Previous Section Home Page

Column 772

I pay tribute to our Army and our soldiers. I know that they want to be a professional, superbly equipped force. They do not want to incur casualties all round the world peacekeeping in areas where little can be done.

6.51 pm

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles) : I begin with a constituency point. I do so without apology because, as both the Secretary of State and the Ministers are aware, the Royal Artillery range at Benbecula in my constituency is of vital economic and social importance to the southern isles in terms of the work that it generates for the local population and in wider general terms--the income that it brings into the islands.

The Secretary of State knows that I have made representations over the past months about the future of the artillery range at Benbecula. Concerns continue to be expressed, particularly in the present climate of talk of swingeing cuts in the defence budget which will affect bases up and down the country.

I shall not rehearse the arguments that I have already put to the Ministry of Defence and the Government about the economic and social importance of the range. I merely make the point that in my seven years as a Member of Parliament, I have never once had to approach any Defence Minister with any complaint from my constituents about the range at Benbecula.

The relationship between the range and the people of the southern isles is excellent. It has always been extremely good. It is a tribute to that relationship and to the people who work at the range that never in seven years have I had to take a complaint to the Minister from a constituent about any individual or anything that has happened at the range.

The same is true of the recent large-scale exercise at Lewis involving the Royal Marines. The exercise normally takes place each year in Norway, but, because of the winter Olympics this year, it had to take place in the United Kingdom. The location chosen was in my constituency. Thousands of soldiers made amphibious exercise landings near Storno‡way. I have not received one complaint from my constituents about the scale of the exercise or the behaviour of the soldiers. I pay tribute to the Royal Artillery and the Royal Marines in both respects. It is my hope that, at the end of the extensive accounts exercise that the Government are undertaking, the relationship that has been established over past decades will continue for an equal period of time to come.

I shall not rehearse the arguments about the merits of the Royal Artillery range from a defence point of view. As the Ministers and the Secretary of State know, the deep range is a unique facility which cannot be duplicated anywhere in the United Kingdom or, indeed, in Europe. I also emphasise that the short range, which provides the bread and butter of the work of the range, cannot easily be added on to ranges elsewhere in the United Kingdom. It provides a specific type of training and practice for the teams who train there. Such single-purpose training facilities are vital. I know that the Royal Artillery wants it to be retained. I hope that the Ministers who make the decision will listen to the voices of those in the Royal Artillery.

Column 773

Although I appreciate that the Ministers involved have to make some tough choices in the months to come about where expenditure can be deployed most effectively from an overall defence point of view, an essential

The Government can use defence expenditure to achieve two goals. One is the immediate goal of defence value for money. The other goal, given that the expenditure will take place in any case, is to bolster the regions that are economically depressed. If the Government can marry those two objectives--I believe that it is possible--they will genuinely achieve value for money. I hope that that perspective informs the thinking of Ministers and the Secretary of State when they come to take their important decisions.

A wider theme appears in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1994". I am struck by the references in the statement to the European dimension. It has not crept into the debates thus far. None of the speeches that we have heard from Conservative Members touched on it. The European dimension is becoming more and more apparent in defence thinking. The "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1994" contains striking paragraphs and phrases which would have been inconceivable a few years ago. For example, on page 15 of the paper in a section entitled "The European Union", paragraph 210 states : "We have declared . . . our intention to contribute to work towards a common European defence policy which may, in time, lead the European Union to a common defence."

I know that such aspirations are expressed in the Maastricht treaty, but I am pleased that the Government have seen fit to include that phrase in the statement. A major change has occurred in Government thinking in the past few years and I welcome it.

Another reason why we need to think along these lines is given on page 11 of the "Statement on the Defence Estimates". Paragraph 207 states :

"The Combined Joint Task Forces"

which were broached at the last North Atlantic Treaty Organisation summit

"will be able to operate under the control of the Western European Union"

not just under the control of NATO

"in circumstances where the European NATO nations perceive a need for action but the United States and Canada, for whatever reason, do not wish to be involved."

