Considered ; to be read the Third time.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind) : Progress of the humanitarian relief operation in the former Yugoslavia is a matter for the United Nations and the humanitarian aid agencies working in theatre. British troops in Bosnia continue to assist with the escorting of humanitarian aid convoys and the exchange of detainees and displaced persons.
Mr. Kynoch : Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in recognising the superb contribution made by British troops in the delivery of humanitarian aid ? Will he especially recognise the effort put in by the Gordon Highlanders, who are celebrating their 200th anniversary this year and were used as a top-up last year ? This year they are due to merge with the Queen's Own Highlanders. Even at this late stage, in the light of their proud history and continuing commitments, will the Secretary of State reconsider the need for that merger ?
Mr. Rifkind : I give unstinting praise to the work of the Gordon Highlanders and, indeed, all British forces in Bosnia who have represented their country and our armed forces in such an exemplary fashion. I recognise the sadness for any regiment facing amalgamation, but I emphasise that all the finest traditions of the Gordon and Queen's Own Highlanders will be fully sustained in the formation of the new Highland regiment.--a regiment of which the people of the north-east of Scotland will have every reason to be proud.
Dr. David Clark : Notwithstanding the fact that General Rose is an officer of the United Nations Protection Force, will the Secretary of State make it his business to seek him out and make it clear to him that he has the full support of this House ? Will he congratulate him on all his imaginative efforts in bringing about peace in parts of Bosnia and reassure him that he has the full support of the House in trying to extend that peace ? Finally, and perhaps
Column 138most important, will he indicate to General Rose the numbers of British troops to be made available to him when the peace accord is finally brokered ?
Mr. Rifkind : The UNPROFOR commander is well aware of the very high regard in which he is held in this House and throughout the world for the way in which he has carried out his responsibilities. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that the United Kingdom is one of the foremost countries in the world with regard to the provision of military support to the United Nations in Bosnia. Clearly it is important that no responsibilities are put on UNPROFOR which are incompatible and inconsistent with the forces available to it. We hope that all countries will show the same responsibility that this country has shown in supporting the United Nations in its difficult task.
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken) : Military career structures are reviewed regularly, taking into account all factors including my Department's contractorisation and market- testing programme.
Dr. Goodson-Wickes : Does my hon. Friend agree that the opportunity for people from varied backgrounds to achieve qualifications that would not otherwise be open to them is one of the admirable things that our armed forces offer ? I am thinking especially of Welbeck college and Shrivenham. Will my hon. Friend therefore assure the House that in the review of contractorisation he will bear in mind the effect on career structures, especially on the technical side, to ensure that they are not prejudiced, which would disadvantage the operation of our troops generally ?
Mr. Aitken : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his thoughtful comments. It is important that the armed services retain skilled technical personnel and I am sure that they will do so, whatever the outcome of the "Front Line First" studies. As for recruiting and future career structures, there is no sign that recruiting is in any sense becoming disappointing. All three services are succeeding in recruiting more than 90 per cent. of their manpower targets--a figure which we regard as satisfactory.
Mr. Lewis : Is the Minister aware that contractorisation goes beyond movement in career structure and also affects the quality of life of service people ? The fewer service people there are on a base, the more guard duties they have to do. In addition, the whole ethos of the military establishment has been eroded by contractorisation. The Minister can visit Army camps and RAF stations and find young men with earrings and pigtails. That is not the service I know and recognise. Contractorisation has gone too far with too little thought.
Mr. Aitken : I agree that ethos is important in service life and there is no question of its being destroyed by "Front Line First" or any other study. We have a duty, however, to make sure that the armed services get the best possible equipment and support services and that maximum value for money is achieved. That is what our
Column 139studies are all about and they are progressing satisfactorily without doing the damage that the hon. Gentleman suggests.
Mr. David Shaw : If my hon. Friend is considering the benefits of contractorisation in relation to the military bands, will he bear in mind that there is a substantial petition under way to keep the Royal Marines school of music at Deal ?
Mr. Aitken : As my constituency is immediately adjacent to that of my hon. Friend, and as I live only two miles from Deal, I can assure him that I have not missed the very trenchant signals that he and the many supporters of the Royal Marines school of music at Deal are sending. They will, of course, be considered by Ministers before any decisions are reached.
