Lords ] Read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.
Read a Second time, and referred to the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills.
Ms Eagle : I thank the Minister for that surprising response. Given the money and effort that the Clinton Administration are putting into defence diversification in America, and given that last week's announcement meant the loss of 18,500 more jobs in defence-related industries in this country, why on earth will the Government not consider setting up a proper defence diversification agency to deal with some of the issues ?
Mr. Aitken : I know that the idea of a defence diversification agency is the one and only policy that unites the entire Labour party. Labour puts the diversification agency first ; we put the front line first.
However, the hon. Lady's bright idea is not very workable or sensible. For a start, such a study would really be a non-examination of non-strategies. No European NATO state has a defence diversification policy, for the simple reason that our partners believe--as we do--that such a policy is best decided on by industry, rather than Government trying to make decisions that are really the province of business.
As for the American experience, it has been much criticised. It covers a number of areas that are already covered by Government Departments in this country, such as resettlement for all service men. The Wall Street Journal recently described the American diversification policy as "unblemished by success".
Mr. Wilkinson : Does my hon. Friend recall that the Minister for Industry obtained European Commission approval for intervention funding for the naval shipbuilders Swan Hunter for the construction of merchant vessels ? In that context, will my hon. Friend take heart from the willingness of the owner of Constructions Mecaniques de Normandie in another NATO country- -France--to invest in Swan Hunter if Her Majesty's Government will place the order for the refitting of the landing-ship logistics potential of the Sir Bedivere with Swan Hunter ? Is not this a case of another NATO country's investment making unnecessary diversification funding ?
Mr. Aitken : We have made it clear that foreign ownership is no bar to the future ownership of Swan Hunter. As for my hon. Friend's question about funding in general, that is properly the province of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry, who has been extremely effective and sympathetic in trying to work out a policy for this difficult subject.
Dr. David Clark : Does the Minister feel no conscience at all about the tens of thousands of defence workers whom he sacked last week ? Why does he refuse to contemplate establishing a defence diversification agency as part of a diversification strategy that would provide packages of assistance for the downsized defence communities, and also help the defence industry to diversify its technology and skill in the civil market ? The United States has done it ; the European Community has done it ; why will not the British Government do it ?
Mr. Aitken : The British Government have done something rather better. The hon. Gentleman must have been asleep lately. The question relates to defence diversification for industry, and if the hon. Gentleman had been awake he would have noticed that "Front Line First" announced either orders or invitations to tender that are worth more than £5 billion to British industry and that will underpin or create some 10,000 jobs in our defence industries. It is absurd for the hon. Gentleman to adopt a whingeing, carping tone when he should be welcoming the statement.
Mr. John Marshall : Does my hon. Friend agree that those who call for a defence diversification agency have learnt nothing from the 1970s when Governments were unsuccessful at picking winners but adept at spending hundreds of millions of pound in trying to do so ?
Mr. Aitken : My hon. Friend is quite right. The Labour party has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. It wants to take us back to the old days of clause 4 ideology, of looking after the means of production, distribution and exchange and back to the National Enterprise Board and quangos, all of them doing jobs much better done by industry itself.
Column 161remains no clinical evidence that those who served in the British armed forces in the Gulf conflict are suffering from unexplained symptoms that would call for such an inquiry.
Mr. Campbell : If the Americans have discovered that there is such a disease and are paying compensation to their armed forces, should not we be paying ours and taking a serious look at the problems facing them ? Or is it the case that when there is a war, we wave the union flag and tell our lads how good they are before they go abroad to fight and call them heroes, but turn our back on them when they need our help ? It is always the same with this Government and they have been 50-faced on this issue--let us pay our lads now.
Mr. Hanley : Two points need to be made in answer to that question. First, in July last year I invited anyone who believed that he was suffering from the syndrome to which the hon. Gentleman referred to come forward. In the whole of last year, 52 people came forward, of whom 27 have now seen medical examiners--their general
practitioners--and 17 have been found to be suffering from recognised health conditions, none of them peculiar to their service in the Gulf. Solicitors have also put forward the names of some 300 further people, but we have not been given details about them and they have not submitted themselves to medical examination. We are, therefore, trying to do all that we can to ascertain whether their illnesses have been caused by anything that happened in the Gulf, but, at the moment, the evidence is to the contrary.