That is very important recognition of a problem which has arisen in the former Yugoslavia, and I believe that we are likely to see it elsewhere in Europe beyond NATO's immediate area of operations in the years to come.

I warmly welcome the Government's recognition that there will be circumstances when members of the Western European Union will need to work together without the immediate direct assistance of the United States or Canada in the form of ground troops. I hope that they will provide assistance in other forms, such as logistical intelligence and so on. We will need to operate outside NATO's immediate area of operations in order to achieve objectives which are important to European interests, but which may not be important to the United States or Canada.

I believe that the statement will be seen as a seminal statement, as it recognises the necessary

Column 774

European dimension in British defence thinking. Given the sentiments expressed in the statement, I regret that the Minister did not refer to the European dimension in his

The statement refers to how various European countries will work on the European dimension through the combined joint task forces and through the WEU planning cell, which is now up and running. Page 16 of the statement says :

"The WEU Planning Cell . . . is drawing up lists of forces which could be made available by nations to the WEU for operations on a case-by-case basis."

I do not find the last point encouraging. I do not think that we should bring together forces on a case-by-case basis, but should seriously try to develop, in an integrated way, European defence capability which will be able to respond to a broad variety of situations.

The United Nations has had difficulty in responding to the crisis in Yugoslavia in an ad hoc way. When a crisis occurs it tries to pull together the forces it needs to respond to that crisis. Likewise, I think that that is one of the lessons that we learnt from the Gulf war. Because of a lack of anticipation and thinking about developing a combined European force, there was a last-minute scramble to put together the forces necessary at the time of that war. Some countries, such as France, were plainly not adequately prepared for such a deployment.

I urge the Government to talk to our partners in the Western European Union and begin to organise more systematically the planning of European defence capability. Future generations will be astonished to learn that each member of the European Union undertook major cuts in its armed forces, while subscribing to the notion of a common defence capability. European Union members are making defence cuts in isolation ; there does not seem to be any co-ordination of the cuts which they are implementing.

In the current climate, it would surely make sense for European Union countries to sit down and plan together the kinds and shape of forces that they will need to meet future emergencies. We do not need just a British defence review ; we need a European defence review. A review of British defence made in isolation is inadequate, given our commitments in the Maastricht treaty and the challenges that we are likely to face.

I welcome the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) about the situation in Rwanda, which has been largely ignored by the media in the past few weeks. Carnage has occurred in Rwanda on an horrendous scale and it should concern us deeply. I welcome particularly what my hon. Friend said about the need for the United Nations and the Organisation of African Unity to get together to consider the urgent deployment of military forces to Rwanda to try to stop the slaughter in that country.

Obviously, we need there, and shall need in similar situations in the future, not only peacekeeping, but peacemaking. It is also clear, as my hon. Friend implied, that when that type of crisis occurs in different regions of the world, although there must be a UN dimension and a UN authorisation of international action,

I believe that the same is true in Bosnia, which is for Europeans as Rwanda is for African countries. We, and especially my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North, are willing to call on African states

Column 775

to intervene militarily to stop the slaughter in Rwanda. We should be equally willing to call on European states to intervene to stop the slaughter in Bosnia. The moral imperative is obviously the same, the interests of the international community are the same, but the interests of those countries bordering the trouble spots are obviously much greater than the interests of countries at a large distance from them.

Therefore, I believe that Bosnia must be regarded as primarily a European responsibility, and that in the future we shall need to develop a European defence capability to intervene in places such as Bosnia much more effectively than we have been able to on this occasion.

7.11 pm

Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West) : When I look back on my military service, I count myself fortunate to have served at a time when there was always an identifiable enemy and we usually knew what we were about and the dangers that we were walking into. That is why I should like to echo all the tributes that have been paid to our service men today.

