Mr. Mans: Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the past, when attempts have been made to shoe-box units into larger units, whereas the actual costs of the move can be worked out in comparison to what would happen if they remained where they were, the estimated costs of what would happen when they were moved to the new base are normally under-estimated and, indeed, in the long run, there is not a saving at all?
Mr. Bruce: That is partially true, but my hon. Friend is being rather too kind to the Government, or perhaps I am being unfair to the Government. Perhaps I should say that we are too kind to the MOD about the estimates that it gives to Ministers, because invariably rebuilding costs are roughly double those in any estimates. The financial overrun on the rebuilding of the MOD's main building is
Column 102equivalent to all the money that will be saved within the next 20 years by moving facilities out of my constituency. We must look carefully at what is happening.
All too often, we have been told that a stand-alone air station at Portland would be too small. It was not always a stand-alone station because it used to have a naval base next to it, but such is the logic that the MOD applies. We may be told that the tiny air station at Portland cannot stand alone, but that "tiny" air station employs 1,600 people. If those 1,600 people cannot cope as a stand-alone unit, there is no hope for any air station or air base.
If one uses the MOD's logic, one would end up putting all the MOD office blocks and all the facilities for air stations somewhere in the middle of the country--no doubt we would have to dig a canal as well to fit in all the ships--behind the same perimeter fence in order to save money. If one can save money by reducing staffing costs from £33 million to £20 million, the same savings should be made on everything.
A lot of time should be spent studying the proposal to close the air station. After all, we have five years before the plan is supposed to be put into operation, so I hope that the Minister can assure me that the proposal will be considered in great detail. We have lots of Portland stone down on Portland and very nice places for statues. I can think of nothing better than erecting a statue of the Minister of State for the Armed Forces to commemorate him as the man who saved the naval air station in Portland by looking to save money for the Navy rather than spending it.
Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley): I appreciate the importance of this debate on the defence estimates and their importance to the nation. We spend £23.5 billion on defence and the nation would not be happy if we did not spend that money wisely. I was a little depressed by one or two hon. Members who seemed to boast about how much more we spend on defence in comparison with other countries, because we should spend just the adequate amount to do the job. We should remind ourselves that whatever we spend on defence means that less is spent on education, housing, pensions and other services that enhance the general quality of life. We must therefore spend money on defence wisely and efficiently.
It is my firm belief that when we spend money on defence we should, wherever possible, spend it on our own industries. I get depressed when I hear about defence contracts going abroad, particularly when they could easily be awarded in Britain. That would naturally improve our balance of payments.
We all recognise that, in a changing world, it is inevitable and only right that spending on defence should be reduced. My only criticism, as I have said before, is that I do not believe that we have been earnest enough about diversification. If we used our talents wisely, there would be numerous spin-offs. Let us remind ourselves that we have skilled people who are already trained and who have already cost the nation a fantastic amount of money. I fervently believe that the Government should give those people a higher priority.
I share the sadness of my colleagues who have described the downturn in the shipyards. What has happened to our northern shipyards is an utter disgrace.
Column 103They do not deserve such treatment, not least because the Government's actions do not match the philosophy that is supposed to guide their proposed changes in defence spending. Ministers boast about the motivation and quality of our work force, but I find it baffling that we do not win orders against competitors. As a result of some of the shipyard closures, some of our highly skilled ship designers have transferred to foreign yards to complete work. I am a member of the Select Committee on Employment and a few months ago I visited Finland. It is not a large country and it has a population of between 7 million and 8 million. When we visited the Helsinki shipyard it was bustling along with plenty of orders for naval work, foreign work and cruise ships. Even that very week those at the shipyard informed us that it had completed a 70,000-tonne vessel, worth $300 million, which was to sail out to America seven days later. I cannot understand how a small country like Finland can win such orders when our country, with its highly skilled and motivated work force, about whom the Government like to boast, cannot. I shall let that matter ride as the evidence is there for all to see.
