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House of Commons

Tuesday 21 June 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- -- in the Chair ]


Hill Samuel Bank and United Dominions Trust Bill [

Lords ]. Read a Second time, and committed.

Oral Answers to Questions


Exports --

1. Mr. Deva : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what was the level of defence exports in 1993.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind) : Defence equipment orders in 1993 were in excess of £6.6 billion.

Mr. Deva : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there are some 65 companies which are sub-contractors to the defence industry in my constituency ? What is he doing to help them export more ?

Mr. Rifkind : I am conscious that many hon. Members on both sides of the House have large numbers of companies, both contractors and sub- contractors, in their constituencies which are very much influenced by defence exports and defence industrial requirements. For that reason, we can all be satisfied that the United Kingdom is second only to the United States in the success that it has had in defence exports. That has not only provided substantial employment for this country, but has been of considerable benefit to our armed forces as a whole.

Mr. Clelland : Does the Secretary of State agree that an important influence in encouraging foreign governments to buy British is for our own Government to do just that ? Will he confirm that it is his intention to end speculation and to order a further 200-plus Challenger 2 tanks from Vickers Defence Systems ?

Mr. Rifkind : We recognise the importance of the defence needs of the armed forces to the United Kingdom's industrial requirements. Some 90 per cent. of the defence procurement budget is spent in the United Kingdom with United Kingdom companies. We are not yet in a position to announce further orders for Challenger tanks ; we will do so as soon as we are able.

Mr. Waterson : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, as long as we continue defence exports on such a major scale, it is in our interests also to subscribe to those

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initiatives sponsored by the UN and others for humanitarian rules in such exports ? That will mean that companies such as Computing Devices Ltd. in my constituency will be able to continue to offer employment to my constituents in that field.

Mr. Rifkind : Yes, we attach importance to the considerations that my hon. Friend rightly mentions.

Deregulation Initiative --

2. Mr. Gordon Prentice : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the impact on his Department of the Government's deregulation initiative.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken) : My Department is playing a full part in the Government's deregulation initiative, putting particular emphasis on streamlining contracts procedures and improving communications with industry.

Mr. Prentice : Is not the deregulation initiative not so much about cutting red tape as about cutting costs and imperilling safety and security ? Will the Minister assure the House today that there will be no change to the current arrangements for providing fire cover at defence establishments such as Porton Down and Aldermaston ?

Mr. Aitken : The hon. Gentleman has completely misunderstood the nature of the Government's deregulation initiative. It is not to do with cutting costs, although we have often hoped that the Government-wide initiative will result in less red tape and will therefore remove burdens on industry. In relation to defence, I can assure him that safety remains paramount and that we do not envisage cuts that will imperil the safety of any members of the armed forces.

Mr. Luff : Can my hon. Friend give any details of what he is doing to streamline the contracts and procedures to which he referred in his first answer ?

Mr. Aitken : We have a number of initiatives planned. In particular, we will be carrying out a major review which will result in new guidelines for industry being published. The whole point of the changes is to simplify and streamline and make it easier for industry to put forward bids and win contracts from us. We are also offering, in many cases, longer-term contracts which will give greater stability to industry itself.

Training Centres --

3. Mr. Llwyd : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what reductions are planned in military outward bound type training centres ; and if he will make a statement.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Jeremy Hanley) : Separately from the defence costs study, my Department is planning to study the scope for maximum efficiency and rationalisation of adventurous training as part of a wider review of how and where Army-sponsored training is conducted.

Mr. Llwyd : Does the Minister agree that the joint service mountain training camp at Tywyn in my constituency is an excellent establishment ? Does he also agree that, as a result of last year's consultation on staffing, things have been a little shambolic between the Ministry and the employees ? Given that a tri-service review is being

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conducted, the results of which will, I understand, be announced in July, does that mean that the future of the camp will then be known ?