Secondly, on the American evidence, I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is taking the words of Back Benchers--be they Senators or Congressmen--and making them into a claim by the Pentagon. There is absolutely no evidence from the United States that there is a "syndrome", and there is certainly no scientific or medical evidence of chemical or biological warfare being deployed against us, on any level.
Mr. Fabricant : Is not it the case that the shells that have been accused of causing the syndrome are made of depleted heavy metals with a lower atomic number than the normal isotope ? Would not anyone with an A- level or even an O-level in physics know that there is less radioactivity in such shells than in the luminous dial of an average watch ?
Mr. Hanley : My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that one of the possible causes of any so-called Gulf war syndrome was depleted uranium shells and that the toxicity of depleted uranium is similar to that of lead.
Rev. Martin Smyth : Does the Minister agree that there may be a case for an investigation, not necessarily into what happened to British troops in the Gulf but into pre-medication against possible poison gas attacks ? Is not there something that we could learn for the future ?
Mr. Hanley : The hon. Gentleman is right to say that yet another suspected cause of a possible syndrome were the injections given to our troops before they left. It has all been investigated carefully, and the Surgeon General recently wrote to the British Medical Journal to say that there was absolutely no evidence of any cause from the source to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind) : Measured by volume, United Kingdom companies have been awarded 90 per cent. of the direct contracts placed by the Department during the past 12 months.
Mr. Spring : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of how welcome the defence orders announcements have been in my constituency, where already Graseby Microsystems is supplying electronic equipment for Challenger tanks and Vinten is supplying reconnaissance pods for the Royal Air Force ? Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that they are immense technological spin-offs, wholly beneficial to British industry overall, and a result of our defence industry activities ?
Mr. Rifkind : Yes, my hon. Friend is quite right. Indeed, far from the defence industries having taken for granted those announcements, they were extremely relieved to hear that the success of the "Front Line First" study had enabled us to confirm those orders, thereby securing up to 10,000 jobs and £5 billion worth of investment in those industries.
Mr. Menzies Campbell : In the course of his extensive statement last week, the Secretary of State referred to a number of procurement programmes, but made no reference to the Hercules replacement programme, to the attack helicopter or, indeed, the support helicopter, all of which, in their own way, are important to British companies. Can he confirm that those are still in the long-term costing ? Will he tell us why they were not referred to last week ? When may we expect decisions in respect of all three ?
Mr. Rifkind : I can confirm that all three are still in the programme. They were not referred to last Thursday because we had nothing new to say on those matters. We are considering the various tenders or continuing the contractual negotiations on the support and attack helicopters and we shall report to the House as soon as those are concluded. We are assessing the short-term requirements of transport aircraft in view of the age of the current Hercules fleet.
Mr. Bill Walker : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the most important thing of all is to buy the right equipment for our service men ? As his answer shows, British industries are manufacturing the right equipment. However, there is also the question of mid-life updates and refits. For example, the Tornado GR1 refit is on order, which is a massive investment. There is also the question of the C-130J aircraft in which there is human British input.
Mr. Rifkind : That is indeed the case and we are anxious to ensure that United Kingdom defence industries, which are second to none in the world, as their export achievements demonstrate, should continue to have a strong home base to ensure that they can make the maximum contribution to the national interest.
Mr. Nicholas Brown : The Secretary of State will be aware that the Swan Hunter shipyard went into receivership more than a year ago. He will be aware of the heroic struggle for survival by the shipyard workers on Tyneside. He will be aware that that struggle will have cumulated after his decision to procure the Sir Bedivere at Swan Hunter or elsewhere. Is he now able to tell the House where the Sir Bedivere will be procured ?
Mr. Gallie : Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the defence White Paper "Front Line First" offers a great opportunity for the civilian sector to get involved with basic pilot training ? Is he aware of the excellent facilities at Prestwick, with the British Aerospace flying college ?
Mr. Rifkind : There are indeed good opportunities for the private sector, including those at Prestwick. I also draw attention to the increased opportunities for local employment in Benbecula following the decision to retain the range and the likely increase of contractorisation there and elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
Mr. Martlew : Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Ministry of Defence has approached the United States Government with regard to the possibility of purchasing an American aircraft as an alternative to the Eurofighter 2000 ?
Mr. Rifkind : No, I will not confirm it because it is not true. As with the procurement of any large project, before coming to a final decision on production, we wish to be aware of the available alternatives. I must emphasise that Eurofighter remains the firm commitment of the British Government to meet the needs of the Royal Air Force in the next century.