Going into action, seeing the enemy in front of one, is quite a different matter from going out on the streets of Belfast or going down those roads in Bosnia, and many other places where our service men are now committed. They never know how long they will be there. What is more, they are under restraints under which only an Army of the quality of ours would possibly operate. No other army in the world would behave as well as our Army has behaved, and suffer the casualties that we have suffered over the years, yet hold back from action which many of its members, I know, from time to time would wish to take.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) has made it clear over the years that change was inevitable. I do not think that anyone in the House would not accept that it is time for change, against the background of the events that have taken place in the Soviet Union, or what was the Soviet Union, in the past five years. No one can defend the need for an army or armed forces at the level at which they were required before the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was followed by the splintering of its armed forces and, in my view, by an almost total collapse of its morale. I would not wish to be engaged in the Russian army today, against the background of what has happened to those armed forces over the years.

I have a fairly long memory in the House. I sit here through every defence debate. I watch, and I have listened to what has been said from the Opposition Benches over the years. Throughout the cold war period, when this country and the NATO alliance were under threat from the Soviet Union, we never heard anything

I am very sorry that the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) has left the Chamber, because I should especially like to draw attention to the role that the present leader of his party played in 1985 when he turned the Liberal party, against the wishes of then leader, the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) and, I am quite sure, the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East, against the deployment

Column 776

of cruise missiles in this country at a crucial time when the future of the country hung in the balance. Let us never forget what was done by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) at that time and the damage that it did to the credibility of his party. Therefore, we should take no talk from Opposition Members about what they want to do and the way in which they would maintain our armed forces. This is our debate because through those dark years we kept our armed forces intact against the attacks that were being made on them by Opposition Members.

We all know that change and cuts are inevitable, but they must be soundly based and in line with long-term strategic priorities, not based on annual Treasury demands. I am anxious that decisions may not be taken quickly enough--that there may be a blurring of "Options for Change" into putting the "Front Line First", without the right action being taken quickly and rationally.

Probably the most unhappy time that I spent in the Army was in the canal zone from 1951 to 1954. We had thousands of service men locked into that canal zone and they were all in a no-win situation. The result was inevitable. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of them--always the best--junior officers and NCOs, said, "Enough is enough ; I am off." They left the Army in droves at that time and it took us many years to make good the loss of that hard core of people who were the best in our armed forces.

I have to say to the Secretary of State that morale was brittle then and it is brittle now. Once again, many of our brightest and best feel insecure and they--the ones whom we can least afford to lose--will always bail out first. So my first message to the Secretary of State is to ask him please, please, please to end the uncertainty as soon as possible, live up to the slogan that he has rightly put before us, "Front Line First", and ensure that our Army, and especially its leaders at all levels, regains its confidence and morale. Uncertainty about the future destroys morale most, and that is the anxiety that I have now.

That means more than providing a good and worthwhile career structure. It means ensuring that the best Army in the world has the best equipment in the world, is not starved of proper training, and has ammunition and spare parts always available. In pursuit of that, radical changes can, and should, be considered.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton) made an argument about the difficulty of bringing back the Army from Germany because of the cost of finding barrack accommodation here, but I would say that the same does not always apply with the Royal Air Force. Air stations here are being vacated by the United States air force and our air force as they retrench, and I cannot think of any reason why we should not redeploy the RAF stations, or some of them, back here, leaving only an essential small element in Germany. Why do we need the RAF in Germany

I was delighted to hear that the Devon and Dorsets are to go to Poland. We could not have a finer regiment making initial contact with the Poles. I hope that this is the forerunner of trainee exercises in Poland. I do not see why much of our training should not be translated to that country, with its marvellous training grounds, which I know it would love us to use following their vacation by the Soviet army. I imagine

Column 777

that they are in a pretty messy state and that a hell of a lot of cleaning up would have to be done. A good deal of money could be saved, however, and we would be welcoming back on board our allies of the last war. I know that they would welcome our being there. No one can predict where our Army will be called on to serve in the future. However, we can say with absolute certainty that any conflict will be based on this principle : "Come as you are, not as you would like to be." Never again will there be a situation of slow build-up in which we can mobilise. In future, when there is action anywhere in the world we shall have to go as we are. Thus, we need balanced forces, properly trained and equipped-- not for a slogging match over years but for rapid deployment anywhere in the world. Many hon. Members have already said that, to that end, we need air mobility, rapid deployment capability and the right sort of air support. These are essential ingredients of such a British Army.