Finally, if and when redundancies have to be made, do I have the Minister's assurance that proper consultation will take place according to the recent landmark decision at the European Court of Justice ?

Mr. Hanley : I was a graduate of Morfa camp, Tywyn, and I enjoyed my time there very much. I cannot, however, give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks because the adventurous training study has been removed from the defence costs study and will be considered over a slightly longer time scale than that provided for the latter. The decision on the exact provision of camps that we will need in the future will be made during the summer or in the early autumn, not with the defence costs study.

Mr. Fabricant : Will my hon. Friend congratulate the 3rd Battalion of the Staffordshire Regiment on running outward bound courses for young people in Staffordshire and the west midlands ? Is my hon. Friend aware that only last Saturday I abseiled down the Roaches, with the battalion, in the Staffordshire moorlands ?

Mr. Hanley : I had heard of my hon. Friend's great courage in abseiling down. As was explained to me, he showed that not only do we have the technology, but he does, too, to survive such an experience.

Merchant Vessels --

4. Mr. Bryan Davies : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many merchant vessels are currently available to the United Kingdom for defence purposes.

Mr. Hanley : Vessels are chartered on the worldwide market, so naturally availability varies from day to day.

Mr. Davies : Is it true that during the Gulf war only five of the vessels that were chartered were British ? What kind of deal did the British Government get out of the charter costs involved in that exercise ?

Mr. Hanley : The hon. Gentleman is right--out of 156 vessels that were chartered during Operation Granby, 151 were foreign flagged. Not only that, but during Operation Grapple, which is taking place now on the Adriatic, all the 18 ships that have been chartered are foreign flagged. One reason for that is the success of the British merchant fleet in having contracts from which it would not wish to resile. Surely our armed forces should make sure that they get the best value for money for the ships that we need to hire.

Civilian Employees --

5. Mr. McAllion : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many civilian employees there are in the Ministry of Defence.

Mr. Aitken : The total number of civilian personnel employed by the Ministry of Defence on 1 April 1994 was 143,700.

Mr. McAllion : Is the Minister aware of the concern among some MOD civilian employees at the proposal to establish a military home service engagement battalion, consisting of redundant ex-service men, paid off as part of the Government's defence cuts, which may lead to job losses among MOD guards ? Will the Minister therefore

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give an absolute guarantee to the House that whatever the Blelloch report recommends, there will be no reduction in the staffing of the newly formed MOD guard service ?

Mr. Aitken : All that I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that the matter is currently under study. It is not possible to give him an answer at this stage.

Mr. Wilkinson : How can the proposal to build new headquarters for the Procurement Executive at Abbey Wood, near Bristol, which will house hundreds of civilian personnel, be in tune with the "Front Line First" proposals that my hon. Friend is currently examining ? Should not Her Majesty's forces now be able to procure direct from industry rather than having to deal through this expensive bureaucracy ?

Mr. Aitken : We are certainly casting our eagle eye over any aspect of the MOD which could be described as excessively bureaucratic. The headquarters are also being considered as part of our defence costs study and I cannot anticipate my right hon. and learned Friend's statement at this stage.

Mr. Martlew : Will the Minister apologise for the deliberate leaking from his Department of the findings of the defence costs study, which is likely to mean the loss of 22,000 jobs, including many civilian jobs ? Does he agree that those who work on military bases can have no faith in the Ministry of Defence's consultative procedures ? For example, at RAF Carlisle recently, the trade unions put up a viable alternative to closing the base, but the Minister treated it with contempt and used it as an excuse to hold back a decision until after the European elections. Is not consultation a sham under this Government ?

Mr. Aitken : That little diatribe was full of rubbish, as I have come to expect from the hon. Gentleman. First, if he thinks that Ministers deliberately leak the unwelcome information and speculation that appears in the press, he needs his head examined. It is the last thing that we would do. Secondly, he is ill-advised to cast doubt on the sincere and honourable consultation procedures, which we always implement in full and will continue to implement once the results of the defence costs study are announced. We will honour those consultation procedures. Finally, the hon. Gentleman is wrong about defects in the consultation procedure on the item that he mentioned.