There is talk about the possible replacement of the Hercules transport plane. That would be the last major contract for the aerospace industry in Britain. The Minister will be aware that I have tabled an early-day motion about the matter. In the three weeks before the summer break, 160 hon. Members from all parties supported the thrust of my early-day motion which calls for support for the future large aircraft to be placed with British industry. I am grateful for the two very good letters that I received from Ministers over the recess. However, just before the recess, I tabled a parliamentary question asking how many civil servants had travelled to Lockheed in America this year, and I am still waiting for a reply. I thought that I would receive a reply to that question within a few days, but I have not been told how many civil servants have travelled to America to talk to Lockheed about the contract in which I am very interested on behalf of British industry. After my comments today, and three months after I tabled that question, I might receive an answer in the next two or three days. However, this smells a little and I feel uncomfortable. Anyone would feel uncomfortable if they had received such treatment.
I am not criticising Lockheed and the Americans for their endeavours and the enthusiasm that they will exert to secure the contract. I recognise the validity and the importance that they place on securing a contract which is worth £12.5 billion. A Conservative Member said earlier that he went to Boeing to look at helicopters. I understand why he was invited to see helicopters at Boeing. It costs American firms who are in competition with us petty cash to invite Members of Parliament or civil servants to their companies. We should ask why those American firms are doing that. Why are the Americans so enthusiastic? I recognise their enthusiasm, but we must be aware of what is happening to our industries in respect of which we hear stories of closures and massive job losses.
The FLA will be the prize. Some 7,500 jobs are involved. If people lose their jobs, and it costs £9,000 per person a year in unemployment pay, that is a big payroll
Column 104which must be met by the Department of Social Security. In its big sell, Lockheed is claiming that 3,000 jobs will be created in Britain if it gets the contract. That is questionable. However, it is clear that if Lockheed wins the contract, there will be no Rolls-Royce engines.
Mr. Hargreaves: Does not the hon. Gentleman recognise that the engine management systems will be made in this country by Lucas Aerospace in my constituency and that that will secure employment for probably 1,700 people?
Mr. Eastham: I am thrilled for the hon. Gentleman. There may be some 1,700 jobs in his area, but many thousands of people in other areas will not get jobs because of it. We must remember that. It is obvious that the engines and the major part of the fuselages will not be built in Britain. I must remind the House that when we decided to discontinue Nimrod some years ago, we opted for AWACS--the airborne warning and communication system. When the Americans obtained that contract, we heard many assurances. We were told that there would be spin-off jobs if the Americans obtained the contract. My inquiries revealed that very few jobs were secured as a result of the AWACS contract going to America. I prophesy that the same will happen again. I understand the enthusiasm, as I have said. I just wish that there was such enthusiasm among our industrialists and the Government to make sure that we can compete on a level playing field.
Only six weeks ago, we saw great dishonesty with regard to Lockheed. There was talk about money and bribes being offered to other nationals to secure work. That is not on when it comes to honest competition. We have to be extremely cautious about how we conduct business.
The hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) said that the Government were doing this, that and the other with regard to training, as though that were enough to solve the diversification problem. We have got it wrong; we should spend far more money--real money. Only two months ago, the Germans put aside 1.2 billion deutschmarks for aerospace research and development. That is the amount that we should spend. If we want to diversify, it is no good simply saying that we want to train some aero fitters and turners. The Government have to put up money for research so that we can secure contracts and develop modern technology to enable us to be highly competitive.
We must face the fact that the future large aircraft is the big one for our aerospace industry. Obviously, if we do not join the European countries that were involved in, say, the Airbus, the Germans and French will not buy a Lockheed; they will go it alone. We could combine with the Germans and the French, as we did with the Airbus, and provide a successful future for us all. We cannot stand in isolation in Europe. We must recognise the importance of a European partnership. This is an ideal one for us.
I have said before that one of our major problems is that we do not have a planning strategy. I remind the House that we no longer have a major British-owned car industry, major shipbuilders or a major computer industry. It is possible that by 2010 we will no longer have a major aerospace industry.
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Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South): Parliament's job, as we are constantly reminded, is not to run the country but to scrutinise those who do and to call them to account for what they do. Control of the budget, through votes such as the one on the defence estimates, is the mechanism by which we, as the elected representatives of our constituencies, can exercise that power. Tonight, the House must weigh up the balance of a package of good things and bad in assessing the impact of the "Front Line First" study, upon which the defence estimates are constructed.
