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Column 220We ought not to be under any illusions about what the Government document is. It is not a fundamental review, and it really is an affront to call it "Front Line First". It ought to be called "Front Line Farce". The document fails to address a number of quite specific questions about the nature of the front line and where it is. In global terms, we ought to realise that the front line--in terms of instability--is to be found somewhere in the regions occupied by 20 million or more refugees from civil and regional wars and by the 20 million more refugees from poverty, famine, drought and fear of persecution. It is to be found within the regions where, surrounded by the massed ranks of the nuclear firepower of the super-states, people have decided to ignore all of us and conduct their own civil or regional wars.
The fault lines of the new front line are to be found along lines determined by poverty, by fear of tomorrow and by the inability to feed oneself or to find water to drink. They are to be found within the countries and communities which are riven by persecution and intimidation, and where people feel that they no longer have a home that they can call their own in a country that belongs to them. If that is where the front lines are to be found globally, where do we find a recognition of that in the definitions of the appropriate structure of services, of service personnel and of support infrastructures which we would need in this country in relation to our functions in an international environment? Instead of that, we have a farce of a document.
It was exemplified for me yesterday when the Secretary of State said that there were "no sacred cows". He would have been more accurate if he had said that there were "no sacred cows--as long as you ignore the entirety of the arguments around Britain's investment in nuclear arms". That is the one thing which has been specifically excluded by ring-fencing from the review which has taken place and which has been presented to us in this document.
In one sweep over the summer, the £750 million savings--or cuts-- incorporated in "Front Line First" were swept aside by the quiet announcement of an £800 million overspend of the Trident programme. If the Trident programme has one virtue--this is probably its only virtue--it is that it is the one programme which makes the channel tunnel look on time and under budget. It is a monstrous waste of money, and its costs are spiralling out of all proportion to even any mythical value which the Trident programme might have.
Let me put it in a different context. In April this year, the House was told that the MOD planned to scrap four new diesel-electric submarines of the Upholder class, at a cost of £1.2 billion. The overspend on Trident would have accounted for almost two thirds of that amount.
It is not only hon. Members who are appalled at the way in which nuclear defence spending has spiralled out of control. The military top brass are becoming fairly brassed off with the incompetent handling of the Trident programme and the drain that it constitutes on the
Column 221country's defence spending. On 3 August, Field Marshal Sir Nigel Bagnall, Chief of the General Staff between 1985 and 1988, wrote in The Times :
"It is high time that the need for our independent nuclear deterrent was seriously questioned . . . The four Trident submarines provide an excessive capability in relation to our status and requirements, and eat far more deeply into the defence budget than is generally acknowledged."
The 11,600 uniformed service personnel and the 7,100 civil servants who will lose their jobs because of the cuts announced in "Front Line First" will know to their cost how deeply the cost of Trident cuts into the budget for other services.
"Front Line First" should have been willing to confront the nuclear delusion under which the country has been suffering for far too long. We need to face up to certain stark facts. Trident is militarily useless and is a drain on our national and defence resources. It will not deter terrorists or tin-pot dictators. It destabilises rather than stabilises both the United Kingdom's security policy and international ones. Outside the House and outside the country, the Trident programme is understood to be an act of proliferation when the world is calling out for acts of reverse proliferation. Instead, we have a Government who produce documents that are caught between the helpless and the hopeless.
In the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1994", the Government made two crass statements about the importance of nuclear weapons. First, they said:
"Complete and general nuclear disarmament remains a desirable ultimate goal, but nuclear weapons cannot be dis-invented." It is as though the Government were saying, "Well, we have got them, what can we do?" My answer is simple--they should turn the page not only of history, but of their own document, because they also made two stark claims about the need to obliterate chemical weapons from the planet. First, they reminded the House:
"An international treaty to ban chemical weapons--the Chemical Weapons Convention--was signed by 130 countries, including the United Kingdom) when it opened for signature in January 1993."
In the following paragraph, the Government state:
"The United Kingdom abandoned its offensive chemical weapons capability in the 1950s but other states have significant stockpiles to destroy."