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Jeremy Hanley) : Wherever possible, surplus married quarters are offered for sale to housing associations. In some circumstances, properties may be offered on lease to local authorities or housing associations for use as rented accommodation.
Mrs. Kennedy : Does the Minister accept that a number of his ministerial colleagues have admitted that neither housing associations nor local authorities can afford to purchase MOD surplus housing stock ? Will he therefore take a positive step to assist local authorities by supporting the Labour party's demand that local authorities be allowed to keep 100 per cent. of receipts from the sale of council housing instead of the miserly 25 per cent. allowed by the Government ?
Mr. Hanley : I would rather stick to my own departmental responsibilities and explain that there are some 70,000 married quarters in the defence estate. Fewer than 10,000 are now vacant for one reason or another, but the record that we have established over the past few years is impressive. In the past year, we have sold more than 2,000 houses and we plan to sell 5,000 more over the next five years. We also contribute to helping the homeless and have leased more than 1,000 vacant homes to local authorities for rent.
Mr. Matthew Banks : Will my hon. Friend give the House an assurance that when selling off surplus housing stock, in these days of putting the "Front Line First", he will not lose sight of the need to secure an adequate return for the taxpayer at large ?
Mr. Hanley : My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We have to balance the interests of the taxpayer with the interests of those who serve in the armed forces. I believe that the housing discount scheme and other schemes that give priority to those in the armed forces achieve that balance.
Column 140Royal Irish Regiment in Northern Ireland, where three of my constituency members were burned to death very recently ? Will he apply some of the receipts from the sale of surplus dwellings to improve that accommodation ? When does he expect to receive a full detailed report of that tragedy and will he publish it ?
Mr. Hanley : The hon. Gentleman raises an important point which is more about barrack sleeping accommodation than married quarters. The hon. Gentleman is right that it is an important issue which must be resolved. A full inquiry is being carried out and as soon as we receive the results I will make sure that he receives a copy.
Mr. Salmond : The first thing that will be noticed in Scotland is that the Secretary of State has ducked the question again. Can the junior Minister tell us whether the Secretary of State has seen the completed study group report on Rosyth naval base ? Why do even his Back-Bench colleagues believe that it recommends closure of the site ? Does the Minister accept that the general feeling in Scotland is that in any contest with the south coast Rosyth will be sacrificed ? Given the Prime Minister's stated commitment to open government, will it not be appropriate to publish the study group report and allow the people of Scotland to enter the debate before the Government reach their conclusion ?
Mr. Aitken : The hon. Gentleman is in danger of going over the top. He missed an excellent Adjournment debate on Friday afternoon, when many of his questions were answered in detail. The study teams for all the studies have now finished their work. Their reports will shortly be considered by Ministers for final decisions, but only when we have studied the reports and had full discussions will those decisions be made. I think that that answers the point that the hon. Gentleman was making.
Mr. Wilkinson : Will my hon. Friend ensure that the Rosyth naval base does not go the way of Scapa Flow and Invergordon ? Were it to do so, would it not be yet another symbol of Britain's maritime decline ? Is not its maintenance necessary if the Royal Navy is to remain a blue-water oceanic navy and not a mere channel patrol for the south coast of England ?
Mr. Aitken : My hon. Friend's points will be considered by Ministers when we reach a final decision on this matter. However, in view of his strictures about shrinkage, I should make it clear that although in recent years the size of the Royal Navy has gone down in terms of fleet numbers, there has not been a similar reduction in the size of the four base port facilities. Indeed, we continue to operate four base ports despite a considerably reduced fleet. We must consider carefully the whole balance of naval infrastructure versus the size of the fleet, and that is what the study is largely about.
Ms Rachel Squire : Does the Minister agree that the various decisions made by Ministers, including the Prime Minister in 1991, that the Rosyth naval base was vital to the defence of the realm, were made in the full knowledge of the impact of the end of the cold war on naval commitments ? Does he further agree that Rosyth remains important to the defence of the realm and that the promises made about its future should be kept ?
Mr. Aitken : The hon. Lady has rightly been a strong advocate for the continued existence of Rosyth and we listen carefully to her. However, she does not strengthen her case by exaggerating promises that were never made-- [Interruption.] To put the record straight, I shall repeat what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in February 1991, when he made it clear that no decision had been taken to close Rosyth or any other naval base. He said :
"We fully recognise the implications that closure would have for employment in the area. Those implications would be fully considered and examined before any such decision was taken."--[ Official Report , 5 February 1991 ; Vol. 185, c. 159.]