I end as the Secretary of State and, in particular, the Minister of State for Defence Procurement would expect me to--with a plea about equipment. First, will Ministers please get on with ordering some attack helicopters now ? We need them desperately. Secondly, will they press ahead with a firm order for the utility EH101 to replace the totally inadequate support helicopter force ?

The current helicopters were all designed in the 1950s or the 1960s. It is quite frightful that, with our capability and with the best Army in the world, we should still rely on helicopters that were designed in the 1950s or the 1960s and are really not up to the job. I realise that an order is on the way. It is grinding forward, and the Minister of State will want to push it as much as possible. Let him give it a little extra shove and, in particular, make sure that it goes to Westland.

I have great confidence in the Secretary of State and his team. On many occasions, I have pulled my right hon. and learned Friend's leg about what a joy it is for serving personnel and ex-service men to have at the Ministry someone who does not pretend to be a military 7.22 pm

Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster) : I welcome the return of the SDE programme to its proper timetable. It is very good to have the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1994" before us. I welcome the fact that the programme is back on schedule, and I hope that this will apply to future reports.

What we have this year is, of course, something of an interim report, as we are waiting for the results of the defence costs study, which I hope will be before the House early in July. What is presented to us will be the result of the work of 33 study groups, which I understand have already reported to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, and of some 5,000 extra recommendations from within the services and the Ministry of Defence.

Sieving through those recommendations, adopting the sensible ones and rejecting the bad ones, is a mammoth task, and I wish my right hon. and learned Friend and his ministerial colleagues well in their decisions. I shall not try to anticipate the conclusions

Column 778

of the study groups, but I want to make some general points. First, with regard to "Front Line First", it is essential that the front line be extended behind. It must not be merely a thin red line, with no support and no replacements. My hon. Friend has already acknowledged the truth of this assertion, but the Select Committee on Defence will be looking very closely at the way in which it is put into effect when the defence costs study groups' recommendations are put to the House.

As I have said, I hope that this will happen in July. I have written to my right hon. and learned Friend to remind him that the Select Committee on Defence will sit during the recess if necessary. I hope that my reminder will help the timing of the report's production in such a way that it will not be necessary for us to do so. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend and his colleagues have taken well on board the underlying message of my letter. I do not intend to reiterate the many points that have already been made. However, I shall try to add to them and, in the case of some, express thorough disagreement.

The hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr Reid) is very keen that there should be a defence review. I have told the hon. Gentleman that the current Select Committee on Defence has never recommended such a review and that it will never do so. That will certainly be the case so long as I am Chairman. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Committee has an admirable record for unanimous reports. We do not air our disagreements in public, and I think that I can guarantee that the Committee will not recommend a defence review.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) and other hon. Members have said, certainty and continuity are very important to our armed forces at present. One reason for the low morale is

If the hon. Gentleman has not already done so, he ought to read the paper on defence reviews that is obtainable in the Library. That shows in great detail the shortcomings of all the defence reviews of the past, and illustrates very nicely a point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton)--that defence reviews are wildly inaccurate and do not help forward planning of defence structures.

Dr. Reid : I have read the paper to which the hon. Gentleman refers, as he recommended during our last debate on the subject. The fact that we have always got it wrong in the past should not prevent us from trying again. [Laughter.] When I said "we", I was being generous ; I should have said "they". I do not claim that we can predict everything, but that does not mean that we should not make an intelligent attempt to analyse what might happen.