Mr. Nigel Evans : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that many of my constituents who work at British Aerospace were delighted by last week's announcement of the mid-life update of Tornado aircraft ? They will also be made happier by the commitment that my right hon. and learned Friend has just given on Eurofighter 2000. They would be ecstatic if they were also given the opportunity to work on the replacement for the Hercules, if that large aircraft were given an opportunity to compete with the C-130J in future.
Mr. Rifkind : Ecstasy is not normally at the disposal of the Ministry of Defence. Even if we cannot provide ecstasy, we will certainly do our best to come to a sensible and wise decision about the matter that my hon. Friend raised.
Mrs. Roche : Does the Minister agree that our ex-service men and women deserve the very best possible treatment ? Will he, therefore, pledge, as the Labour party has done, actively to consider setting up a special unit in the Ministry of Defence to look after their special needs ?
Mr. Hanley : On the face of it, the idea is an attractive and intriguing suggestion, but it does not stand up to closer inspection. The reason is that we have the best health service in the world, the most comprehensive social security service in the world and fully comprehensive housing assistance. There is, therefore, no reason why any veteran should not find the answer to his or her problems. If there are deficiencies in any Department, veterans can discuss with Ministers ways in which to try to find solutions to them. Indeed, a number of Departments regularly talk to veterans. The Department of Social Security, for example, primarily has responsibility for war pensions. My noble Friend, Lord Astor, the Under- Secretary of State for Social Security, regularly meets representatives of the veterans' associations.
Mr. Gale : Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to remind the House of the impressive percentage of men and women leaving the armed services who then secure worthwhile and rewarding employment in other walks of life ? Does he agree that the training, loyalty and discipline provided by the armed services are an extremely good base for further and future careers ? Is not it a fact that entry to the armed services qualifies people not only for a rewarding career in the forces, but for a career thereafter ?
Mr. Hanley : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He does a service to the House in reminding us all that the United Kingdom's defence forces are the best-trained work force in the United Kingdom. He also makes a good point when he says that many of those leaving the armed forces go into work quickly. The statistics are that 55 per cent. of those leaving the forces walk straight into a job and that 80 per cent. are employed within two months of leaving the armed forces. There is no doubt that being in the armed forces prepares one not only for defending the United Kingdom but for any other job, should one want to take it up.
Mr. Redmond : The Minister must be aware that with the closure of RAF Finningley, he will create much unemployment in Doncaster, especially among service personnel. Which Departments has he met to discuss the impact on unemployment of the closure of RAF Finningley ? What steps does he intend to take to ensure that the RAF personnel there get a square deal ?
Mr. Hanley : The closure is subject to consultation, and the consultation period of three months has now begun. We will willingly discuss with the unions and local people anything to do with the future of those who work at RAF Finningley. The hon. Gentleman will remember that, only a few weeks ago, I received a delegation including him, local council representatives and local developers when we discussed what plans there might be if the site became available. The hon. Gentleman is being most constructive in trying to help the local community to come to terms with that closure.
Mr. Rifkind : Planning is in hand to enable the 1st battalion of the Duke of Wellington's regiment to be replaced when its tour in Bosnia expires in September. Whether the replacement will go ahead will depend on the situation on the ground nearer the time and on prospects for an overall peace settlement. We will keep those matters under close review in the coming weeks.
Mr. Arnold : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the performance of Her Majesty's forces in Bosnia is very much to their credit and to the credit of this country, and that they are worthy of our permanent membership of the Security Council of the United Nations, of our role as an active member of NATO and of our role as a member of the contact group ? Will my right hon. and learned Friend note that the British Government will have the continuing support of the public and of the House if they give the highest priority to the safety of our service men ?
Mr. Rifkind : I thank my hon. Friend. There is no doubt that the UN sees the British forces as being among the most experienced, well-trained and committed of all those serving in Bosnia. We welcome that recognition, and we also recognise the important point that my hon. Friend made when he emphasised the paramount need to ensure the safety of our forces operating in the former Yugoslavia.
Mr. Gapes : Given the remarks made by General Sir Michael Rose yesterday that if the 18,000 troops who are currently in Bosnia were withdrawn, they would have to be replaced by up to 50,000 combat troops, how many troops from this country do we have on standby ready to send in ? What commitments does the Secretary of State have from the United States Government that they would support such an action, given that it is their proposal to lift the arms embargo that would precipitate it ?