On the one hand, of course, the study provides for some very good things, such as the replacement amphibious ships for Intrepid and Fearless and for the new helicopter assault ship, and the Trafalgar class submarines and the four new type 23s. People in Newcastle and Leeds will be much pleased by the order for 259 Challenger 2 tanks. On the other hand, however, as the Ministry of Defence admits, by the year 2000, 18,700 people will lose their jobs as a result of "Front Line First". That is more like 22,000 when one takes into account the number of temporary and part-time contracts. In my constituency, the Ministry of Defence forecasts 348 job losses at a depot where 570 people work at present. The forecast is based on complete closure, so the figure should be inflated.
It is less than one year since the defence costs studies were put in hand by the Secretary of State. The question therefore is whether the "Front Line First" study came first. After all, before that study, there was "Options For Change" in 1990, which reduced the number in the front line. It reduced the number of frigates from 44 to 35, the number of conventional submarines from 10 to nil and the number of mine counter-measures ships from 38 to 24. The number of infantry battalions was slashed painfully from 55 to 40, and manpower in the armed forces was reduced overall by 18 per cent.
If, as I have been told privately by Ministers, some 70 per cent. of naval spares are never used, why was not that area exposed first for cost savings, rather than coming to light only when the most stringent reductions are forced on the Royal Navy? I will happily give way to one of my hon. Friends on the Front Bench if they will answer that question.
I must say immediately that I am a great supporter of the Royal Navy. Its great strength is that it can be poised on the verge of conflict, as well as committed, and can cover its withdrawal. It is an efficient, flexible and effective arm of diplomacy. I want the Navy to have the best equipment and a fleet size that makes it a serious player in international relationships. I welcome therefore the new ships and missiles that have been announced as part of the package.
To go with that, my constituents and I want the Navy to have the best back- up, and that is where we part company with what the Government are seeking to do by asking us to endorse "Front Line First". In Stockton, South we have the most advanced Royal Navy spares depot in the country. It was purpose-built in 1949 to hold the national stockpile of marine engineering equipment. It is in Eaglescliffe because it is halfway between Rosyth and the south coast ports, and it is close to the main engineering parts suppliers in the north of England. To
Column 106quote from the consultation document, which was finally sent to us five weeks into the 12-week consultation period,
"it has been concluded that this role could in future be provided at lower cost by means of limited localised stock holdings adjacent to the waterfront."
The four-page document does not set out how that conclusion was reached; nor does it consider any of Eaglescliffe's particular merits as a leading contender for the central stockholding facility envisaged by the study. As the Select Committee on Defence recently found,
"there is continuing concern about the proposed changes in naval stores, and we intend to take oral evidence on the subject in the near future."
Likewise, the four-page document makes no mention whatever of the operational requirements of the Royal Navy; it simply notes a possible saving of £50 million over the next 10 years. To put it in context, that is one-sixteenth of the £800 million overspend on the Trident base at Faslane--a 72 per cent. cost overrun. That shows the efficiency of some people with regard to organising budgets. Let us examine the position a little more carefully. The loyalty of the civilian staff at Eaglescliffe to the Navy is unquestionable. They have the lowest recruitment and retention problems in the MOD. They were praised for their unstinting efforts during the Falklands and Gulf campaigns. The depot is not a collection of old sheds, as at some other spares depots. The stores have recently been completely refurbished at a cost of nearly £5 million. The depot has a purpose-built, air-conditioned computer suite, from which the computers have now been taken away and put in a 1960s prefabricated hut at Endsleigh. It has a new office block. It has a new gatehouse and new gatehouse entrance. It has a new surgery. Recently, improvements have been made to the boilerhouse. It has a new RIDELS and REDAC computer network in all the offices. It has new information technology furniture. It also has recently set up a highly successful and dedicated market testing preparation team.
So when the trade unions asked management what the costs of all these things were in April, the Ministry of Defence sent a one-line letter declining to answer them. When the management were pressed during the consultation period, they finally came out with several figures which added up to £6.7 million. Similarly, when Stockton borough council wrote to all Navy captains asking them for their opinion on the quality of the service offered by Eaglescliffe in my constituency, an order was sent from the Navy command to those captains saying that their answers should be "polite but non-committal".
