Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton): May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the report of the Group of Seven, of which Britain is obviously a member, of 22 July 1991? The final communique contains the words: "We reaffirm our intention to become original parties to the" chemical weapons convention. If the Government signed up to that, surely there is no case for them to be dragging their feet now.

Mr. Anderson: Yes. Clearly the Government said they will be part of the first 65. There is no parliamentary reason for delay because of the pledge that I have given, so we must look elsewhere. Surely the Government must set a example to other countries that may be delaying.

Behind the defence costs study, which is one of the documents before us today, was the Treasury imperative to find £750 million worth of savings; it all flows from that. What happens if those savings are not realised? In the other place, Lord Bramall pointed out that the enhanced equipment programme--that has been promised so many times--depends on future cash flow which is itself dependent on the DCS proposals being implemented.

On the new recruiting proposals designed to save £25 million, Lord Henley, the Lord Privy Seal, said in the other place:

"we shall have to move extremely fast".--[ Official Report, House of Lords , 26 July 1994; Vol. 557, c. 682.]

At present only pilot schemes are envisaged.

What is the reason for the abandonment of plans for the housing trust and slippage in the £500 million programme by 1995-96? How long is the delay and what is its effect on the defence budget? What is the reason for the Government's change of mind on the defence estate?


Column 170

There are a number of positive elements in the defence costs study. It is well written and surely must be seen as part of a continuing process without the necessity for regular grand, comprehensive reviews. It has also revealed some apparently gross extravagances. There is much scepticism about the validity of the distinction between front-line and support services--a point made very well by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) yesterday. However, there is merit in the business approach to the management of the defence services where business criteria and vocabulary are relevant. Head office is mentioned and it is claimed that briefing is almost a tedious extra.

Clearly, the business approach can be overdone, but management experience is highly relevant. In one case within my knowledge the man in charge of a multi-million pound budget within the Ministry had been transferred from another discipline and had no financial training. That is wrong. The Government should make the best use of expertise from outside in operational research, personnel and technical matters and, if necessary, import people to each level of the Ministry.

Overall, if, as was stated by the Ministry of Defence, the headquarters is, "too large, too heavy, too bureaucratic," who is responsible for that? Given the number of years the Government have been in power, why has it taken so long? It can hardly be attributed to any deficiencies of the last Labour Government.

The defence costs study is insular in its lack of reference to our allies and narrow in its failure to look at the total costs of redundancy, for example.

How worried is the Ministry of Defence about the current shortfall in recruiting? The Sunday Telegraph of 9 October reported that recruiting was "alarmingly behind target". Saatchi and Saatchi has been given £5 million for a recruiting drive. Currently, the MOD is 18 per cent. behind the target for soldiers and 20 per cent. short on officers.

We have had a wide-ranging debate yesterday and today, partly because, as the Select Committee frequently points out, the House has relatively few opportunities to discuss this important subject. Our fear is that the Government are failing to look strategically and to plan for change because of their internal divisions and because of their general refusal to address the issues. There is a danger that the United Kingdom will be increasingly marginalised in Europe and that our vital defence industries will be harmed in the process.

The tragedy for Britain is that, for party reasons, the Government prefer to avoid key decisions and to feed delusions rather than to address the real issues of what we can and should do well with our excellent armed services, normally not on our own but in co-operation with our allies.

The Government pretend that the state can have no role in tackling the effect of restructuring on industry and communities. The lesson of last week's Bournemouth Conservative conference is that the Government have succeeded in putting clear blue water between themselves and public opinion; they have succeeded in putting clear blue water between themselves and reality and between themselves and British interests. A Labour Government will look long and fearlessly meet the challenge of the future.


Column 171

5.9 pm

Sir Geoffrey Pattie (Chertsey and Walton): I wish to declare an interest as a non-executive director of GEC Marconi. I would be tempted to follow some of the interesting points raised by the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), but I feel that I should abide by the 10- minute rule, even at this early hour, so that as many hon. Members as possible can speak in the debate.

Each year in these debates there is talk of reviewing our defences. In my opinion, what is really needed is a review of our foreign policy objectives. The defence forces are nothing more or less than the means of implementing the Government's foreign policy objectives. Defence capability becomes relevant when inadequate capability makes it impossible to carry out foreign policy objectives.