Mr. Rifkind : General Rose did not suggest, nor would the Government approve, the sending of British forces to Bosnia in a combat role. We have made it quite clear from the very beginning that there is no question of such a deployment.
Mr. Aitken : The overall performance of private contractors in carrying out maintenance work for the RAF is good. Only in a very small number of cases has quality fallen short of that required. In those rare cases, we seek either redress or rectification under the terms of the contract.
civilianisation of maintenance at RAF St. Athan when, last year, damage was done to Tornado aircraft which led to the loss of millions of pounds to the taxpayer ? There is also deep unease among the 1,800 personnel at RAF Sealand in
Column 166my constituency at the likely pace of market testing and civilianisation. Can the Minister assure me that there will be no compulsory redundancies at RAF Sealand ?
Mr. Aitken : I am a little surprised by the hon. Gentleman's emphasis on the great concern felt there, because not only are RAF workers doing maintenance jobs in his constituency but--as he often comes and tells me when he lobbies--a number of British Aerospace workers, whose skill he praises, are also employed there. We believe that there is no contradiction in the Government's policy of having some of our aircraft maintenance done by uniformed personnel and some by well-trained civilian personnel, such as the British Aerospace workers in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. It is true that we are increasing the market testing programme, and we do not think that the isolated and regrettable episode that he described in any way suggests that the whole policy is wrong.
Mr. Hardy : Is not it the case that private contractors do not always provide the best buy, as was demonstrated not long ago at RAF Sealand ? Will the Minister comment on the fact that some private contractors appear not to reinvest at all in training, and that they rely entirely on the recruitment of ex-service men who have skills learned in the services ? As that pool dries up, will not the taxpayer find himself with a larger bill to pay for the training that some companies are failing to provide ?
Mr. Aitken : We believe that there is an ample and adequate supply of skilled civilian aerospace workers to carry an increased share of RAF maintenance. We believe that it is right in terms of quality, and that it is also in the interests of the taxpayer. The hon. Gentleman has expressed concerns on behalf of RAF personnel many times, but, as "Front Line First" makes clear, we are determined to maintain an in-house capability for the maintenance and repair of RAF planes by RAF uniformed personnel.
Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of stability. Last Thursday, we showed the Government's determination to preserve the fighting strength of our armed forces and to proceed with a programme of investment to maintain and enhance their operational effectiveness.
Mr. Robathan : I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his response. [Hon. Members :-- "Take your hands out of your pockets."] That is from a party that claims to support the disabled, as I am at the moment.
My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the very real concern in the armed forces that there should be
Column 167a period of stability henceforth. He will also know that many of his efficiency savings in the announcement last Thursday were welcomed by all who wish to see better armed forces. Does he accept that most Conservative Members will support him in any further determination to increase efficiency, but that they would also want defence expenditure to be maintained at its present level ?
Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the continuing need to achieve greater efficiency and that we should ensure that any changes we make do not act to the detriment of the fighting strength of our armed forces.
Mr. Salmond : On the subject of numbers, is the Secretary of State aware of the phrase, "There are lies, damned lies and statistics ?" In which category would he place his Department's estimate of 1,500 job losses in Scotland as a result of his review, when that total excludes the 800 jobs that are being transferred from Rosyth to Portsmouth ? Would he care to revise the figures that he and the Secretary of State for Scotland are peddling for defence job losses in Scotland ?
Mr. Rifkind : I certainly do not see any need to revise the figures, but I remind the hon. Gentleman of two things. First, several weeks ago he was pontificating about 8,000 job losses in Scotland as a result of any announcement that the Government might make--he is now looking rather foolish. Secondly, as he goes around Scotland promising that the Rosyth naval base would be safeguarded in an independent Scotland, he conveniently forgets to point out that in the same independent Scotland he would close the Faslane base, which would mean at least 4,000 job losses in the west of Scotland.
Mr. Anthony Coombs : In recognising the important contribution that the Territorial Army makes to our defence capabilities, will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that "Front Line First" ensures that the numbers in the TA will be maintained during the next few years ? Is he aware that in October the new headquarters of the Territorial Army will be opened in my constituency ? That is evidence of the sort of investment that the Government are making in that important portion of our armed forces.