That falls a long way short of the pledge or promise inferred by the hon. Lady. The record shows that the Government have always played their hand fairly and openly and without giving any false promises to anyone.
Mr. Allason : Does my hon. Friend agree that there should be the widest possible consultation before any decision is made on the closure of any Royal Navy base ? Will he take this opportunity to confirm that our right hon. and learned Friend recently visited HMS Malabar and that any final decision on its closure will not be taken until there has been widespread consultation ?
Mr. Aitken : I confirm that my right hon. and learned Friend made the visit to which my hon. Friend referred. I also confirm that before any final decisions are taken there will be fair and widespread consultations on any proposals put forward at the end of the "Front Line First" study.
Dr. Reid : Does the Minister not feel even slightly embarrassed that although one Cabinet member has said that he is prepared to fight publicly and privately for the retention of Rosyth, all that has emanated from the Secretary of State has been the "silence of the lamb" ? Will he at least assure the House that before any decisions are taken on Rosyth all the alternative costings will be made available ? Does he appreciate that if he refuses to do so, in addition to the accusations of betrayal in Scotland there will be accusations of a financial whitewash ?
Mr. Aitken : There is no question of a whitewash. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that before final decisions are taken all Ministers, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, will be consulted. Once our proposals have been announced, we shall publish the information on which our decisions are based and there will be a fair opportunity to consider the proposals and the information contained in them.
Mr. Ian Bruce : My hon. Friend will recall that the last time we went round that track and the recommendation to close Rosyth naval base was before Ministers, it was rejected. Instead of changing one of the four base ports, we closed the only training port. Will my hon. Friend assure me that he will receive a delegation from me if he decides to close Rosyth naval base, because such a decision will change the naval balance ? We can put up an even better
Column 142case for a privatised naval base in Portland to do the training work much more cheaply than if it were sent to Plymouth.
Mr. Aitken : My hon. Friend's question emphasises that strong regional and constituency interests are quite properly at stake in the various decisions. The ministerial team at the Ministry of Defence plays fair and takes the defence interests, above all, into consideration. On my hon. Friend's request to bring a delegation to see me, he has done that in the past and I have always tried to give him a fair and courteous hearing. I should be glad to receive a delegation from him at some time in the future if he thinks it necessary.
Mr. Hanley : The Territorial Army plays no formal part in the budgetary process, although we do, of course, take the Territorial Army fully into account in all our defence budgetary planning, and there is regular contact between departmental staff and the Territorial Army at all levels.
Mr. Enright : The Minister will be aware how efficient the Territorial Army unit is in my area. Will he therefore promise that there will be no cuts in the Territorial Army there, particularly as the high incidence of unemployment means that for many of my constituents being in the Territorial Army is their only stake in society ?
Mr. Hanley : I assure the hon. Gentleman that no decisions on the future size and shape of the Territorial Army have yet been taken. Announcements will be made before long, but, whatever the outcome of current studies, the Territorial Army will continue both to play a vital role in supporting and augmenting the Regular Army and to make a highly valued contribution to our defence capability. The Territorial Army is an integral part of the Army's mobilised order of battle.
Sir Peter Hordern : As we shall always need strong reserve forces, does my hon. Friend agree that the Territorial Army is a cost-effective way of providing those reserves ? Will he say something about the present limitations on the role of the Territorial Army in serving abroad with Her Majesty's forces ? Will he consider introducing legislation so that the Territorial Army and our reserve forces can play a more active part in that respect ?
Mr. Hanley : I very much agree with my right hon. Friend. The Territorial Army is extremely efficient and effective. Changes are in the pipeline to try to ensure that its members can be deployed abroad more easily. On 19 April, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State announced that a pilot scheme to test the feasibility of using the Territorial Army in support of the Regular Army would be run in the Falklands. A platoon will go from July to November this year and a company will go from March to July next year. It may help the House if I say that that scheme has been oversubscribed and the group has now been formed. We look forward to a most successful experiment.
Column 143constituency of Nuneaton, also needs funding ? Although the Air Training Corps depends on voluntary contributions, it needs the continuing support of the Minister and the Ministry.