I want to share with the House a report that has just been published by the Institute for European Defence and Strategic Studies. Its authors are Dr. Christopher Coker and James Sherr. The report has some quite disturbing parts. On page 14, it states: "The Defence Operations Analysis Centre at West Byfleet has constructed about eight main war scenarios which are fought and refought as paper exercises to judge just how Britain would fare in the new world order. These scenarios range from a full-scale war in Bosnia to an amphibious landing in a former colony to rescue British citizens. In almost every exercise the Centre concluded that Britain could no longer do much without help. In one, it is the Americans who provide the aircraft to get the troops in place. In another, it is our NATO allies that bolster our undermanned ground forces. In another it is the Americans who are expected to supply air cover. Why the Americans should continue to do so, if we do so little for them, is a question the Centre did not pose."

I agree with the assertion made by many people that we have the most professional armed forces and, therefore, probably the best in quality in the world, but we are not making things easy for them. If the individual soldier in Northern Ireland, before the IRA ceasefire, was working up to 113 hours a week, if units were spending 260 days away from home at one time and if intervals between tours were down to 15 months compared with the minimum of 24, it is obvious that the strain on the Army was increasing.

My concern about the West Byfleet analysis is that the public are not aware of it. I suspect that they think something entirely different--that we can cope with anything that comes along. The question is whether a medium-power can be expected to discharge all of its former responsibilities. The French clearly think so. France spends less on defence than we do. We might feel that it is unreasonably over-conscious of its sense of grandeur. However, France has dominated the United Nations effort in the former Yugoslavia and British subjects were recently evacuated from Aden by French forces. Perhaps that is a sign of the times.

If the West Byfleet analysis is correct, we must question how that state has come about. There are two answers--first, the impact of the Treasury, and secondly, the effect of industrial competition policy. The Treasury rightly insists on financial rectitude, efficiency, prudence and good value for money. We would all agree with that. One of the ways of achieving efficiency is market testing, and again I support the concept. The problem is how we question the rate of progress and the success of market testing.


Column 172

In the "Market Testing Bulletin", Government Departments are asked to list activities for review. It states:

"When an activity is reviewed a number of options are considered including abolition, privatisation, contracting out, market testing (with an in-house bid) and restructuring the activity without a formal tender. Therefore not all the activities listed will necessarily be subject to competitive tendering."

I welcome the MOD's ministerial commitment to doubling the value of work for which industry will be invited to compete via market testing. It must make sense to make industry responsible for the in-service support of the equipment that it has designed and built. There can be no better way to ensure that industry is given the incentive to design and produce robust and reliable kit.

Ministers will have to monitor the implementation of savings measures. It would be helpful if the services could keep the savings that they have achieved to fund, for example, future equipment purchases. At least that would give them an incentive.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth): I am following the right hon. Gentleman's speech with great interest. Does he accept that if there is competitive tendering and the most successful tender comes from in-house, that demonstrates that the Air Force is capable of competing successfully with the other tenderers? That ability should be subject to very real public attention and commendation because it shows that the service is rather more efficient than some hon. Members assume.

Sir Geoffrey Pattie: I agree that such a position should attract the commendation that the hon. Gentleman suggests. All that I hope is that it would be a genuine competition. Often, criteria and overheads are loaded in. We want appropriate savings to be achieved so that they can be used elsewhere in the defence budget.

A good start has been made, but much remains to be done. I would be nervous of a tendency to replace competition by something called benchmarking, which is much too cosy and incestuous. One of the successes has been the Defence Research Agency and I applaud its achievement of in-house economies. With its expanding role, there may be the possibility of a change of name--perhaps the "National Research Agency" might be a good idea.

The really important reason why market testing should succeed is that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has based the funding of new equipment and research and development on the assumption that savings will be achieved. If the savings are not achieved from market testing or any other system, further slices are taken from research and development and the procurement of new equipment. Cutting the R and D budget causes our defence capability to fall because technological advantage must be the name of the game. The R and D and procurement share of the total budget was close to a half in the mid-1980s; it is now closer to a third. That is very unhealthy.