This is not a question for polarisation. I believe that all hon. Members share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the uncertainty and the undermining of morale caused by the continual process of piecemeal review. I understand why the hon. Gentleman, like service men and women, does not want another 18 months of this. However, there will have to be a review. Eighteen months will be added either at the end of this period or

Column 779

in two or three years' time. There is no way out of that.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor : That was a rather long intervention. Sometimes, a period of 18 months seems quite short. The hon. Gentleman was wrong to correct himself for having said "we". His "we" was perfectly correct. However, I do not want to get dragged further into a debate on the question of a defence review. My opinion is that, at the moment, such a review would be very damaging to the morale of the forces. In any event, I do not accept that it would assist us in our forward planning.

I should like now to deal with some general points arising from SDE94. I very much welcome the reiteration of the division of the role of the armed forces into three separate categories. This first occurred in the last review. The armed forces' first task is to protect the security of this country and that of our allies when there is no major threat. Their second task is to protect us when there is such a major external threat ; and their third task is to represent this country's wider security interests through the maintenance of peace and security internationally. I wish briefly to consider whether our current forces can fulfil those three tasks, or whether a shortfall needs to be addressed.

On the major external threat, I profoundly disagree with both my right hon. Friends the Members for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton), who were the architects of "Options for Change". I opposed that move, because I felt that it was wrong to assess the threat from the former Soviet Union as diminished by the changes that occurred there. I now believe that my fears were fully justified.

The Select Committee on Defence is currently undertaking a study of the role and strength of NATO and where it should go in the future. I shall not try to pre-empt what the Committee's report might say, but in the course of that study we have met leading defence experts and politicians, particularly Defence and Foreign Ministers, from most of the countries that border Russia--Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia,

We cannot discount the threat from Russia just because its current leadership is benign and the strength of its forces has been run down. A brief look at SDE94, which compares the level of equipment and resources still available to Russia today with what is available in the west, shows that, whatever the rundown may have been, we still have a formidable potential enemy that is equipped in such a way that Europe could not resist it, were the threat to be renewed. Mr. Zhirinovsky may or may not come to power in Russia ; but if he does not, some potential dictator may do so.

As an hon. Member has already said, the Russian economy is extremely weak, but it was concluded that that lessened the risk of Russia becoming aggressive again. My conclusion is that Russia's economic weakness is a real reason why we should fear her most greatly.

Mr. Gill : When my hon. Friend's Committee studies those matters, will it look at how the network of interlocking bilateral treaties signed between Russia

Column 780

and western Europe constrains the defence capabilities of individual and independent states of western Europe ?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion. He has already drawn my attention to the treaty between Russia and Spain. He is right. The Russians are diplomatically trying to network bilateral treaties in order to undermine western security, which is another reason why we should fear their long-term intent.

Sir Archibald Hamilton : Does my hon. Friend accept that a main component of the deterrence provided by NATO that stopped the Soviet Union invading western Europe was nuclear weapons ? Given that we still have nuclear weapons today, why should not that deterrence be as effective tomorrow as it has been in the past ?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor : Because there is now an area of total uncertainty that did not exist in the past. So long as there was a stand off between the west and the east with no middle ground over which we were likely to fight, the nuclear deterrent, backed up by a substantial conventional capability, was adequate. If Russia were to fall into the wrong hands, I fear that she would not be content merely to reconstruct the old Russian empire of the Ukraine, Byelorussia, Georgia and the Baltic states, but would look again at the "near abroad"--Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. If Russia does that, it will be for the west to decide whether to go to war to defend those countries. I do not know what the future holds, but, given the instability of central Europe and the fact that it is now open for them or us to compete over, the position is infinitely more dangerous than during the cold war.