It appears to me that the Government were patting themselves on the back for an act of unilateral chemical weapons disarmament. If they lay claim to that as a virtue and sign up to a treaty that sets out the terms and conditions for global monitoring and regulation as the means of removing chemical weapons from the surface of the planet, why cannot we do exactly the same thing for nuclear weapons? All it requires is an act of courage and vision. Instead, we have a Government who are either stupid or cynical, because in the estimates the Government said that
"the ability to undertake a massive nuclear strike is not enough to ensure deterrence . . . We also need the capability to undertake nuclear action on a more limited scale in order to demonstrate our willingness to defend our vital interests to the utmost, and so induce a political decision to halt aggression without inevitably triggering strategic nuclear exchanges."
People in the world at large will draw some simple and obvious conclusions from the Government's statements. First, they will understand that the United Kingdom is willing to use nuclear weapons in non-nuclear conflicts. Secondly, they will appreciate that we would be willing to do so against non-nuclear states.
Column 222We are less than a year away from the opening of the UN conference that aims to extend the non-proliferation treaty. When it comes to exerting pressure to extend that treaty, Britain will have no credibility and no one will believe us, because the world already knows that we reserve the right to use nuclear weapons. Other countries will also appreciate that we are in the process of widening the nuclear gap and that we reserve the right to continue to conduct our own nuclear tests.
The creative cuts should have been directed at our nuclear defences. Substantial savings could still be made if the Trident programme were abandoned. Greenpeace has identified that savings of at least £5 billion could be made in the short term and up to £15 billion over the proposed lifetime of Trident. We should have made those savings and redirected those resources.
The redirected resources should have been targeted in two ways. First, they should have gone towards defence diversification. The United Kingdom's record on defence diversification is woeful, because the Government have no commitment to it. They may talk about the Konver programme, but all that amounts to is £15 million funded overwhelmingly from Europe. That money amounts to little more than the commission that one enterprising individual can get from a decent arms deal these days.
To put it in a wider perspective, we need simply recognise that at the moment Germany is investing £500 million in its own defence diversification programme. Between 1985 and 1991, the American company, Frisbee Airborne Hydraulics, shifted from having a 90 per cent. dependence on arms procurement to one of just 20 per cent.--without losing a single job. One could not say that of any of the British arms supplies industries. They are their own killing fields of our most skilled, qualified and imaginative design technologists and engineers. Their jobs are being lost because the Government do not have a serious commitment to any defence diversification programme. It is tragic to have to say this on the day after China agreed to use American help to finance the refocusing of Chinese defence activities and skills towards improving its aeroplane industry and air navigational systems.
I have a royal ordnance factory in my constituency. I have spent a great deal of wonderful time with people in the ROF who have gone through the most phenomenal agenda of changes that they could make if they had a different brief from the main purchaser of their skills--the Government. They could diversify along the lines of technology redeployment, using skills that they have to focus on the international need for munitions decommissioning in eastern Europe and the middle east.
The work force also have computer-aided design skills and could use them to make buildings, the channel tunnel and aircraft safer. They have proposed a whole range of practical developments, but they are being ignored because of a lack of funding. The technology to protect people and structures exists, as do the skills. All it lacks is a Government with a lead and a vision; instead, we hear little more than platitudes--such are the Government's references to defence diversification.
The second plank of refocused resourcing is service personnel. In an organisational context, that is where the real front line lies in the United Kingdom. We have people and organisations with huge skills, but there is a desperate need for a vision to refocus those skills. They need to be refocused towards peace building rather than
Column 223war fighting. They need to be harnessed in many ways--perhaps around a new international youth initiative and, specifically, towards the massive environmental threats that hang over us all.
I have set out some of those ideas in greater detail in a pamphlet which I published recently, but I shall not try to go through it now. This country needs to rise to the challenge set for it by President Gorbachev when he talked about the three Ds--the need for the world to address the challenges of democracy, development and
demilitarisation. Instead, our Government present papers that are still tumbling around the past and tinkering around with the present.