Mr. Gill : I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend would be the first to agree that far more important to the armed services than reviews and studies is an undertaking that there will be adequate funds for them to discharge their responsibilities in the future. Given that defence is the essential insurance policy that this country cannot afford to be without, would he consider it unreasonable to spend no less than 10 per cent. of national annual expenditure on our defence forces ?
Mr. Rifkind : Clearly, the expenditure that is made available must be related to the commitments of our armed forces. There is a clear contrast between Her Majesty's Government and Her Majesty's Opposition. The Government have given an unequivocal assurance that there will be no further reductions in the fighting capability of our armed forces. The Opposition have given no such assurance in relation to the defence review that they wish to initiate, which would presumably result in serious and savage cuts to the fighting capability of our armed forces.
Mr. Macdonald : Given the emphasis placed on contractorisation as part of "Front Line First", will the Secretary of State give a commitment that he will not approve any major reduction of the facilities at the Royal Artillery range in the Hebrides, but that a full contractorisation study will be made to realise some of the benefits that could be gained through contractorisation in the Hebrides ?
Mr. Rifkind : I am very conscious of the significant and substantial economic importance of the range to the local community in the Hebrides. Clearly, all options are being considered as to the best way to ensure that the needs of the Army are met. In those studies, we are also conscious of the wider implications for the local community.
Mr. Bill Walker : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that when the decisions are made on "Front Line First" and the statement is made, the statement will be primarily concerned with the back-up forces ? In examining the contribution made by the Air Training Corps and the Air Cadets, as was mentioned earlier, is it not important to recognise the contribution that they and the other cadet forces make to the community at large ? It is cheaper to keep good youngsters good than to try to make bad ones good.
Column 144service life to young people, who quite often go on to a career in the armed forces. They also ensure, even for those who do not to on to a career in the armed forces, a wider awareness of the important role played by our uniformed personnel in the wider interests of the nation.
Dr. David Clark : Is the Secretary of State aware that the concept surrounding "Front Line First" is dangerously outmoded because modern armed forces operate as an integral whole and any change in logistical support will vitally affect operational capabilities ? With that in mind, will he scrap his current flawed and piecemeal approach, follow the example of our allies and have a full defence review so that we can truly meet the security needs of this country ?
Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friends should welcome the clear statement that the hon. Gentleman has just made. What he is calling for is a defence review that would be able to cut the fighting capability of our armed forces. That is a clear implication of the freedom that such a review would have under a Labour Government. Her Majesty's Government, on the other hand, have made it clear that we have no intention of making any further reductions in the fighting capability of our armed forces. That is the clear distinction between Government and Opposition on that issue.
Mr. Brandreth : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Army chaplaincy service forms an integral part of the Army ? Will he use this opportunity to pay tribute to the 190 Army chaplains for their work, not only at a spiritual level but at a pastoral level as well ? They are among the unsung heroes of the Army : we need them and we should salute them.
Mr. Hanley : I willingly pay tribute to the chaplaincy service. Chaplains play an important role in fostering the mental health of soldiers, particularly in circumstances in which soldiers are under stress or likely to come under stress at short notice. In addition to their spiritual role, the chaplains provide a valuable welfare role to service men and their families. I should also tell my hon. Friend that there are not only heroes, but heroines as well.
Mr. Hardy : In view of his reply to his hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth), will the Minister assure the House that the chaplaincy service will be neither contractorised nor privatised ?
Mr. Evans : Is the Minister aware that the proposed market testing of the Defence Accounts Agency on Merseyside is causing fear and anxiety among the 850 employees there ? They are worried about their employment prospects. Will the Minister concede that the commercial confidentiality of the information processed at that office is in danger of being jeopardised, thereby putting more British defence jobs at risk ? Why does he not tell the Treasury that that is a privatisation too far ?
Mr. Hanley : I readily admit that the hon. Gentleman has fought hard for the unit involved. However, we have conducted our review of it fully and openly. Trade unions were consulted about the proposals, the changes were fully explained to staff and those who must move have been told about the relocation allowances that will be available to them. Nine of the posts have already been transferred and we expect to move about 19 to Bath, Glasgow and Swindon later this year, seven to London towards the end of 1995 and the balance to RAF Wyton in 1996.
Mr. Jessel : Is my hon. Friend aware that, among service personnel, none are more popular than British Army bands, whose splendid standards of excellence are world famous as a result of the unique training that they receive at the Royal Military school of music at Kneller Hall in Twickenham ?