Mr. David Shaw : Is my hon. Friend aware that there are a number of civilian employees at the Royal Marine school of music based in Deal ? Is he also aware of the considerable unemployment in the Dover and Deal area and that one way to solve that problem would be to announce the setting up of a combined defence school of music based in Deal ?

Mr. Aitken : I am certainly aware of the facts which my hon. Friend mentions, not least because I live in the Dover and Deal area and my constituency boundary is adjacent to that of my hon. Friend. We also share the same local newspaper, in which he is well recorded on those matters. I shall consider his ingenious suggestion, which is part of the defence costs study.

Mr. Trimble : Will the Minister consider the position of some civilian employees in Northern Ireland who were formerly with the Property Services Agency, but, because of the circumstances there, were recently transferred to the

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MOD ? I refer particularly to some ladies who have given many years of loyal service in difficult circumstances. They are currently being declared redundant--not because the job has disappeared --and the readvertising of the post has been done in such a way as to deprive them of a real opportunity of applying. Will the Minister look into that injustice to remedy it ?

Mr. Aitken : Yes, I will look into the point which the hon. Gentleman raises. I was unaware of it until now, but if he will be good enough to send me details, I will look sympathetically at the matter.

Departmental Land --

6. Mr. Foulkes : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is his latest estimate of the total area of land in the United Kingdom owned by his Department.

Mr. Hanley : Just under 600,000 acres of freehold and leasehold -- including foreshore -- as at 1 April 1994.

Mr. Foulkes : While I would normally welcome the disposal of defence land, will the Minister assure us that one disposal that he will strongly resist is that of Rosyth naval base, as that would not only devastate the economy of Fife, but would undermine our defence capability and represent a betrayal of all the promises given by the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box when we discussed Rosyth dockyard ?

Mr. Hanley : The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to answer that question because a specific question later on the Order Paper deals with exactly that point.

Mr. Viggers : Is my hon. Friend aware that, in constituencies such as the one that I represent at Gosport, the Ministry of Defence owns as much as a third of the land ? It is therefore crucial that, when land is released, there should be the closest possible discussion between the Ministry of Defence and the local authority. Will he confirm that the pattern set by Lord Cranbourne over the release of a small portion of land at Leigh-on-Solent will be followed when the Ministry releases land ?

Mr. Hanley : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. His local authority of Gosport has an excellent record of co-operation with the land service of the Ministry of Defence. We shall co-operate with every local authority before land is disposed of. That is in the interests not only of local authorities and people who live in the area, but the Ministry of Defence. We are trying to reduce our land with each passing year. It is good financially for the Ministry of Defence, which made a net reduction last year of 1,389 acres, and the sale of more than 12,000 acres is currently in the pipeline.

Mr. Jamieson : Will the Minister consider the land on which Devonport dockyard stands ? Does he recall that last year the Secretary of State for Defence, who is sitting beside him, said that only 350 jobs would be lost at Devonport, whereas the reality is nearly 2,000 ? Is his Department incompetent, or was he deliberately misleading the House ?

Mr. Hanley : The hon. Gentleman has got it wrong. The job losses that the management announced last week were the result of efficiency measures that they had introduced.

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Therefore, my right hon. and learned Friend has kept his word entirely. I should have thought that an accusation such as that on his birthday was below the belt.

European Union --

7. Mr. Ian Taylor : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what discussions have been held within Western European Union of defence relationships with countries applying to join the European Union.

Mr. Rifkind : At their meeting in Luxembourg on 9 May, WEU Ministers expressed their willingness to strengthen contacts with the four acceding countries to the European Union. One of the four, Norway, is already an associate member of WEU and participates in its discussions.