Similarly, the four-side consultation document does not explain how the Navy's spares are collected and delivered, their usage rate, the percentage that are used at the base port or the average length of time spent in the base ports by our ships. Devonport, which has already received a mention from my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, South-East (Mr. Hicks), home of half the surface fleet and the refit centre for Trident submarines, is having its Navy spares depot reduced in size. That seems rather at odds with the general thrust of the study as a whole. Portsmouth becomes the new central depot, although it will not be a refit centre.
As we know, Rosyth has been promised half the refit work. All the submarine refits will take place at Devonport and the rest will go to private yards. How long
Column 107do these ships spend in the base port these days? When I did my secondment to the Royal Navy with the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I found that ships' commitments had increased so substantially that crews were being trickle-posted to them on deployment along with spares. Under the harmony objectives, at least 40 per cent. of time should be spent at the base port. Yet between May 1992 and March 1995, the Defence Select Committee has found that several ships have breached the harmony principles in more than one category. HMS Invincible, for instance, has breached all three categories. Five other ships--Active, Chatham, Newcastle, Campbeltown and Cardiff--are also known to have breached the principles. The Defence Select Committee commented:
"It is a shocking comment on the extent to which the Navy's resources are stretched that even the Navy's relatively unambitious welfare targets are being constantly breached."
So what is the position? Crews and spares are being sent out all over the world on deployment, as I discovered when I visited HMS Cumberland and found it picking up spares at Tampa Bay in Florida. Therefore, the spares are being freighted, presumably from Brize Norton but also commercially from Teesside airport, to pick-up points around the globe. Ships are spending so little time in base ports that even the First Sea Lord is complaining about the number of commitments for Navy ships.
Why, then, should Portsmouth be any better than Eaglescliffe as the national stockpile of marine spares? Eaglescliffe has better air, road and rail links and a proven track record as a centre of excellence. It has achieved BS5750--the only depot to do so--in its packaging facility. It has been praised by the National Audit Office--the only depot to be so--for saving the Navy money. My constituents contend that it would be crazy and far from cost-effective to break up this centre of excellence, the best depot in the Navy, and move it to Portsmouth.
In his introduction to "Front Line First", the Secretary of State says that one of his two objectives is to
"spend every pound as efficiently as possible to minimise the overall burden to the public."
So my second big question to the Minister is why not carry out the rationalisation of the depots by way of a straight competition between them and keep the best one? I will happily give way to him right now if he will tell me the answer to that question. Lastly, I want to make a point about the way in which the whole exercise has been carried out. The Government are making the right decisions--sorry. Government is about making the right decisions for the country. [ Laughter .] That is what it is about. Politics is about the difference between the perception and the reality of Government decisions. As we live in a parliamentary democracy, our Ministers must not only make the right decisions but be able to demonstrate to the public that that is what they are doing. Their credibility in the northern region is at a low ebb after recent events at Swan Hunter and the Government's failure to relocate the quality assurance unit from Woolwich to Stockton. Both decisions may be easily comprehensible, but they are not well understood in the north of England.
Column 108In a statement to the House on 14 July the Secretary of State promised three months' consultation. However, the consultation papers were not sent out until 19 August. For Eaglescliffe, Devonport, Exeter and Wrangaton the documents were all the same and ran to four sides of A4 paper. The figures making the case for the move to Portsmouth go no further than a simple table of potential cash flows. No information is given about the geographical location of northern contractors and there is no information about the number of ships whose base port is Portsmouth. There are 24, with eight moving from Rosyth.
Nothing is said about how £5 million is potentially to be realised from the sale of a 117-acre site. The figure seems to have been conjured from the air.
The documents were not sent to Teesside development corporation, English Partnership, City Challenge, the task force or the TECs in Stockton-on- Tees, all of which will have to pick up the pieces after the closure. There is nothing to show whether Portsmouth has the room to take the extra stores or whether it will be possible to adapt listed buildings.
If my right hon. Friend the Minister persists with the folly of closing the Navy's best depot--and I strongly urge him not to do so--how can he justify the far from open and generous way in which this consultation exercise has been conducted? I cannot wilfully agree to a measure that will needlessly put so many families in my constituency out of work, and I urge the Secretary of State to reconsider the closure. If he does not, I cannot support him in the Division Lobby.
Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I welcome the new Ministers to the Treasury Bench. They are looking rather happier than when I last saw them-- on television at the Tory party conference. Four of them were on and they looked as if they were about to face a firing squad. However, I understand that there were 35 hostile motions at the conference, so perhaps that explains why they are looking happier in the House. In the light of the speech by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin), they should not become too happy, because three Conservative Members will vote with Labour Members tomorrow. I have been here long enough to know that what is said on the day does not often happen on the night, but we shall be watching, as I am sure will be the constituents of those three hon. Members.
The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) made an excellent and thoughtful speech. He coined the word "understretch", which we shall hear often in the Chamber if the peace in Northern Ireland holds. The right hon. Gentleman said that understretch was as bad for the armed forces as overstretch and created its own problems. My hon. Friends the Members for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) and for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Eastham) made a powerful case for purchasing the future large aircraft or for delaying the decision to replace the Hercules. They spoke not only in a military context but in the context of the dramatic effect that failure to order the FLA will have on the north-west.
The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) made his customary knowledgeable speech and there was little in it with which we could disagree. The Liberals have no policy whatever. The hon. and learned
Column 109Gentleman disagreed with us about a defence review, but he seemed to be speaking as a member of the Select Committee on Defence. I am not sure that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) would agree with many of the points made by the hon. and learned Member.
The hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, disappointed me at first because he did not attack the Government-- [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has done so on many occasions. Perhaps one reason why he did not do so on this occasion was that at the Tory party conference the Secretary of State promised, or we think that he promised, that there would be no more defence cuts. If that is correct, much of the credit should go to the hon. Member for Upminster. However, I do not believe that the Chancellor of the Exchequer takes the same view as the hon. Gentleman. It is obvious that there has been a major argument within the Conservative party. I think that the Treasury will have the last say, but we shall have to wait and see.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) made an excellent speech about Rosyth and about the broader context of Britain's defence policy. She made two points of particular importance, which were reflected in views expressed by other hon. Members tonight. One point was that there appears to be as much politics as reason in the decision to close bases. The other was that the consultation procedure is deeply flawed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) made an excellent, if emotive, speech explaining the problems that 40 per cent. male unemployment brings to a constituency. The north-east is badly served by the Government, but well served by its Labour Members of Parliament.
I make no apologies for reiterating a point that the Labour party continues to make--that we need a complete defence review. "Options for Change" and "Front Line First"--if that be its name--were not objective assessments of our defence requirements, but excuses for cuts. In reality, the United Kingdom's defence policy should be seen against our position in the world. It should be seen in the context of wider foreign policy issues.
There is always a danger--we have seen it in today's debate--of becoming enmeshed in the details of defence weaponry and force capability. The fact is that in many ways defence policy is the servant of foreign policy. Therefore, we need to look not only at our defence policy but at Britain's role in the world. Ever since the second world war, the main defence concern has been our support for NATO. While that is still important, the collapse of the Soviet empire has removed the threat to national security.
However, while the threat to national security is considerably diminished, we live in a far more dangerous and explosive world. Ironically, the cold war helped to reduce the number of local conflicts because there was always the fear that they would spread to global ones. Now, with the scourge of nationalism in eastern Europe,
Column 110the rise of tribalism in Africa and the continuing unrest in the middle east, the problems facing the world are not only increasing but changing in character.
At this point, the United Nations is being thrust into a pivotal role in maintaining global peace. The question is, what is Britain's place in the new world order? Do we want to continue to have a permanent seat on the Security Council? The Labour party does and, I am sure, so does the Conservative party. Are we prepared to relinquish that to the Germans or the Japanese? It would be ironic if we did. Perhaps the fact that they lost the war is the reason why they are now in such a powerful position. If we are to play an important part in the United Nations, and I assume that Conservative Members are interested in Britain doing that, that implies certain responsibilities. If we are to be a member of the Security Council, we must use our forces in a peacekeeping role--and we do that better than anyone else. We have seen that in the past, and there are the current examples of Rwanda, Bosnia, Cyprus and Kuwait.
Many of the skills employed by our troops in a peacekeeping role were learnt on the streets of Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to the valiant service that our forces have given in difficult circumstances in Northern Ireland over the past 25 years. We must remember that 648 members of our regular armed forces and of the Ulster Defence Regiment were killed during that time. Their sacrifice allowed us to reach the position where we can at last have peace in Ulster. What effect will a permanent ceasefire in Ulster have on the United Kingdom's defence strategy? I am disappointed that the Secretary of State did not outline his proposals for that scenario. Could we sit by and watch a situation unfold in which British troops were withdrawn from Northern Ireland without any thought of their future role? The danger is that, without a defence review, their reward for 25 years of peacekeeping could be redundancy and P45s.