Mr. Menzies Campbell : I intrude on the speech of the Chairman of the Select Committee, of which I am a member, with all due deference. He seems to argue that treaties between western countries and Russia were destabilising. What, then, is his response to "partnership for peace", which we understand the Russians are willing to sign ?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor : "Partnership for peace" is a treaty between the west collectively and individual eastern states. The idea is to have a partnership of defensive alliance. The difference between the partners is that the west does not intend to attack eastward. But if

Sir Archibald Hamilton : Will my hon. Friend give way ?

Sir Nicholas Bonsor : I am sorry, but I must move on, as I know that many other hon. Members wish to speak. Perhaps we can debate the matter later outside the Chamber-- [Interruption.] --over a drink, not in a boxing ring.

NATO must remain the linchpin of western strength. For the foreseeable future, this country must look to NATO for our security in terms of major external threats. Many matters flow from that, including our presence in Germany, which is an important part of our commitment to NATO and of maintaining America's commitment to NATO, and many other ways in which

Column 781

we become involved in defensive alliance action, such as Bosnia. Were those matters left entirely to our national Governments, we might not necessarily wish to become so involved.

On protection and security when no major threat exists, we have already heard a great deal about Northern Ireland. The fact that I do not propose to add to what has been said on that topic does not reflect my view of its importance. I endorse what has been said. It is unlikely that we shall be able to reduce the strength of our forces in Northern Ireland in the near future, except perhaps in marginal areas where we could safely hand over jobs currently done by military personnel to civilian or Northern Irish personnel. We cannot, however, substantially reduce the number of troops currently deployed there, which stands at 19,000.

On the Army's peacetime use, the main weakness is in our training schedules. I hope that that weakness is temporary. It is the result of emergency tour plots that are very close to each other, so that our troops can never train at brigade, divisional or substantial strength level because somebody is always busy doing something else. When my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement winds up, will he say something about our plans to send troops to BATUS for training in the near future ? I seek his assurance that we shall be able fully to use the UK's allocation of time in that training area. Will my hon. Friend also say something about an exercise called First Crusade, which took place in March ? I hope that it was more successful than the exercise after which it is named. It was supposed to be at brigade strength, but there was a substantial shortage of infantry. The 1st Duke of Wellington unit, which had been allocated to that exercise, was not there because it was in Bosnia, and there was a shortage of both Saxon and tank regiments because of other operational duties which they were either engaged in or training for.

Will my hon. Friend assure us that, in future, brigade-strength exercises will be planned as part of our regular training exercises, so that we do not reach the stage where we can operate only in small groups, and lose the vital cohesion that gives our Army such potential strength in times of substantial conflict ?

The third heading is the wider security interests, about which I have spoken before, so I can be brief. I am profoundly concerned that Her Majesty's Government do not seem fully to deploy the great ability of our troops in the national interest on the wider scale. Our presence abroad is not given the value that it has outside purely security reasons. When we deploy

We have deployed troops in many cases, particularly in Nepal when we helped with the hurricane, and in Guatemala, when we helped with a natural disaster, in both cases earning substantial good will. However, the withdrawal from Belize was wholly wrong, taking it on the broad base of national interest. On page 40 of the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1994" the Government report on the excellent anti-drug work done in that region by the

Column 782

West Indies guard ship. I am glad that there is no current intention to remove that ship from station, as it would be disastrous for our presence in the West Indies and that part of central America.

But the troops on the ground could also have a useful role in anti-drug operations. More importantly, they have become vital again for the security of Belize itself. The justification in the defence estimates for the removal of the troops would be described by my--I almost said right hon. Friend--ex-right hon. Friend Alan Clark as being economical with the actualite .

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) : We all knew what he meant--not telling the truth.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor : There is a lot about a bit of the truth and all of the truth.

Page 48 of the defence estimates says :

"At the request and with the agreement of the Belize Government, the British military presence in Belize will take the form of a jungle training operation for troops from the United Kingdom." On the face of it, that is not untrue. The Belize Government did ask for, or did agree to, the removal of British troops. But the Belize Government were then replaced in an election and the new Belize Government asked us please to stay, to which the answer was no. At the same time, there was a revolution in Guatemala, just as the Government were announcing what a wonderfully safe place Guatemala had become. Ever since, there has been an increasing threat to Belize from the Guatemalans.