Mr. Taylor : Given that the countries that join the European Union, including those in central Europe, have the right to join WEU and the mutual security guarantees, has my right hon. and learned Friend considered the security implications of which countries should be invited to join the EU ?

Mr. Rifkind : The countries of central and eastern Europe that have shown an interest in the European Union have already been admitted as associate partners to WEU, but I emphasise that that does not involve their participating in the security guarantees. That would be a much more fundamental reform, whether it would apply to WEU or to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and could only be part of a much more long-term consideration of their proper relationship with the countries of WEU.

Mr. Hardy : Does the Secretary of State accept that many of the eastern European countries that have become associated with WEU now believe that they have received a form of security guarantee which, he will accept, western Europe in its present condition could not deliver ? Does he accept that there has been some carelessness on the part of Ministers--not necessarily British alone--in accepting that arrangement without being able to provide any form of guarantee whatsoever ?

Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that there is no formal treaty guarantee. Having said that, of course we have an interest in the security and stability of all the new democracies of central and eastern Europe, including those that have become associate members of WEU. However, it is necessary to distinguish between a legitimate interest in their security and stability and formal treaty guarantees, which have not been provided.

Sir Donald Thompson : Does my right hon. and learned Friend think that the European Parliament would be of any use to WEU ?

Mr. Rifkind : It is clear that WEU is to provide the basis of closer European co-operation, because it is crucial that any such co-operation is complementary to our obligations to the Atlantic alliance and does not in any way undermine them. Therefore, we do not envisage a role for the European Parliament in that area.

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Bosnia --

8. Mr. Mullin : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what recent discussions he has had with his EC colleagues about the situation in Bosnia ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Hanley : My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence regularly meets ministerial colleagues from EU nations to discuss matters of mutual interest, including the situation in Bosnia.

Mr. Mullin : Can the Minister give an assurance that British and EEC troops will remain in Bosnia until there is a comprehensive settlement ? Is he satisfied that British troops in Bosnia have been receiving adequate back-up from the United Nations ? I am thinking of a couple of incidents last month--one in which Serb tanks were permitted to run through the Sarajevo exclusion zone and another in which the arms of British soldiers were confiscated and their commander was obliged by the Serbs to read out a humiliating statement.

Mr. Hanley : The hon. Gentleman points to two instances which we greatly regret. However, during my visit there last week, when I spent three days in Bosnia and on the Adriatic, I discovered that the position has changed dramatically for the better. There is now an almost comprehensive peace throughout the middle of Bosnia, the ceasefire between the Croats and the Bosnian Muslims is sticking and the cessation of hostilities along the confrontation line is managing to be sustained. There are occasional instances of firing, either of mortar or small arms, but the work that our troops are doing there is still extremely important and valuable. Due to their work, we have probably saved hundreds of thousands of lives in the time that we have been there. While decisions have still to be taken, we shall continue to do that good work for as long as necessary.

Mr. Cormack : Does my hon. Friend accept that if there has been an improvement--which we warmly welcome--it is because the Serbs at last believe that we mean to hold firm to our resolve to keep the safe areas safe ? Will he ensure that the Serbs are never again given the false signals that allowed them to bombard Gorazde ?

Mr. Hanley : I believe that an element of realism has broken out on all sides of the conflict. I hope that the relative peace that exists now will lead to a comprehensive peace. The only form of peace that we can have in the Balkans is one at a political level between politicians. We cannot enforce a military solution there, but we can do much to help in the meantime. I believe that my hon. Friend is right in his analysis.

Army --

9. Mr. Enright : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has to change the size of the British Army.

Mr. Rifkind : I intend to maintain and, where possible, enhance the planned fighting strength of the British Army.

Mr. Enright : Does the Secretary of State recall that the Select Committee on Defence described as scandalous the amount of support that existed for the Challenger 1 tank fleet ? Will the defence costs study make that even worse ?