If the alternatives are more British troops being made available for use by the United Nations or British troops being made redundant, there is no choice. If they served the UN in a peacekeeping role, the question might be asked, "Who will pay?" We could argue about the UN military command structure, which many of us think is defective. We could argue about the lack of a robust reaction from UN troops when they come under fire. However, we cannot argue about the need for more peacekeeping troops under the control of the UN--and our troops are among the best in the world.
Earlier, I referred to the need to take foreign policy considerations into account in the defence review. It has become apparent to me that much of our defence procurement policy is influenced by the need to maintain our industrial manufacturing base. That has come about by previous Governments concentrating too many of our highly skilled, technical resources on weapons manufacture, in direct contrast to the Germans and Japanese, although there are historical reasons for that. The fact remains that those countries are not being hit by defence spending reductions in the way that our country is being hit.
The situation is exacerbated by the Government's failure to invest, or to encourage the defence industry to diversify. The Government have turned their face against diversification and have told the defence industry that they do not favour it.
Column 111The cancellation of major military projects such as Eurofighter 2000 would have a devastating effect on British industry, especially in the north-west. What was the Secretary of State doing, giving an interview, published in The Times today, in which he said that there could well be a possibility of cancelling the Eurofighter 2000? He can say that to The Times, but he did not come to the Dispatch Box to say it in this debate. It is disgraceful that the Secretary of State should even contemplate such a thing. The Labour party has always been in favour of the Eurofighter 2000 project. When I complained to previous Ministers about escalating costs and the delayed maiden flight, I was told that I was carping and that everything was under control. Now the Secretary of State says that we might not buy the Eurofighter 2000 and that the same goes for the EH101. In 1987, the Secretary of State's predecessor, George Younger, said that the Government would order it. Now the present Secretary of State is saying that, if the cost goes up too much, he will not order it at all. Perhaps if we had ordered it in 1987, the cost would have been a lot less. The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) argued for Chinook. He said that he had been to Philadelphia and seen it. I hope that he takes the opportunity--perhaps he has--to go to Yeovil and talk to Westland and have a word about the EH101. It may not be as exotic as Philadelphia, but I am sure that he would be made very welcome.
I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would bear in mind the fact that there is nothing inconsistent in saying, as my right hon. and learned Friend has done, that we remain committed to Eurofighter 2000 and that we take very seriously Westland's proposals for a support helicopter, while saying at the same time that we want good value for money. The hon. Gentleman would be irresponsible if he said, "Purchase at any price."
Mr. Martlew: The fact is that it is seven and a half years since the Government said that they would buy the helicopter. Some £12 billion has been spent on Eurofighter 2000 already, and a large proportion of that money has come from the British taxpayer. The Minister now talks about cancelling the project. It is nonsense. I know that Ministers have written to the American state department to find out the American alternative. It is a disgrace that he should come out with threats like that.
In recent times, there has been intense lobbying about the replacement of the RAF's Hercules. One of the main and compelling points to be made by trade unions and British Aerospace--it is the one that I accept--is that 7,500 British jobs will be saved if the order for the FLA is placed. Failure to do so will threaten the long-term future of our civil aviation industry. We cannot take that risk. Because our manufacturing base is so weak, and because of the Government's failure to support diversification, I can see that, at some time in the future, we shall be in danger of supplying our forces with inferior weaponry, and putting their lives at risk just because we
Column 112must maintain jobs at home. That terrible indictment of the state of the British industrial base is due to the policies of the Government.
Over the past two years, I have paid special attention to the personnel policies of the armed forces; I am sad to say that I find that many of the policies are still unacceptable and detrimental to their efficiency. It is intolerable that, to some extent, our armed forces are class-ridden, sexist and racist.
Mr. Martlew: The hon. Gentleman seems to accept that they are both class-ridden and racist, but he is worried about sexist-- [Interruption.] I will happily explain. If the hon. Gentleman will give me an opportunity, I will come to it in my speech.
