnel. It has now grown to about 2,350. The mandate of our troops has been revised to include the protection of designated safe areas as well as the protection of humanitarian aid convoys.
There are many views in the House about the situation in Bosnia. They range from those who believe that we should not intervene in the conflict, to those who think that our limited and carefully defined intervention has been insufficient and would like to see a massive intervention of troops. I know that my colleagues will make their views
Column 741known tonight, but I will confine my remarks to certain general areas which I think all of us--wherever we stand in that spectrum of views--will agree are important.
It is vital that we think through the implications of our involvement in Bosnia, both in terms of how we can encourage a resolution of the conflict and in terms of how the United Nations should respond to similar conflicts in the future. This process of reflection is necessary because it seems to me that important lessons are not being learned and that some of the serious flaws in the United Nations operation in Bosnia have not been rectified. The blame for this failure does not lie with the officers and soldiers serving with UNPROFOR. They have done a remarkable job in what are, by any standards, extremely difficult circumstances. The real problem has been a failure of political leadership.
Mr. Hanley rose
At the most fundamental level, the United Nations has failed to establish a clear and achievable objective or set of objectives for its intervention in the Balkans. It has thus made the formulation of a coherent strategy well nigh impossible. The result is an operation which, for the most part, has been hastily improvised, with the United Nations responding to events rather than shaping them. Of course, it would be unfair not to recognise the enormity of the challenge confronting the United Nations. It would also be over-simplistic not to recognise that the United Nations is nothing more than the collective will of the international community. But peace support missions of the kind being conducted in Bosnia are much more ambitious and difficult to execute than the traditional peacekeeping missions of the past, when monitoring forces were deployed after a ceasefire had been established. In seeking to respond to civil conflicts on a more active basis, the international community is, quite frankly, on a steep learning curve. Even so, it is clear that the United Nations has been too slow in adapting to the new environment.
I have two major concerns which affect the British Army and our armed forces in general. First, there appears to be a distinct reluctance to make difficult decisions about the role of the international community in resolving civil conflicts within states as opposed to conflicts between states. At times, the United Nations operation in Bosnia has borne all the hallmarks of an unhappy compromise between those who wish it to remain a humanitarian mission and those who wish UNPROFOR to take sides and assume an active combat role. That tension has been ever present. The most damaging consequence of that confusion is that insufficient resources have been provided to secure the operational objectives established by the United Nations. Nowhere was that failure more apparent than during the attack on Gorazde.
I fully understand the complexities of an issue such as that of the operations around Gorazde. I do not know whether the phrase is "good fortune", but I had the opportunity to visit Gorazde last November to speak to the Serbs on their front line and to the Muslims inside Gorazde.
Column 742One of the horrible examples of the complexity of that civil war was the fact that the Muslim commander and the Serb commander, who met once a month to try to agree some access to supplies to Gorazde, called each other by first names when they met at that monthly meeting, because not only had they been to the same school and the same class, but they actually played in the same football team. That small illustration shows the complexity and intensity of the conflict.
The establishment of designated safe areas without the deployment of the ground forces required to make them a reality is typical of the wishful thinking and extemporisation that have characterised the United Nations' involvement in Bosnia. First, that is, above all, a failure of the international will, but it is in that context that our soldiers are being asked to conduct their operations.
Secondly, the process of policy formulation is far too incoherent and cumbersome. Military operations require clear, unambiguous command structures, yet it is often difficult to determine who is calling the shots in Bosnia. As an experienced organisation with an established military command structure, it made sense for NATO to assume a role as an operational arm of the United Nations in Bosnia. However, the paralysis of the UN decision-making process during the Gorazde crisis forced NATO into an entirely different role--that of issuing ultimatums. Even though NATO continues to act at the behest of the United Nations, it is in danger--I put it no higher--of creating an impression of becoming an independent factor in the conflict. We should all be aware of that danger.
Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow) : Is not the real danger of involving NATO in the conflict in Bosnia that it will be sucked into a war that it cannot possibly win, the result of which will be great demoralisation among the nations who support NATO, and it will then be acting very much against the defence interests of the west ? Until now, NATO has never had to declare its hand. It has been the veiled threat--or should I say the mailed fist ?--which deterred Russia. As a result of being drawn into the conflict, NATO may be seen as the emperor without any clothes. I will not ask the hon. Gentleman to comment on the effect on our American allies of the lack of determination that is currently being displayed.