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Mr. Rifkind : On the contrary--one purpose of the defence costs study is to ensure that we have the resources available so that the armoured strength of the Army, as well as the other services, can be accommodated in a proper and effective way, thereby enhancing the Army's fighting strength.

Mr. Butcher : Does my right hon. and learned Friend feel that the political situation in eastern and central Europe is more or less stable than it was five years ago ? If he shares my suspicion that there are trends in eastern and central Europe which may ultimately be dangerous to western Europe, what implications does he believe that will have for the size of the British Army in the future ?

Mr. Rifkind : Five years ago, there were several million Warsaw pact soldiers in the centre of Germany, just 48 hours away from the low countries and the English channel. Today, Russian troops are a thousand miles further east and the Warsaw pact no longer exists. Therefore, although my hon. Friend is right to remind us of the great instability, uncertainty and fragmentation in Europe, I believe that, overall, the threat to the peace of Europe is considerably less than it was five years ago.

Mr. Macdonald : Will the Secretary of State confirm the value to the royal artillery and the economy of the Western Isles of the testing and training range at Balivanish in the Hebrides ? Will he confirm that if he is seeking savings in the operation of that range, they can be found by contracting out work to civilian labour, while retaining the base and its contribution to the island economy ?

Mr. Rifkind : As the hon. Gentleman is aware, those matters are currently under review. I am acutely conscious of the contribution that the range makes to the local economy in Uist and Benbecula and I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern. We hope to bring to an end as soon as possible the uncertainty affecting the range and other comparable facilities.

Mr. Garnier : How do our plans for the British Army compare with those of the French Government for their army ?

Mr. Rifkind : I believe that in terms of their fighting strength the armies are comparable. The French army has a large conscript element, so its manpower is considerably greater than that of the British Army, which is entirely professional. I believe that the British Army's fighting capability remains, man for man, the best in the world.

Rosyth --

10. Mr. Salmond : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what further consideration he has given to the position of the Rosyth naval base ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Rifkind : Rosyth is designated as a base for minor war vessels and as the location for a number of other defence activities. These provide civilian local employment of around 1,300, as well as for Royal Navy uniformed personnel. The future of the royal naval base is being examined-- along with other naval bases and naval

infrastructure--as part of the "Front Line First" study. I expect to announce final proposals next month.

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Mr. Salmond : Everyone in Scotland is aware of why the Tory Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) wants to close Rosyth dockyard, but why should the Tory candidate for Monklands, East this morning say of the naval base that it was yesterday's installation unable to meet the demands of tomorrow ? Can we have some candour from the Secretary of State ? Has an effective decision been taken to close Rosyth naval base ? If it has not, why is the Secretary of State for Scotland clearly preparing politically for its closure instead of fighting for its survival ?

Mr. Rifkind : No decision has been taken on the closure of any defence facilities in the United Kingdom. As the hon. Member has been campaigning for years for the effective closure of the Faslane base on the Clyde, along with the thousands of jobs associated with Polaris and Trident, he is in danger of giving humbug a bad name.

Mr. Ian Bruce : If, sadly, the Government decide to close Rosyth as a naval base, will my right hon. and learned Friend revise the decision that was made after the last time the Government decided to save Rosyth-- they decided then to move operational sea training away from Portland-- particularly as I understand that the latest studies into the cost effectiveness of moving flag officers' sea training show that there are fewer savings available and more costs than were originally thought ?

Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend's question is, of course, speculative, but I should say to him and the House with regard not only to Rosyth naval base, but to all naval establishments and infrastructure, that the criterion that I shall apply--and it is the proper criterion--is the need of the Royal Navy to ensure its fighting capability in the years to come. The Royal Navy clearly needs to ensure that its resources are used to maximise its fighting strength ; whether in regard to bases or other facilities, that must be the criterion to apply.