If one looks at the officer corps of the top regiments, one will realise that family background and the old school tie still seem to carry much more influence than does ability. I think that the Minister is living proof of that. The armed forces are conservative by their tradition. There still seems to be a general reluctance to accept women on equal terms. Several NATO countries moved towards expanding the role of women in their forces long before steps were taken in the UK to redress the imbalance of treatment. As far back as the 1970s, countries in north America and northern Europe were pioneering equal opportunity policies. In 1978, women were fully integrated in the US army. Belgium, Denmark and Holland followed in 1987. All those countries made the changes largely in response to equal rights legislation, but the MOD is still technically exempt from section 85(4) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. Thank goodness for the equal treatment directive from Europe.
Mr. Brazier: Does the hon. Gentleman realise that our two principal European allies, France and Germany, provide grossly inferior opportunities for women in the armed forces? The equal treatment directive to which the hon. Gentleman referred relates to those already in post; it has nothing to do with opportunities to gain uniformed posts.
Until 1990, all pregnant women were discharged at four months. The rules were not amended until 1991, following the victory of two former service women who sued and gained compensation from the Ministry of Defence. Much attention has been focused, especially by the Government, on the high levels of compensation in such cases; that only detracts from the real crime--the fact that women were dismissed in the first place.
Another point is the rank structure. I believe that the highest-placed woman in our forces has the rank of major-general. There are higher ranks, but no women hold them. Moreover, it is obvious that no women are present on the Conservative Benches tonight.
Having carried out research into the employment of ethnic minorities in the MOD, I have concluded that, from the highest level of command, there appears to be an attitude of indifference to racism and--at worst--possible racist tendencies. The Commission for Racial Equality
Column 113recently investigated the MOD for possible racial discrimination following the recent findings of the Army board of inquiry regarding the case of a corporal. He had been given a new posting to the Life Guards, but, when it was discovered that he was black, he was sent to the Royal Tank Regiment. Following the findings, he was awarded £6, 500 in compensation. When I asked the previous Minister of State for the Armed Forces what disciplinary action had been taken against the individuals responsible, I was told:
"Disciplinary action was not considered appropriate on this occasion."-- [ Official Report , 11 July 1994; Vol. 246, c. 440 .] We still have major problems in regard to equality in the armed forces.
In his speech on 14 July 1994 announcing "Front Line First", the Secretary of State announced that a considerable number of MOD bases would be closed- -17 in all. He gave an assurance that full consultation would take place. We have heard what the Secretary of State means by "full consultation": a four-page document issued to hon. Members. I have personal experience of this. Before the announcement was made, I went through a six-month consultation period relating to the closure of RAF Carlisle--and, believe me, it was a farce from start to finish. The Government announced the closure on the same day that they announced that they would allow THORP-- the thermal oxide reprocessing plant--to start reprocessing in Cumbria, just before Christmas.
The Minister had met the trade unions, and told them, "If you make the savings, we will save the base." The unions considered, and made some hard decisions; they decided that they could save the base and give the Government the millions that they wanted if they sacked half the work force. They accepted that arrangement, but the Minister then changed the regulations, although he kept the consultation going. That idea of making the consultation last a little longer is fine, but this consultation continued for not three months but six months. It just so happened that, the week after the European elections ended, the Minister decided that RAF Carlisle was to close.
If the consultation period about which hon. Members are worrying gets a bit near to Christmas, we should worry about the fact that the Government will make the announcement on Christmas Eve, and that it will then be hidden. The Government do not take consultation seriously; if Ministers want to change things, that is what they must do.
Mr. Soames rose --
Mr. Martlew: The Minister should be careful; he will only have a five-minute speech, and he will be waffling for five minutes. I am very conscious that we are discussing the defence estimates. This is an annual debate, in which we look back over previous years. In a 1962 debate, speaking for the Opposition, Harold Wilson said that every Secretary of State always has a "pet project". This Secretary of State has a pet project and it appears to be to leave our armed forces demoralised and our defence strategy a shambles. We have had piecemeal policies of cuts, cuts and cuts, all designed so that the Tories can make one more cut. That, of course, will be in income tax and it will be introduced before the next general election. The Government's policy has nothing to do with the defence
Column 114of this country; it is all to do with the political strategy of trying to con the voters into voting the Tories in for another term of office.