All that might sound theoretical, so I shall give a practical example. A Sea Harrier was shot down over Gorazde recently. It was not because of any failure by the pilot, but because the aircraft had to fly around the target area five times because it did not possess an anti-armour weapon with a seeker that allowed it to operate in poor


Column 173

weather. Systems are available and I hope that the MOD will consider procuring them so that our front-line troops are not placed in such a position again.

I want briefly to say something about competition policy as it applies to the MOD. I did not just support that policy at its inception--I was one of those responsible for introducing and implementing it. We needed such a policy to make industry sharpen up and become competitive, especially in overseas markets. The "cost-plus" mentality had not served industry well. The danger now is that a policy that was designed to produce fitness is in danger of inducing malnutrition, just like any other policy or activity that is followed to excess or to its so-called logical conclusion. The vital importance of the defence industrial base to the economy of this country, and--by the speed and flexibility of its response--to the MOD, has never been in doubt. As budget trends move against the MOD, there is a disinclination to invest in new-generation equipment. For example, the specification for the Tornado successor must not be written around existing US equipment, which is the tendency in such cases. If the budget is under pressure, it may be thought better to take an existing system from somewhere in the world and write a specification around it--but then, surprise, surprise, we find that British industry cannot meet the specification. We must now assume that a United States off-the-shelf purchase will not necessarily or automatically be the answer.

In my ministerial days there used to be something called the two-way street in UK-US dealings in defence equipment--the idea of reciprocal purchases by the United States following purchases by the United Kingdom of American equipment. There has been something of a surge of purchases from the United States in recent months, as I am sure that hon. Members will have noticed. Although there are extensive offset arrangements, they are not sufficient to maintain a strong industrial defence base here.

The Ministry of Defence is not only a customer. Because of its monopsonistic position as a buyer, it is also the marketplace. It controls the marketplace. It is clear that a number of foreign Governments are now organising their own markets to operate to the benefit of their defence industries.

It follows from what I have said that there will be advantages to the United Kingdom if the leading United Kingdom companies are of a size and capability to compete effectively in world markets and to make whatever alliances may be necessary to pursue United Kingdom interests.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Minister's endorsements of the quality of our armed forces. It is important in a debate of this sort that we do not delude ourselves into thinking that our capabilities are better than they are or that our remaining industrial strengths are greater than they are.

5.21 pm

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian): The right hon. Member for Chertsey and Walton (Sir G. Pattie) speaks with great authority on these affairs. I particularly agree with the points that he made about the loss of the Sea Harrier on the mission to Gorazde. The air crew involved was on a mission impossible. We in this House


Column 174

should be concerned to ensure that when we send our service men into action they have the equipment that they need to carry out the mission that is assigned to them. That is something that we should consider carefully.

The Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence was

uncharacteristically generous to the Government in his speech yesterday. As one of the humble foot soldiers on that Committee I should draw the attention of the House to the fact that our report on the defence costs study includes some fairly sharp criticisms. I fear that parts of the "Front Line First" review will further aggravate the damage done by "Options for Change". In particular, the decision to close the Rosyth naval base is just the latest in a long catalogue of shoddy decision making by the Ministry of Defence during recent years.

The massive rundown in our regular forces and their in-house support will stretch our defence capabilities perilously thin. I suspect that the Government will have to rely more and more on volunteer reserves. That point has already been made by a number of hon. Members. It is fair to ask the Minister whether a new reserve forces Bill will be included in the Queen's Speech. That will clearly be required.

I have just returned from a four-week trip to Bosnia, driving a 17-tonne truck for the Edinburgh Direct Aid organisation. Therefore, I want to concentrate on the situation in the former Yugoslavia and, in particular, on the valuable role of the British battalion in the United Nations Protection Force. I was one of 10 volunteers who took six vehicles up into central Bosnia three times with loads of medicine, foods, clothing and other supplies donated by people in Scotland. Edinburgh Direct Aid is one of the small voluntary groups which complement the work of the big agencies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Overseas Development Administration, to take humanitarian aid directly to communities, hospitals and schools in Bosnia.

Those agencies depend on charitable donations to make up the loads, on volunteers to man the convoys and, crucially, on UNPROFOR to safeguard movement through the civil war zone in so far as that is possible. UNPROFOR is there to help to keep the humanitarian aid moving and to help to achieve peace. I want to talk about both those roles this evening.