Mr. Rifkind : Yes, the present formed unit strength of the Territorial Army is 59,000 and it is to remain at that strength. We plan an expanded role for the TA, as the pilot scheme that is being carried out in the Falkland islands clearly demonstrates.
Mr. Hutton : Can the Secretary of State confirm that the important contract to design and build a replacement for the Swiftsure class--the batch 2 programme--is now subject to a delay in excess of two years from the timetable that the Government originally announced ? Can he tell my constituents and me, therefore, what measures he has in mind to minimise the adverse employment consequences that that delay will mean for my constituents ?
Mr. Rifkind : As the hon. Gentleman will be well aware, we announced a substantial number of naval orders. The company in his constituency can tender for any of those orders to which it feels able to respond, and it will be in exactly the same position as all other yards.
Mr. Luff : I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend understands the strength of feeling that exists among all our constituents about the appalling humanitarian crisis in Rwanda. Does he also understand that, against the background of the many demands on British forces around the world, there is general support for the view that Francophone countries should take prime responsibility for the situation in Rwanda ? Can he assure the House that any requests for specialist miliary assistance that may be forthcoming will be looked on as sympathetically as possible, as was implied in his answer ?
Mr. Rifkind : Yes, naturally we would do so because we understand the scale of the human tragedy that is unfolding in Rwanda. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development has committed more than £11 million bilaterally to help in Rwanda since the crisis began. Relief flights are being sent, containing vehicles, personnel, blankets, plastic sheeting and water carriers. Following yesterday's mortar attack, the closure of Goma airport is delaying their arrival, but flights are being pre-positioned in the region and will fly on to Goma as soon as possible to minimise the delay in delivering those essential supplies.
Mr. Foulkes : If we can send a task force to rescue the Falklands and mobilise huge efforts for the Gulf, surely the British Government can pull out all the stops for the dreadful tragedy that is taking place in Rwanda. Cannot the Secretary of State get together with the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers and make every possible effort to save the millions of people whose lives are threatened in that appalling tragedy ?
Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman would be the first to appreciate that the problem is a humanitarian one requiring a humanitarian response. I have just reported to the House on the steps that are being taken by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development and I am sure that the United Kingdom can hold its head high for the contribution that it is making in helping to minimise the dreadful suffering in Rwanda.
Mr. Winterton : Although I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his reply, it adds little to what we know already. Does not he accept that the royal yacht Britannia is a floating trade ambassador for the United Kingdom ? It brings immense status to the UK wherever it goes and it
Column 169brings great wealth to the economy of our country. Is not it important that the royal yacht Britannia is either completely refurbished and upgraded, or that a new royal yacht is produced for this country ? It is worth every penny that we spend on it.
Mr. Hanley : I agree with my hon. Friend's description of the royal yacht, but even he must recognise that it is now a very aged craft and that it would cost about £17 million to refit, which would extend its life by about only five years. I remind my hon. Friend that the royal yacht has a crew of 220 and that the crew even of a type 23 frigate is some 40 fewer. The costs involved, therefore, must be carefully considered. The royal yacht's trade promotion activities are a matter for the Department of Trade and Industry and they are without dispute. Her Majesty's foreign travel needs are a matter for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. This is an important matter and must be carefully considered in the months ahead.
Mr. Mandelson : Does the Minister recall my letter to his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence suggesting that the royal yacht Britannia should receive a comfortable and dignified retirement as befits her age in the new maritime heritage centre and marina at Hartlepool ? Is he aware that I have discussed the matter personally with Her Majesty the Queen who has expressed her interest in that ? Will the Minister confirm
Mr. Mandelson : Is the Minister aware that Her Majesty's private secretary has graciously given me permission to disclose that information ? Will the Government, therefore, confirm that they will consider the option most positively ?
Mr. Clifton-Brown : Bearing in mind the importance of the royal yacht Britannia to our trade promotion prospects, will my hon. Friend redouble his efforts in his discussion with his hon. Friends in the Department of Trade and Industry to see whether some private finance from firms that are likely to benefit from exports could be brought in so that a new royal yacht Britannia could be commissioned ?
Mr. Hanley : I can say to my hon. Friend only that that is one of the matters that will be considered. The trade promotion activities of the royal yacht Britannia have been second to none. She has earned billions of pounds of contracts in travelling around the world and we must not lose sight of that. Exactly what the relevance is, however, to Her Majesty's transport needs around the world is a different subject.