The outrageous conduct of the Greeks, backed by the Guatemalans, to the high commissioner of Belize during the conference over Easter in Greece was something about which I hope Her Majesty's Government made a vigorous protest, not least as the high commissioner for Belize also happens to be a viscountess in Britain. The insult to this country and to Belize was intolerable, particularly from a country currently purporting to be President of the European Union. I deeply resent what happened to the high commissioner at that conference. We shall be making a grave error if we fail to give backing to the Belizean Government and to the security of Belize. The Guatemalans are becoming more and more aggressive. There is a settlement within Belize of Guatemalan citizens which the Belizeans cannot currently get rid of, and the situation out there is looking increasingly bleak.

The response of Her Majesty's Government, again on page 48 of the defence estimates, is to say that the Belizean Government "have been assured that the British Government is fully prepared to play its part in consultations which would lead to the appropriate response should the security of Belize be threatened

We are in grave danger of repeating the error we made in the Falklands, of showing an apparent weakness where, in the event, there would be strength. I have no desire to see British forces sent to Belize in order to defend it, but I would rather see that than see Britain's name in the mud for having betrayed yet another of our friends.

I hope that Her Majesty's Government will review the way in which they approach the whole Belizean

Column 783

issue and, if they do nothing else, at least ensure that there is in place, not in future as a dream, an alliance which would guarantee the security of Belize against any aggression from Guatemala or any other neighbour.

There are other examples of our withdrawing when we should not be. We have taken the platoon from South Korea. There cannot be any great defence saving in removing a platoon from South Korea, but the Americans, to whom I spoke, deeply resented the symbolism of the withdrawal of support that we were giving to the American effort in South Korea.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State will not need reminding that the position in North Korea is becoming increasingly hazardous, and the whole of that area is looking dangerous. I accept that a platoon, even of our splendid British soldiers, will not make an enormous difference to the defence of South Korea if invaded, but it is a symbol of the backing we give the United States in that part of the world and, as such, I believe it to be valuable.

We have also withdrawn prematurely from Hong Kong. In the same way, we are sending signals of weakness when there is no need to be weak, and we are withdrawing our troops when their presence there would be a continual reminder of Britain's determination to stand up for the rights of the Hong Kong people up to 1997 and, by diplomatic means, thereafter.

We have prematurely withdrawn the troop levels that we had in Hong Kong. The House knows perfectly well why. It is because the emergency tour plot had become unsustainable without overstretch, so we have reduced our commitment, or at least our presence, in such places as we ought to be committed in order to relieve the emergency tour plot overstretch.

That has been done, but it is the wrong way round. The hon. Member for Motherwell, North gave a slightly parsimonious answer to, I think, my hon. Friend the Minister, when asked whether he would guarantee a higher level of troops in Britain, saying that he would match troops with commitments. Of course it is important to match troops with commitments, but if that is done simply by discarding all commitments, that is not the answer in the interests of the nation.

What my hon. Friend was seeking from the hon. Gentleman, and did not get, was an assurance that the commitments would be continued, and that the troop levels necessary for those commitments would be provided in the terms that the hon. Gentleman himself says are necessary. I await with interest the hon. Gentleman's future speeches--preferably not now--in which he will feel able to give the assurances that were sought.

I do not intend to say a great deal about Bosnia, but my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Duncan Smith) made one critical point. NATO has been conned by the Muslims in Bosnia into a position where we are in the gravest danger of moving into that war on a partisan basis--Muslim against Serb. It is well known that, in many instances--particularly, probably, the marketplace mortar--the Muslims have deliberately

Sir Michael Rose expressed his fury when he got to Gorazde and found that what he had been told about

Next Section

  Home Page