The delivery of aid is vital to the victims of ethnic cleansing, to refugees from all the communities in Bosnia and to isolated pockets of Muslims, Croats and even Serbs cut off by the other factions. All are totally dependent on food, medicines and other supplies coming from aid agencies--about 3 million people.

The ordinary people of Bosnia are not responsible for the nightmare. It has been created by nationalist warlords who do not give a damn about the people whom they claim to lead. Most of the Bosnians whom I have met in recent weeks were trying to make the best of a hellish situation with incredible fortitude and dignity. I could give many examples of individuals, hospitals, schools, orphanages and, perhaps most harrowing, homes for handicapped people, which are carrying on in impossible circumstances, but there is no time in the context of this debate.

Our convoy took supplies to destinations in several areas, including the area covered by the British battalion of UNPROFOR. I pay tribute to the British Army medics and G5 personnel for the initiatives that they have set up


Column 175

to help local people to begin to revive their communities. Their guidance is an essential resource for aid agencies going into the area and their support is all the more necessary when the aid agencies come under fire, as we did on several occasions in recent weeks.

That was an interesting experience. It is a little hard to believe that some maniac is shooting at one from over the horizon. It is all very well for those who can go up there, see what is going on and come home again, but the people about whom we should be concerned are those who have to live in those communities, who have been living in such circumstances for three long years, taking casualties week after week. Things are grim, but we should acknowledge that UNPROFOR has had some substantial achievements, to which the Minister referred. When I visited the town of Gornji Vakuf with the Defence Select Committee in February 1993, the main street was the front line in a hot war between Muslims and Croats. There was no sign of civilian life in the town. At that stage, UNPROFOR's task was to try to deliver aid through a war zone or, to be more accurate, a series of war zones.

This month, the picture in Gornji Vakuf was very different. The town is ruined, but there is now some traffic between the shell holes in the streets, people walking around and even a makeshift market with some goods for sale. It is hardly the idyll that the Minister described in his speech earlier this afternoon, but important progress has been made.

That transformation is the result of the new confederation between Muslims and Croats, established with United Nations help on 23 February. The federation is a truly remarkable achievement, given the intensity of the conflict raging in places such as Gornji Vakuf and Mostar, where the fighting was even worse, just a year ago. It means that UNPROFOR has now moved into a new role of peacekeeping on the old Muslim-Croat confrontation lines. Given the recent history of vicious conflict, that pact is obviously extremely precarious, so it is vital that UNPROFOR soldiers should be kept in place for a long time yet to help to keep that peace in place.

I know from my conversations with British soldiers during the past few weeks that sitting at obscure checkpoints in all weathers can be a boring and apparently pointless task, but the strategy is working. It is certainly saving lives and making it possible to begin to rebuild shattered communities. All the soldiers serving with the British battalion and the other national contingents in UNPROFOR deserve our congratulations and thanks for what they have achieved so far.

I know that while I was in the area the Minister of State for the Armed Forces passed through Vitez camp. He mentioned that in his speech. I am sure that he expressed his thanks to Colonel John McColl and the Royal Anglians who are serving there now. I do not know how much of the camp the Minister saw, but I want to report on some of the nooks and crannies that he may have missed. I would not like to have to spend six months there and, since that is what we will have to expect soldiers to do for some time yet, starting with the Royal Highland Fusiliers who are moving there during the next few weeks, that camp needs some improvements.


Column 176

Most seriously, the recent outbreak of dysentery at Vitez camp raises questions about the water supply. I hope that the Minister will address that point urgently, and tell us what is being done about possible sources of infection. In addition, in wet weather, the camp looks and feels like a mud hole and the toilet and shower facilities are temporary units which are not standing up to the strain of the use that they are getting. The accommodation at Gornji Vakuf and at Kiseljak seems to be rather better, but those locations lack the British Telecom satellite links which are important for the soldiers who serve there. I hope that the Minister will consider that point.

I stress that convoy crews such as ours are very grateful for the use of the Army's catering and other facilities at those bases, but, from the point of view of the soldiers, Vitez in particular needs significant improvements. If the problem is UN bureaucracy for funding, the Minister should not hesitate to kick up a fuss to raise standards for soldiers who are serving there.