Dr. Reid : That was not a unilateral decision on NATO's part. NATO was asked to go in by the United Nations, as an instrument of the United Nations, and therefore, provided that the objectives of the intervention and the rules of engagement and the operational definition are clear, I do not think that that danger exists. However, where there is muddled thinking at the political level in the United Nations, the danger exists.
I shall say a third thing about NATO and its relationship with the UN in Bosnia, which to some extent echoes some of the fears of the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill). A debate is taking place in Europe about the future architecture of European defence structures, and some of our allies seem to believe that, if the NATO alliance failed to pass the virility test of Bosnia, it would fail to justify its existence in the post-cold-war world. Action at any cost by NATO seemed to be the order of the day.
I believe that the opposite is the case. In the absence of a clear political strategy, clearly defined military objectives, adequate resources and unambiguous command and control structures, it is not non-action of NATO but
Column 743ill-considered botched action by NATO which carries the greatest risk for the future of NATO, and for its acceptance as an effective organisation.
Sir Archibald Hamilton (Epsom and Ewell) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that, however good the command structure was of NATO in a military adventure in Bosnia, the acid test of whether NATO held together or not would be the number of casualties that were subsequently incurred ? Does he believe that there is the political will among nations in Europe to incur substantial casualties in Bosnia and not pull out their troops, which is what I believe would happen ?
Dr. Reid : That is one of the imponderables. It is like asking, "How long is a piece of string ?" to ask how many casualties NATO would have to suffer before the will of countries was undermined. I take the hon. Gentleman's point. All that I can say to him is that the Opposition fully supported the intervention of British troops, and subsequently the involvement of NATO in pursuit of a clearly defined military objective with clearly defined political objectives.
However, the problem with a complex situation such as that in Bosnia--a fluid and dynamic situation--is that, in the United Nations, especially if there is not an unambiguous command and control structure from the politicians down to the operations, sometimes there are shades of grey between a clearly defined defensive position and a partisan position.
The perfect example of that is safe areas. All hon. Members in the House would be committed to the safeguarding of civilians and the protection of safe areas. It becomes more complicated when, in the safe area, there are not only vast numbers of innocent civilians but significant numbers of military on one side or the other. Without adequate troops on the ground to act as a buffer between the two sides, it is almost impossible to make out, among the propaganda and the fog of war, who is carrying out the initial aggression. I think that there is a will in the west for intervention to take place, but I do not think that there is a will in the west to go beyond the position in which we are now to a massive military intervention of several tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of soldiers, to impose a peace on a three-way civil war. Should there be a ceasefire between the parties, I think that there would be considerable will in the House and throughout the country to put troops in to monitor that ceasefire. That is quite different from trying to impose one.
Moving away from NATO but still on the subject of Bosnia, on a wider scale it is apparent that some contingents of UNPROFOR are failing to accept the authority of the multinational command structures, and are continuing to take orders from their national Government rather than from UN-appointed commanders. The alleged incident last week--I use my words carefully because it has not been confirmed, although there is allegedly some substance to it--when French forces were reportedly joining a British contingent relieving Gorazde and were apparently unilaterally withdrawn following consultations with Paris, shows an unacceptable degree of political interference. I believe that the integrity of the UN operation and the lives of British service personnel will be in danger
Column 744unless the command and control procedures are rigorously adhered to. I hope that the Government have been at pains to make that clear.
Whatever the outcome of the tragedy that has been played out in that beautiful but unblessed land of Bosnia, it is abundantly clear that painful military lessons must be learned by political and service decision-makers. We ignore those lessons at our future peril because we may well have to confront many more Bosnias, although not necessarily on the same scale, if we are to play a full part as a member of the Security Council of the UN.
I want to turn to something that is less tragic and more entertaining. I refer, of course, to the "Statement on the Defence Estimates". The publication last week of the 1994 statement was an event of little significance except in so far as it revealed the cynicism of the Government's approach to the management of British defences.
In this connection, I should like to refer to some comments of Professor Keith Hartley. In the case of last year's defence estimates, Ministers told us that we were being presented with the most open-minded, fulsome and statistically comprehensive series of estimates that had ever been issued. We were told in 1993 that we now faced a challenge. Such was the information given in the defence estimates last year that no one with a brain in his head could fail immediately to absorb it and, on that basis, produce his own defence review.