Do hon. Members believe the Secretary of State when he says that there will be no more defence cuts? Did they believe the Tories when they said that there would be no tax increases and that VAT would not be placed on fuel? It is just another empty promise.
Since 1979, six Tory Secretaries of State have spent £378 billion on defence and what we have today is a mess. The Government are tired and too stale and bereft of vision to have the responsibility to run our defences. It is time that the future of Britain was taken on by a party that is ready and able to meet the challenge. That party is the Labour party.
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames): What a tremendous act to have to follow. This has been, as defence debates always are, a lively and interesting occasion. Profoundly held views have been traded on behalf not only of national but, rightly, constituency interests. With the agreement of the Labour party and, I hope, the approval of the House, I shall speak only briefly tonight since I shall begin the debate for the Government tomorrow and I hope to deal with a number of the points that were made by Opposition Members and by my hon. Friends. I will, of course, write to them at length if I do not deal with their points. The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), whom I used to see, when in a previous incarnation at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, with his eyes popping out of his head in synthetic fury, is no more convincing as a shadow spokesman on defence. Today in a vacuous speech, he showed a truly deep lack of understanding as to the realities of defence. I think that all hon. Members would agree that the constant, parroting call for a defence review, at a time when the security architecture of the world seems to be changing on an almost daily basis, is a pretty fatuous response to the challenges that defence faces, not only in this country but throughout the world.
The point that the hon. Gentleman made about defence costs studies was not only inaccurate but showed a want of understanding of what my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and this Department have achieved in putting back into the front line the enormous number and large range of improvements that are required and are to be warmly welcomed. We are improving resources devoted to training for all three services. We are increasing the strength of the Harrier squadrons and developing the new joint rapid deployment force with a sophisticated package of communications.
All those changes follow logically from the change to the size and shape of the armed forces that resulted from "Options for Change". They have built on the considerable achievements that have been made and are improving and seeking efficiencies, particularly in the support area, where a great deal of work was required.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), in a distinguished speech, supported my right hon. and learned Friend's work in defence costs studies. I think that all hon. Members will wish to pay a great tribute to my right hon. Friend for the work that he did when Secretary of State for Defence, for the important work
Column 115that he did when he was at the Northern Ireland Office and for the important plans that he laid on the building of this marvellous platform, which we hope will go forward to some form of agreement. I endorse particularly the tribute that my right hon. Friend paid to all the service men and women and those officials who have done, and are doing, so much in the continuous search for efficiency and improvement and during the critical changes that are of necessity taking place as the Ministry of Defence conducts its business. The hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) made an impressive presentation for his constituents and an industry that he knows well, on behalf of the future large aircraft. He will know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement has taken note of what he and other right hon. Gentlemen and some right hon. and hon. Friends who were keen to bring the FLA to the House's attention have said.
I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope) has dropped his almost Trappist practices--his oaths of poverty, chastity and obedience--and returned to the Back Benches whence he recounted to us the three major factors--military, financial and industrial --relating to the FLA that he wished us to bear in mind. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend will have listened with great care to what he had to say.
The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) noted the necessity of continuing to match resources to commitments. He is a lone voice of sanity on defence matters in his party, and I thought that much of what he said was very sensible. As he knows, we remain committed to our armed forces being properly manned and well equipped and supported. It is wrong to talk in numbers, but I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) that the figure that he seeks is 120,000.
The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East criticised indirectly the defence costs studies. The exercises that have been undertaken and the way in which the defence costs studies have been structured may not be the ultimate answer, but the work undoubtedly needed to be done, so as to make savings to enhance the capacity of the front line and because of the necessity of a cultural change in the way in which the Ministry of Defence conducts its business. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, congratulated my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State on the work that he had done and, like my right hon. and learned Friend, emphasised the importance of the "Partnership for Peace". My hon. Friend welcomed the period of stability for which we have all worked and we all join him in congratulating the armed forces on the way in which they have coped with a period of considerable turbulence and change. It is interesting that the Select Committee, which is extremely active and covers assiduously the whole ambit of operation of the armed forces, has noticed how brilliantly the armed forces have coped with change. My hon. Friend mentioned the intervals between emergency tours, which is a matter frequently discussed by the Select Committee and the Department. Clearly, things may improve, but it is unlikely that we shall see