The real sadness of the document before us was brought home to me by a small apocryphal tale that I heard a couple of weeks ago. It was about a conversation between a mother camel and her child. The child asked its mother why it had such big flat feet with thick soles and the mother said, "You have wonderful feet. They are broad so that when you trek across the desert you will not sink into the sand dunes, and they have thick soles so that they will not be burnt by the heat of the sun. Other animals may suffer, but you will thrive." The child camel then said, "But mother, why do I have this hump on my back?" The mother said, "My child, it is a beautiful hump. Other animals would die of thirst in the desert, but you can carry your own water supply, which will get you through for weeks." The child camel then asked its mother, "Why do I have these long eyelashes?" The mother answered, "Your eyelashes are beautiful, my child. In the huge storms across the desert, other animals would be blinded and would grind to a halt. Your eyelashes can sweep away the sand and allow you to see." The child thought for a moment, looked up at its mother and said, "Mother, just one more question: if I have all those beautiful features and abilities, what are we doing stuck here in Dudley zoo?" The document before us seems to be about Dudley zoo. This country has human and organisational skills that could meet the challenges presented to us by the world outside. We have technological skills, in terms of both high and intermediate technology, which the world desperately needs. People can see a different role which this country could play in international peace building. So why are we tragically stuck with a Government who are intellectually moribund and stranded in their own nuclear version of Dudley zoo?
The world needs its first ex-nuclear state. It needs a defence and international policy focused around peace building. It needs a policy that is free from the shackles of nuclear madness. Those are not to be found in "Front Line First".
Dr. Charles Goodson-Wickes (Wimbledon): I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) was criticising more acutely the Government or the Opposition Front Bench. The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), who is just leaving the Chamber, seemed to cringe in his place because yesterday he gave us an unequivocal undertaking that any future Labour Government--God save us--would deploy Trident.
Column 224It has given me no pleasure in recent years to have criticised several aspects of the Government's defence policies. So it is an agreeable surprise for me to be able to welcome, with some reservations, the outcome of the defence costs study which, despite many gloomy predictions, has achieved the general aim of "Front Line First".
I pay particular tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and his erstwhile colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken), for working so closely with the armed services to produce a result that is broadly acceptable from both the military and financial viewpoints. That was an achievement in itself and the issues were addressed in such a way that the Opposition's call for a defence review now rings hollow. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's speech at the party conference could hardly have put the position more clearly: there are to be no further upheavals. It is exactly that statement of stability to come which the Government, the country and everyone in the armed forces want.
It has been a painful process. For the Army, the position would have been untenable had not "Options for Change" been modified in three material ways: first, by allowing four excellent regiments to escape amalgamation and thus preserve their identities; secondly, by adding back 3,000 men; and, thirdly, by the belated recognition that we needed a regular third armoured Army recce regiment. However, may I warn my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, whom I welcome back to the Department, that the problem of overstretch has not gone away. That fact was brought home to me in stark terms when, during the recess in August, I returned to Northern Ireland for the first time since I served in South Armagh 20 years ago. Together with the qualities that we all admire so much and which we have recognised in this debate, of our troops' maturity, resilience, restraint and humour in the face of all the provocation in Northern Ireland, there is a price to be paid. That price is seen in human terms, such as the above-average divorce rate among soldiers serving in Northern Ireland. That pressure has also led some of our most able soldiers to apply for premature voluntary release. Thus, the question of overstretch will not go away. There has always been a discrepancy between ministerial assurances and the views of commanders in the field. A 24-month tour interval can be satisfied only if two conditions are fulfilled: first, if the Government can, in due course, reduce the number of troops in Northern Ireland, given the welcome ceasefire, which we all hope holds; and, secondly, if the Government stick to their assurance that no further cuts will be made, even if commitments are reduced. I hope that we shall hear no more of "overstretch"--a term that was once not in our vocabulary--but I also hope that we shall not now swing the other way and start talking of "understretch". I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement to avoid understretch and to ensure that the qualities of our British soldiers are used in the right way. They can be used in the right way only if soldiers are properly trained and equipped. It is nothing short of disgraceful that recently it has been impossible to exercise adequately at brigade level, let alone in any higher formations.
Column 225The pressure on Salisbury plain is becoming ever greater as troops come back from the British Army of the Rhine. Exercises on Salisbury plain depend on the goodwill of the chief constable of Wiltshire, who must close roads from time to time to make a reasonable exercise at that level possible. Even if the BATUS facility in Canada can be upgraded and simulation techniques are developed, is not it time to look anew at training areas closer to home in the former eastern Europe, so that realistic training can be carried out? I fully accept that most of our future actions will be carried out in the framework of a coalition, but surely it is important for our troops to train independently at the highest possible level.
My hon. Friends have already made powerful arguments to rationalise the equipment aspects. We must have a decision soon for our support and attack aircraft. Both are vital for our future flexibility and effectiveness. Any further delay, I submit to my right hon. Friend, will merely compromise our troops' capabilities to carry out their role properly.