At that time we queried what we were being told. Referring to those estimates, Professor Hartley, who, as some hon. Members may know, is the director of the centre for defence economics at the university of York, says :
"An obvious starting point is the 1993 statement on the defence estimates and the details of expenditure shown in the defence budget. Unfortunately the 1993 defence budget is shown in terms of the new management strategy, compared with the economists' functional costing approach used in previous years. As a result, it is no longer possible to cost specific force elements, such as the Navy's aircraft carriers, its Polaris submarines and its destroyers and frigates. Nor is it possible to cost the RAF's strike forces--they are now combined with transport aircraft--or the allocation of research and development expenditure between major air, land and sea systems.
On this basis it is misleading to claim that the 1993 SDE provides more and better information for economists and for Parliament. It provides less and worse information. Without more information on the costs of different force structures and the various defence roles, it is not possible to have a sensible debate on UK defence and the implication of smaller defence budgets."
That is precisely what we said at this time last year. It is precisely why we criticised the Government for the figures that they produced--this was not done in a meaningful fashion--and precisely why we criticised them this year again. It takes tremendous ingenuity to produce a 105-page statement on defence estimates and say practically nothing. Anyone reading through the statement will find any number of expressions such as "we hope to", "we expect to", "we may" and "at some stage we shall decide". It must be the largest-scale exercise in procrastination that anyone has ever seen.
We said last year that the statistics provided were largely meaningless. Even in the Government's own terms, the figures did not add up properly. Assuming correct arithmetic, however, the method of triple-hatting and the new management strategy manner of presenting the statistics made it almost impossible to carry out any meaningful costing.
Mr. Hanley indicated dissent .
Dr. Reid : The Minister of State shakes his head. I have just read, for his benefit, comments by the professor at the centre for defence economics at the university of York, and I could quote a dozen other defence economists who have said precisely the same thing. There must be something wrong if, on this subject, the Minister is the only person out of step.
I thought of the hon. Gentleman the other night when I was considering ways of handling statistics. Perhaps I should pay the hon. Gentleman a compliment by referring to a similarity that came to mind. I refer to the person whom some people regard as one of the finest Secretaries of State for Defence we have had since the end of the second world war. Certainly, with the benefit of hindsight, people in the military see Denis Healey--now Lord Healey--in that light.
I do not want to be too flattering to the Minister, but I should like to quote from a small piece in a very neat little book called "Brief Lives" by the illustrious correspondent Alan Watkins. Speaking of the early life of Healey, Watkins says :
"He returned to the Army. He ruptured himself on a field training course and, after an operation, was sent to a depot in Woolwich to await posting. He was dispatched from Woolwich to replace a drunken bombardier as a railway checker at Swindon station. It was here that he acquired a distrust of statistics. He was expected, apparently, to count the number of service men and women getting off every train, getting on every train and, for some reason, getting off and back on the train. He decided he would make up the figures. Assailed some weeks later by conscience, he asked the ticket collector at the barrier to give him the numbers of people who were getting on and off the train. After three weeks he discovered that the ticket collector was making the figures up too. He was duly commissioned in the Royal Engineers, in movement control."
Nothing changes. I suggest that both Ministers present--the Minister of State for Defence Procurement and the Minister of State for the Armed Forces--have all the qualifications to be moved to movement control of the Royal Engineers. The statistics given in the current defence estimates are indeed vacuous--though perhaps that is too substantial a word.
With the conclusion of the defence cost studies in July, the simple question is this : why did the Government choose to publish such a vacuous, empty White Paper in April instead of waiting until they had some announcements to make ? The answer is quite simple : by publishing the White Paper in April, rather than in July as in previous years, Ministers will be able to get the annual two-day defence debate out of the way before announcing another round of swingeing cuts, thus allowing them to evade the embarrassment of having to explain themselves to Parliament. Every hon. Member knows that that is precisely why the details have been announced now. Furthermore, by postponing until the July the announcement of further cuts, the Government hope to avoid the wrath of the electorate in the run- up to the local and European elections. In other words, they are running scared both of the electorate and of Parliament.
Mr. Hanley indicated dissent .
A couple of weeks ago, I was in the constituency of South Dorset, where everyone suspects--probably because of a suspicious nature--that the current review of sea systems will report in July, not by coincidence but because