I am very grateful for the helpful briefings that I received from the military at sector south-west and Britbatt headquarters while I was in the area. Obviously, the views that I now express are my own responsibility. UNPROFOR is doing an absolutely essential task and it must not be withdrawn. In turn, that means that the United States must not lift or breach the arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia. Indeed, I agree strongly with the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), who said yesterday that Britain should be prepared to impose a veto in the Security Council if the United States tries to have that arms embargo lifted.

If we were to lift the arms embargo, it would probably take at least a year before the new weapons from the United States could be effectively deployed by the Bosnian Government forces. During that year, neither the Bosnian Serbs nor the Croats--nor their respective supporters--could be expected to sit on their hands. If the arms embargo were lifted, the Bosnian Serb army would certainly launch pre-emptive action to prevent the Muslims taking advantage of their new kit, and Croat extremists would be likely to reopen hostilities rather than risk a shift in power in the confederation towards the Muslims. That hard-won confederation could easily disintegrate. In those circumstances, UNPROFOR would have to be pulled out, with extreme difficulty, along routes which have countless

choke-points--that is, tunnels, bridges and the like--where it is all too easy to obstruct movement. Indeed, even civilians could obstruct movement down those supply routes. Lifting the arms embargo could make things far worse for the beleaguered Muslims. It could be catastrophic.

Apart from that military scenario, it would be unthinkable for the United Nations to walk away from the humanitarian task that it set up in the former Yugoslavia. Millions of people are now dependent on supplies delivered under United Nations protection. I saw some of those people in recent weeks, and it would be a crime to abandon them. Quite apart from our humanitarian obligations, we cannot afford to destroy the credibility of the United Nations as an international peacekeeping organisation. It might not be very good, but it is all we have, and it must be sustained.

Things cannot stand still, either. We need more resources to help reconstruction in the confederation area. I pay tribute to the Army and to the ODA for what they


Column 177

have done to help with roads, bridges and other services. Perhaps the next project should be the reinstatement of the Neretva hydro-electric scheme to restore central Bosnia's electricity supply this winter. That would be extremely good value and a reward for peace in the confederation. I understand that it could be achieved for as little as £3 million. It is worth considering.

Above all, ways must be found to make the Bosnian Serb leadership face up to the need for compromise. The three-year siege of Sarajevo is an affront to European civilisation. The Minister implied that things were returning to normal in Sarajevo. How could he suggest that? The city is entirely cut off and it is subject to regular artillery and sniper fire. Our convoy was denied access to Sarajevo last month, and I understand that last night chetnik irregulars hijacked the cargo from another convoy trying to reach Sarajevo. The Bosnian Serb army regularly fires artillery and sniper rounds into civilian areas right around the front line, not only at Sarajevo. Yet again, its artillery has blocked the main supply route through Mostar and Jablanica into central Bosnia. When General Rose rightly responded to the latest provocations in Sarajevo, the Bosnian Serb army threatened to attack the United Nations bases. Indeed, I was in Vitez when our soldiers there were put on amber alert because of that threat. The situation is not good and we must remain on our guard.

I appreciate that it is difficult to deal with people such as the Bosnian Serb authorities, but I doubt whether appeasement is the right line, so I was very surprised when General Rose publicly rebuked Bosnian Government forces for seeking to secure part of their own territory during the past month. It is a mistake to try to be even-handed between an aggressor and his victims, especially when one is acting on behalf of the United Nations.

I do not know what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office long-term strategy for the Balkans might be, but I have my suspicions and I fear that General Rose may be influenced by that line. The House should take a close interest in that issue and we should heed the lessons of history, but the debate is not about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; it is about what our defence forces are doing. UNPROFOR is doing a vital task remarkably well in very difficult circumstances. Its role should be developed and it should emphatically not be withdrawn. The British battalion in UNPROFOR is one of the force's most successful contingents. The experience of those soldiers in Northern Ireland makes them ideally suited to sensitive peacekeeping operations. The whole House earnestly hopes that the Northern Ireland crisis is coming to an end, but after my spell in Bosnia over the past few weeks and after having visited other areas of actual or potential instability with my colleagues on the Defence Select Committee over the past year or so, I have no doubt that there is much more peacekeeping and peacemaking to be done in and around Europe in the coming years. We must maintain high-quality conventional armed forces to play our part in that vital role, but I have very little confidence in the Government's ability or willingness to accept that responsibility.