In conclusion--I declare an interest as a reserve officer--I ask my right hon. Friend to reconsider the position of reservists. Saddam Hussein's recent histrionics--they could all too easily develop into something much worse--remind us that we can no longer deploy 25,000 Regulars, especially at short notice, to various areas of conflict throughout the world. Yet the physical annual reporting of reservists has been reduced to a written exercise.
I have already drawn an analogy between that exercise and my writing to the Chief Whip saying, "I will be in the Lobby if there is a Division". I do not think that he would find that any more acceptable than I find the new reservist structure. It is no substitute to fill in a form rather than to appear physically and to report as a reservist. It is an entirely bogus argument that the old system was too expensive in the post-cold war era, and that a new legal system had to be put in place.
We are told that the so-called "high-readiness volunteer" will be introduced, but not until 1996 at the earliest. Is not it an opportunity for a high-readiness Minister to intervene soon to reduce that hiatus to nothing?
Whatever the future holds in what the Secretary of State for Defence described as "this curious world", I am convinced that the Government are on track to enable British troops to lead by example, and to continue to be a force for good around the world, whether in conflict, in humanitarian aid or in a combination of the two. 9.1 pm
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Govan): In the limited time available to me, I shall discuss some issues related to procurement, because I believe that military purchasing should be considered as part of the industrial strategy that every Government should have.
We are moving increasingly towards a position in which large British companies involved in defence are working with their European colleagues to launch joint projects because of the expense of such projects. I hope that the Government will be able to give us an assurance that competitive tendering will work in a way that is designed to help British firms to collaborate with their European compatriots, and that will allow them to collaborate equally, instead of obliging them to enter a
Column 226subsidiary role. I am conscious that we have little time to discuss that, and I shall therefore be happy to provide the Minister with further information. I hope that he will make himself available to meet any firm in my constituency that has raised the subject with me.
I also want the Ministers to let us know that they will take account of the support that is being provided by other Governments to firms in their countries when they consider defence industries. I think of Pilkington Optronics in my constituency, which is bidding against foreign competition for masts and periscopes for submarines. Sagem in France and Kollmorgen in the USA have received substantial Government finance to help them with their research programme, but Pilkington and its collaborators have had to fund a research programme from their own funds. I hope that the Government will take that into account and will be prepared to provide co-operation with that company and its collaborators to ensure that they can compete for orders abroad on an equal footing.
For example, I draw to the attention of the Minister of State for Defence Procurement the fact that the French Government are making available a submarine so that the French equipment may be fitted to it as a platform for sales abroad. It obviously gives the French company an advantage when it can give an example of its equipment in operation. I hope, in those circumstances, that the Government will go ahead and place an order for batch 2 Trafalgar submarines as quickly as possible, so that that platform can be provided for the companies in my constituency.
Finally, I shall discuss military procurement standards and procedures. As the Ministers will be aware, part of the gap between the price quoted by Swan Hunter and the price quoted by the VSEL Kvaerner consortium for the landing platform helicopter resulted from the cost of the extra overheads of meeting naval procurement standards. I want the Minister to check whether he believes that those standards, their mode of operation and the level of bureaucracy involved are absolutely and utterly necessary. I hope that he will take account of the fact that Kvaerner, which builds gas carrier and chemical carrier ships to extremely high technical and safety standards, is able to produce ships at a far lower level of bureaucracy than applies in naval yards. In those circumstances, it seems that there should be a review of the level of bureaucracy--the gold plating and over- engineering--in naval projects supervised by the Ministry of Defence.
In that context, I wish to raise the subject of the ocean survey vessel. I hope that best commercial practice will be adhered to when quotes for that vessel are submitted. I hope that the speed with which the order is let will be more in line with normal commercial practice than is normal naval practice--in other words, quicker. We have a great national asset in our defence industries. Many of the firms use technology and personnel at the cutting edge of world developments. I hope that the Government will enable such companies to make the best use of their core technologies by providing them with support when it comes to diversification. That subject has already been touched on, but I hope that the Government will act on it in order to reduce the possibility of job losses as a result of defence cuts.