Ms Rachel Squire : Does the Secretary of State agree that in 1991 commitments were made by the Government to a continuing and important role for Rosyth naval base for the defence of this country ? Does he also agree that only last year he announced that the rescue co-ordination centre for the whole of the United Kingdom would be RAF Pitreavie ? Will he today announce his commitment to a future for both Pitreavie and Rosyth ?

Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Lady is aware that the "Front Line First" study is considering these matters. As she knows, I cannot give her the conclusions today. Not only are we conscious of the important contribution that Scotland has made to the defence needs of the United Kingdom, but I have not the slightest doubt that Scotland will continue to make a crucial contribution to meeting the defence needs of the United Kingdom and providing the defence infrastructure for that purpose.

Mr. Oppenheim : Will my right hon. and learned Friend be less churlish and more warmly welcome Opposition Members' apparent conversion to the cause of strong defence, ignoring, of course, the irony that only a few years ago they were calling for 25 per cent. reductions in our defence and for chucking away the nuclear deterrent ? Is it not ironic that, now that the cold war is over, not least because capitalism has beaten socialism, they now think that we should be armed to the teeth ?

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Mr. Rifkind : Not only is my hon. Friend correct, but the defence review called for by the Opposition would lead not only to savage cuts in defence support, but make unsustainable the front line on which the effectiveness of our armed forces depends.

Mr. Menzies Campbell : Does not the closure of the Rosyth naval base raise a number of strategic issues of profound and irreversible importance ? Is not the likelihood that if the Rosyth base is closed it will never be reopened ? What evidence is there that the Government have conducted the strategic review with our NATO allies that is necessary in order to determine the consequences for our and their maritime defence if the base is closed ?

Mr. Rifkind : The hon. and learned Gentleman can assume that, in giving the Government advice, the Royal Navy has first addressed the question of its strategic requirements with regard to the use of naval power. That, of course, must be the first question to be asked and it is indeed the way in which the Royal Navy has approached these matters.

Dr. Reid : When the Secretary of State tells us that no decision has been made about Rosyth, no one in Rosyth, in Scotland or in the House believes him. If he wishes to prove that he is correct, will he today give us the categorical assurance that he refused to give at our last Defence Question Time and promise the House that all the figures for the costing of naval support will be placed before, and debated in, the House before a decision to close any base--including Rosyth--is made ? If the Secretary of State cannot give us that categorical assurance today, it will not only be another betrayal of the people of Scotland but an open admission that he is not in charge of the review process and that the commander-in-chief of cuts is the First Lord of the Treasury.

Mr. Rifkind : As the First Lord of the Treasury is the Prime Minister, it is not unreasonable for him to have some influence on these matters.

The hon. Gentleman's empty rhetoric is not relevant to the issues that we are discussing. He can assume that any decisions that are reached in regard to any defence establishment in the United Kingdom will be accompanied by proper consultation, and a proper explanation of the basis on which those decisions have been reached.

Iraq --

11. Mr. Dalyell : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is the latest assessment of aerial photographs taken by Tornado aircraft since 23 March over the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates ; and what action he has taken since the visit of the hon. Member for Linlithgow to meet officials at his request in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 23 March.

Mr. Hanley : We continue to take aerial photography of southern Iraq. This shows widespread drying out of the marshes, the diversion and drying out of the River Euphrates and the burning of villages and reed beds.

Mr. Dalyell : How do the interpreters know that the burning that is taking place is any different from the burning that has been carried out by the madan for at least 5,000 years, for hygiene reasons ? I found the Ministry's interpreters profoundly unconvincing.

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Mr. Hanley : I know that the hon. Gentleman believes that the burning of roofs and buildings that we have seen is the result of attempts to cure local health problems. The extent of those health problems must be massive. I know that he also believes that the draining of the River Euphrates is nothing more than an agricultural project ; if that is so, it is a massive agricultural project. I can only say that honest, independent people have concluded from the evidence that these are the actions of the Iraqi Government, who are deliberately trying to harm the Shia marsh Arabs.

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