Column 178

5.36 pm

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): It is difficult to follow the speech of the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson). The whole House was riveted by his description of his recent experiences. I congratulate him on what he has achieved in Bosnia and on bringing that experience to the House. I should very much like further to discuss the hon. Gentleman's experiences with him, but I fear that it would have to be outside the Chamber because I need to make my own speech in my own way.

It is a truism that the certainties of the cold war have been replaced by the uncertainties of what is called peace, but nowhere is that uncertainty more prevalent than among the armed forces themselves, who have had to face extreme uncertainty in recent years. It is absolutely right that the Government should cut defence expenditure to take account of the reality of the international situation, but those inevitable cuts have led to difficulties among personnel and to delays in the procurement of essential equipment. Now, at last, I hope that we have a new situation. I hope that the defence review, "Front Line First", and the statement by the Prime Minister, which was reiterated by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State yesterday, that we have now reached a position of stability for our fighting strength mean that we can look forward with confidence to the future. Above all--this point was made by my hon. Friend the Minister--I hope that we do not excessively cling to existing members of the armed forces and delay retirement and recruitment. It is important that we should be able to hold out to our young people again the idea that the armed forces provide an absolutely first-class career which provides rewards and excitement. I want to deal with one matter that might be regarded as rather narrow, and that is the defence medical services. They are an essential part of our armed forces. A NATO circular on the subject states:

"Effective medical support to NATO forces is essential to operational success and indicates NATO's seriousness of intent and resolve."

Medical back-up is essential. Every four-man infantry patrol has one man who is trained in medical first-aid skills and in the use of sophisticated first-aid equipment. Every member of a naval crew is trained in first aid, and a significant proportion must be trained to a higher level, because first aid primary care is absolutely essential on land and at sea. Members of the Defence Select Committee will graphically recall the demonstration on board Ark Royal in the spring, when, shortly after a hearty breakfast, we were shown exactly what happens on board during a medical emergency. We saw how the naval crew could rally round and support with primary care. Our armed forces are well equipped with the latest equipment and they are trained to use it. Primary care is not in contention at this point, but secondary care is the subject of part of "Front Line First".

Various factors must be borne in mind. Secondary care is quite a complicated subject. First, however efficient our helicopters and fixed- wing evacuation aircraft ambulances may be, there will still be occasions when it is not possible to treat men away from the front line, and front- line secondary care is needed. We found that in the Falkland Islands, when no airstrip was available for the evacuation


Column 179

of our casualties; we are finding it now in Bosnia, where it is too dangerous to use helicopters for the transmission of personnel. Moreover, there will be occasions when the casualties are too ill to be moved. There will be occasions when no transport is available to move them and when it would be too dangerous to move them. Increasingly, as we participate in United Nations operations, there will be occasions when we wish, with our medical forces, to treat people who are residents of the country that we are aiding. In Bosnia, for instance, there is no wish or intention to ship out those whom our medical forces may be assisting.

A second factor is the use to which we might put our reservists. There are problems here: we are dealing with specially trained people. I have been told that, when a candidate applies for a consultant post in the national health service, he must fill in a form part of which asks him whether he has any reserve commitment to the armed forces. Given the increasingly competitive environment in the NHS, appointing committees might be reluctant to appoint consultants with such a commitment, who might be taken away from their hospitals. Increased commercial pressures in hospitals and the introduction of performance-related pay might also be a factor.

Mr. Donald Anderson: As the hon. Gentleman may know, many of those concerned with our reservists point out that one of the policies stemming from the new hospital trusts is a reluctance to release people for training.

Mr. Viggers: The hon. Gentleman backs me up, although I regret that he also makes a political point. Indeed, that factor genuinely inhibits greater use of reserves.

My third point is that the defence medical service must be on the same notice to move as the rest of the armed forces. It is no good sending out the front line first and bringing medical support later. As I have said before, medical staff--certainly in primary care--are right there in the front line wherever the forces go: even when the special forces are shinning down chimneys, medical support is present.

The fourth point is slightly complicated. To attract reputable clinicians into the armed forces, we need accreditation procedures that will allow doctors and nurses in the forces to obtain recognition from the individual royal colleges. It is no good having second-rate medical practitioners in the forces, and training is not possible without accreditation. Training and practice go together, and that argues in favour of increased co- operation between the defence medical service and the NHS.