I regret that the leader of the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), is not present for the end of the debate. I wish to raise an
Column 227issue related to something that he said. It is important that the Scottish National party should come clean on its plans for defence in Scotland should it gain independence. We need a clear statement from the SNP on whether it intends to retain all existing bases and, if not, which it intends to close. We need a clear statement from the party on whether all existing units based in Scotland will be retained at their present levels. We also need a clear statement from it on whether all Scots in units not based in Scotland will be offered places in the new Scottish armed services. It is essential that the people of Scotland should have answers to those questions. When the Minister responds I hope that he will say that he will provide information when other hon. Members and I table questions designed to identify the costs of a Scottish defence force should independence come to Scotland--something that many of my colleagues and I shall argue strongly against.
It falls to most of us either to applaud those troops who serve from our constituencies or to plead a special case for the manufacturers of defence equipment located in or near our constituencies. I shall not disappoint the House, and shall plead for both.
During the debate on this subject 11 years ago I made my maiden speech. On that occasion I had to make valedictory remarks about 450 years of naval history and the closure of Chatham dockyard in my constituency. Sadly, in the last year, we have lost our last remaining naval connection as HMS Wildfire has been closed due to the constraints on the Royal Naval Reserve.
We still have an important defence establishment in the Medway towns: the Royal School of Military Engineering in my constituency. It is the spiritual headquarters of the sappers, who were rightly praised by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces for their wonderful work in Bosnia and around the world. The sappers have served in every campaign that the British Army has ever fought. It is entirely appropriate that their motto should be
"ubique"--everywhere. It was during the sappers memorial weekend recently that I exchanged some words with the Chief Royal Engineer who, instead of giving me a battering for the cuts in defence expenditure and resources, was at pains to emphasise to me the excellence, the energy and the enthusiasm of the young officers serving around this country and abroad whom he had visited in the previous 18 months. He did add that, in order to maintain their energy and enthusiasm, it will be necessary to give those excellent soldiers a sense of purpose and stability and to let them know where their future duties will lie--as part of a NATO rapid reaction corps or as part of a United Nations force, keeping the peace in the hot spots that have erupted in the past few years.
The excellent high-technology company GEC Marconi Avionics is located in my constituency; it provided the backbone of employment in the Medway towns during the difficult years after the dockyard closure. Its peace dividend, if such it can be called, has been a reduction in the work force from 7,000 to just over half that number
Column 228in the past decade. We in the Medway towns look forward to Marconi winning new procurement orders from the Minister of State for Defence Procurement.
The company is particularly interested in the competition to supply the attack helicopter. It has re-engineered the Bell Supercobra into the Venom helicopter--I believe that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement has seen the company's work on that. When, in the coming months, he starts looking for value for money when placing an order I hope that he will consider value for money for the whole life cycle of the aircraft. Marconi proposes to offer 90 per cent. of the most capable attack helicopter for 60 per cent. of the cost. In these days of straitened resources, that seems to me the sort of offer that my right hon. Friend will find difficult to refuse.
Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North): As usual, we have heard a wide- ranging and extremely knowledgeable number of contributors to this debate, and I hope to refer to many but not all of their speeches. I hope that the Government, having heard all that information and experience, will at least be better informed than before and, we continue to hope, wiser too.
Several hon. Members presented knowledgeable and spirited constituency cases which I do not intend to pursue. My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) spoke about his RAF station with great knowledge and spirit. My hon. Friends the Members for Carmarthen (Mr. Williams) and for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) also raised constituency interests.
One or two of the points made in the debate certainly merit a serious response from the Government. No one likes to embark on a personal vendetta, but my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) asked some difficult and serious questions about Mark Thatcher. The Minister may not want to deal with such grave matters tonight, but some time in the not- too-distant future someone in Government is going to have to provide some answers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) and the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) raised again a subject which has been discussed here many times and which is close to my own heart: the manner in which the people who work in Rosyth have been treated--broken pledges, broken promises and broken hearts. Future plans for investment made on the basis of promises given by a previous Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), lie in ruins. Thousands of people in the Rosyth area have been left bereft of plans or security, and as the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) said, the problem has affected people in an area much wider than Rosyth itself.
It is my pleasant duty at this point to welcome the new defence team under the old leader. I welcome back the right hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman); I know that he has served the country and the Government well before in defence. We wish him well in his new post. I also welcome the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) to the defence team for the first time. His tribute to the troops was the standard sort that we all pay them, but it was none the less sincere for that. The sincerity of his tribute shone through and must have been apparent to all,
Column 229as was the pride with which he took his place at the Dispatch Box. It was almost as if he was coming home. I suspect that if the hon. Gentleman had to choose any position in Government, it would be the one that he has been given.