Mr. Donald Anderson : A few moments ago, I understood the Secretary of State to say that there would be no further cuts in front-line manpower. We shall examine that claim carefully in July, when the defence costs study is published. It is rumoured that there will be at least 25,000 further cuts.
Is the Secretary of State aware that in the statement on defence estimates published in April, for the first time, no targets for manpower were set ? What is the motive for that ? Is the Secretary of State, in effect, trying to disguise further, regular cuts ? May we have an assurance that in July, after the study has been published, there will be period of calm and stability when our services can look forward to a stable future ?
Mr. Hanley : I think that the hon. Gentleman is a little muddled on three counts. First, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State said that there would be no cut in the front-line capability of our armed forces--he was not talking about support. Secondly, in the "Statement on the
Column 146Defence Estimates 1994", civilian numbers are forecast to fall to 128,700--113,000 based in the United Kingdom and 15,700 locally entered. Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman should remember that Labour is fighting under a European socialist manifesto, which contains a specific pledge to cut armed forces.
Mr. Brazier : Will my hon. Friend confirm, on the civilian side, that while there has been a progressive reduction in the number of vital scientists and engineers, the one category of civil servants that has expanded in the past decade has been that dealing with budget holding ? May I suggest that, in the defence costs study, the place to use the knife is the growing army of people involved in counting to the last penny ?
Mr. Bennett : Does the Secretary of State accept that it is no good carrying out reviews of personnel, equipment and other things until the Government have carried out a full review of what our defence commitments ought to be and that such surveys will have no credibility unless we know what our defence forces are expected to do ?
Mr. Rifkind : We already know exactly what our defence forces are required to do ; it is something to which the Government give their total commitment. Unlike the Opposition, we do not intend to contemplate further reductions in our fighting capability.
Mr. John Townend : Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that there will be considerable support among those on the Conservative Benches for significant reductions in the number of civil servants at the Ministry of Defence ? Many of us have thought in previous years that, when there have been almost as many civil servants as soldiers, we had got the balance wrong.
Mr. Rifkind : I assure my hon. Friend that the defence costs study is considering civilian manpower as well as uniformed personnel. Clear evidence is emerging of considerable scope for further improvements in that sphere.
Mr. Martlew : May I ask about the future employment prospects of the work force at RAF Carlisle and RAF Quedgeley ? The Minister of State for the Armed Forces has said three times that there needs to be a reduction of £85 million over 10 years in the budget of the equipment supply depot. The work force at RAF Carlisle has given him proposals that will save £85 million. Is the target still £85 million, or has the Minister moved the goalposts ? Will he confirm that there will be an announcement on the future of RAF Carlisle and RAF Quedgeley next week ?
Column 147RAF Carlisle. We are evaluating the various representations that have been made in response to the announcement made earlier this year, and we shall make a further announcement in due course.
Mr. Rifkind : The situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina remains generally calm, although sporadic small arms and mortar fire continues, together with some artillery fire in certain areas. The ceasefires in central Bosnia, Sarajevo and Gorazde are generally holding.
Mr. Duncan Smith : My right hon and learned Friend is resisting the siren calls for more troop deployments to Bosnia, but does he agree that the complex situation in Bosnia demonstrates that Britain, when it needs to co-operate, must do so with NATO ? Does he also agree that we must, however, retain the capability to operate independently in the defence of British interests ?
Mr. Rifkind : Yes, I very much agree with my hon. Friend. NATO has been, and remains, central to our policy on the defence of the realm and any question of closer European co-operation on defence matters is, of course, subject to the overriding importance of maintaining the primacy of NATO as fundamental to our defence interests. That is, and will remain, our defence policy. Some of the remarks that were attributed, I hope mistakenly, to my hon. Friend in an article in The Sunday Telegraph were quite bizarre. We have no intention whatsoever of supplanting NATO as the central plank of our defence policy.
Mr. Jim Marshall : Will the Secretary of State confirm that the military situation in Bosnia has dictated that British forces are now involved in three roles--humanitarian relief, peacekeeping and peacemaking ?
Mr. Rifkind : We have certainly been willing to see British forces used in Bosnia to assist the United Nations to carry out its mandate. That mandate does not involve a combat role for British forces and nor will it be allowed to be changed in that direction. We support warmly any way in which the British forces can assist the United Nations in its humanitarian and peacekeeping role.