It is not possible, however, to employ people who are entirely interwoven with the NHS. In times of emergency, surgical support teams, field hospitals, primary casualty receiving ships and casualty treatment ships will be needed; people will be required who can work all hours of the day and night, in conditions of war, when equipment shortages and danger are part of the scene. That means that a dedicated group is needed, capable of taking on all medical care and all forms of surgery, medical aid, ophthalmology, pathology and, of course, nuclear medicine: we need a tough, trained, disciplined cadre.


Column 180

To integrate such people in the NHS is very good for training, but focusing all medical care in the armed services on one area--provided through the NHS--would have a serious effect. It would leave a large hole as and when mobilisation took place. A delicate balance is needed between those working in the NHS and a back-up procedure allowing gaps to be filled when the medical defence service disappears.

How have we dealt with the problem in the past? Until 1992, the defence medical services had seven hospitals--six if we exclude Catterick, which is quite small and specialised--and there were 1,500 dentists and doctors and 7,500 nurses and back-up staff, making a total of 9,000. In February 1993, there was what the MOD described as a "fundamental reassessment", as a result of which it was proposed to close Woolwich, Halton and Plymouth hospitals, leaving only three. A mere 17 months later, in July this year, "Front Line First" announced that we did not need Wroughton or Aldershot; so now we have one. The figure has gone from six to one in two years--the arrangements will take effect in April 1996.

In February 1993, 1,500 beds were thought to be required, of which between 1,100 and 1,200 would be provided in service hospitals. In July 1994, "Front Line First" stated that we needed between 700 and 800 beds, half of which would be in military district hospital units, while the remaining 375 would be provided in the tri-service hospital at Haslar.

I am more concerned about people than about hospitals and beds as such. The numbers do not add up. As I have said, in 1992 we had 9,000 trained staff in the medical defence service; in February 1993, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton)--then Minister of State for the Armed Forces--announced that we needed 20 per cent. fewer than the original 9,000, which I calculate to be a total of 7,200. "Front Line First" states on page 39, however, that the changes now proposed will result in a reduction of approximately 1,020, making a total of 6,180. I should add that my own journalist sources, which have been right in the past, tell me that there will be well over 4,000 job reductions. That simply does not add up.

There is, of course, a possibility of misunderstanding. It is possible that the previous job reductions have not yet been made. I understand that we currently have 1,600 doctors and dentists in the armed forces, compared with the 1,500 who were thought to be needed in 1993. The job reductions have not been made there, and some of the 4,000 reductions may be made in places such as Cyprus and Germany. "Front Line First" points out on page 39 that the 1,020 job cuts are those

"resulting from Front Line First".

If contemporaneous job reductions are taking place which do not derive from "Front Line First", the House deserves to know about it. As a member of the Select Committee, I must say that I have become suspicious of vague numbers that always seem to crystallise at the wrong end of the spectrum of uncertainty. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement to be good enough to put the record straight, and reassure me by stating the current strength of the defence medical service and its proposed strength following the implementation of defence costs study 15 in April 1996.

Subject to satisfaction on the numbers, I welcome the concept of increased co-operation with the NHS through the military district hospital units. Above all, I welcome


Column 181

the choice of Haslar, in my constituency, as the location of the tri-service hospital. Originally founded in 1753 as the Royal hospital, it has a proud record of medical care for all the services, and also provides a full range of care for civilians. Housed in a superb historic building, it has the latest modern medical equipment. With 1 million people in its catchment area, and with strong links with the universities of Portsmouth and Southampton, it would also be the logical centre for the defence medical training organisations, whose location has not yet been finally decided.

Subject to the points that I have raised with my right hon. Friend, I strongly support the proposals in "Front Line First" and the Government's current posture; but I would be grateful for reassurance on the future of the defence medical service.

5.49 pm

Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley): I am extremely grateful to be called so early in this important debate. Although the Minister of State for the Armed Forces is not here I should like to congratulate him on his appointment. I thought at first that the armed forces had a champion on the other side of the House. However, it would appear that the Minister is supporting the Treasury proposals, so obviously the armed forces do not have that champion. He paid tribute to the wives of service personnel and referred to them collecting their children from school. I have to say that at the school at RAF Finningley they are also collecting signatures for a petition against the closure of RAF Finningley. The closure is a tragedy.

I expected a little bit more from the Minister because to me consultation means a two-way exchange of ideas in which people get together and come up with a commonsense, logical solution. Regrettably, that has not been the case. I am sorry that the Minister operates dual standards. I say that because I wrote to ask for a meeting with him about the closure of RAF Finningley. The request was turned down. Yet I hear from his speech from the Dispatch Box this afternoon that he has received deputations from Conservative Members. The RAF personnel at Finningley deserve a little more. I hope that the Minister will agree to a meeting. It is no good putting forward ideas about the future use or retention of RAF Finningley if we do not have the answers to one or two questions that only the Minister or his staff can give.

We met the previous incumbent of the Minister's office before the decision was made to close RAF Finningley. We talked about possible dual use as a means of deferring some of the RAF's costs. I regret that there does not appear to have been a follow-up from that. When the Minister's letter refers to "Front Line First decisions" it should say "Treasury first line" decisions.

The Defence Select Committee report suggests that many points remain to be substantiated before a logical decision can be taken about RAF Finningley. The Minister's letter said that the need to train crews at RAF Finningley had diminished. That is not the information that we have been given. It would appear that the need to train crews will continue well into the future. I hope that the Ministry of Defence and the Prime Minister will get together. While RAF Finningley has served the nation extremely well in the past and has had many millions of pounds spent on it, we suddenly find that it is not compatible because it is isolated. Either the military staff


Column 182

are correct about the past role of RAF Finningley--in which case the Prime Minister is wrong--or the Prime Minister is right, in which case he should have sacked the military staff.

Mr. Soames: I am sorry that I was not here when the hon. Gentleman started his speech. I recall writing to him, although I do not recall the precise nature of my letter. I am sure that I said in the letter that I would be happy to see him at a later stage. If I did not, I confirm across the Floor of the House that I would be happy to see him with a delegation. I am almost sure that I said that a consultation period was taking place and that I would be happy to see him later.

Mr. Redmond: I am extremely grateful for the Minister's intervention. I have the letter in front of me. While it says that the Minister will be happy to consider any comments, it makes no reference to the request for a meeting. I am happy to accept the Minister's assurance.

We have received many letters and telephone calls about the closure of RAF Finningley. The people involved cannot understand why the decision has been taken to close it. I hope that even at this late stage, the decision will be reconsidered. We talk about the war, misery and suffering that dictators cause in the world. We say that there is a need to send in our troops from time to time to support the United Nations. There has been talk about the armed forces being overstretched. That would be the case if the proposals went through. I have listened to many hon. Members' speeches about the need for an adequate force. Obviously, if we reduce the military capability of the RAF we will put the lads and lasses at risk. They cannot understand the logic of the decision to close RAF Finningley. I cannot answer some of the questions that are being asked of me because we have not yet met the Minister. It has been suggested that the Dominies are to be moved to RAF Cranwell. I understand that there is no room for the aircraft and that there are not enough married quarters there. There are oceans of married quarters at Finningley. I understand that there is no suitable building for the simulator. It has been suggested that the Jetstreams may be moved to Cranwell, Brize Norton or Church Fenton and that the Hawks may go to Leeming. The costs involved in those movements and in what has happened at Finningley in the past few years must place question marks over the decision reached by the Treasury. I hope that the Minister will tell the Treasury to go back to its slide rules and come up with something more acceptable to the people in the RAF.

RAF Finningley employs 917 service personnel and 650 civilian personnel. It puts into the local economy in Doncaster an estimated £16.5 million. Given the devastation of South Yorkshire caused by the closure of the coal mines, the local authority and the private sector in Doncaster are doing everything possible to attract employment to Doncaster to take up the unemployment. It is important that we consider other factors because we are closing not simply an RAF station but a school. Over the years the school has built up expertise in teaching service personnel children. As we all know, the children move from station to station across the world. It is important that skilled personnel are available to pick up the children and give them the education that they deserve. If RAF Finningley closes, the school will obviously be put at risk.


Column 183

I could go on, but I am grateful to have been called and as the Minister has given an assurance that we can meet him, I hope to make the points that I was going to make across the Floor of the House on another occasion.

5.58 pm


Next Section

  Home Page