I am much too generous to say that it shows how bad a state the Ministry was in when it had to send for the cavalry. We hope that the Minister's career will be as distinguished in defence as it was in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I am sure that he will have much fun with defence acronyms as in his former post he gave a new dimension to the expression "well hung".
I also congratulate the long-distance runner who is not with us, the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe), on his appointment as a Parliamentary Private Secretary. It is not normal to congratulate hon. Members appointed to such posts, but I understand that he is the PPS to the two Defence Ministers whom I mentioned. That is taking cuts a bit far, even for the Ministry of Defence. However, if someone had to be chosen to run between two Ministers, a better man could not have been selected.
I shall say a quick word about the old defence team whose members have all been promoted to the dizzy heights of the Cabinet. I congratulate them all, especially my old sparring partner, the ex-Minister of State for the Armed Forces, the right hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), who has become chairman of the Conservative party. We recall with pleasure that as Minister of State for the Armed Forces the right hon. Gentleman presided over a drastic reduction in numbers, plummeting morale and a slashing of support. We wish him similar success in his position as chairman of the Conservative party.
The nature of these debates is to concentrate on differences between the parties because it has not been unknown for political points to be scored. But I shall be unorthodox by first outlining the areas of agreement in the new spirit of consensus under our new leader. We join the Government in paying tribute to the men and women of the armed forces. Last year, as in previous years, they have shown by their courage, discipline and professionalism that they are worthy recipients of the proud traditions that they inherit. As we approach Trafalgar day on Friday, it is worth remembering those traditions. If I had not reminded the House of that, Horatio Nelson's great nephew four times removed, the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), who is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, would have done so.
There is common ground between the Government and Opposition on much operational activity. We welcome "Partnership for Peace", which was mentioned at length by the Secretary of State, the memo of understanding and the bilateral meetings between central European and Baltic military organisations.
We were relieved that the worst fears of the Territorial Army were not realised in the pronouncements on "Front Line First". The hon. Members for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) spoke about that. We agree with the Government about the role played by our military in Ghana and Mozambique and further afield, and particularly in South Africa. We also agree about the role of our forces in United Nations peacekeeping.
Column 230The Government and Opposition are on common ground about operations in Ireland. Like the Secretary of State, we look forward to the day when British troops--as he put it on the radio this morning--are no more necessary on the streets of Belfast than they are in Birmingham, Cardiff or Edinburgh. Of course, as the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) said, that is subject to the democratic process.
We accept that the de-escalation of a military presence in Northern Ireland and activity there is a function not merely of the political process and progress but of security considerations. We should like to flag up to any member of the Government who is listening that if, as we all hope, peace comes to Northern Ireland, that will not be used as the basis for a simple arithmetical equation by which the British armed forces will be reduced by the number who are freed from deployment in Northern Ireland. There is a critical mass beneath which, if our armed forces and particularly the Army are reduced, it will be impossible to build them up again.
Mr. Harris: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. While I heartily endorse his last remarks, as he is welcoming things, did he welcome the motion passed by the Labour party conference that would have cut our defence spending to the average of western European countries and would have meant a £6 billion cut in our defence budget?
Dr. Reid: No. I did not welcome that. What I did welcome, and which no one has mentioned, was the statement by the National Executive Committee that was agreed unanimously by the Labour party conference, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and that stated a nuclear policy that Labour will enter Trident into multilateral arms control negotiation. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is now better informed. I also welcomed the 22 motions at the Tory party conference that were critical of the Government, none of which was called. In particular, I congratulate the Conservatives of Torridge and Devon, West who called for a full and objective defence review.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind): What does the hon. Gentleman suggest the country and the House should make of a Labour party conference that simultaneously passes a resolution calling for the cancellation of Trident and at the same time suggests that it should be retained and entered into multilateral defence negotiations? Does the hon. Gentleman really take comfort in such a farrago of nonsense?
Dr. Reid: I suggest that hon. Members become better informed of the Labour party procedures than the Secretary of State for Defence. Let me explain to him that, in order to be considered for the manifesto of the Labour party, a conference decision has to reach two-thirds support. As the Secretary of State has demonstrated that he is not good at figures, I should explain that that is 66 and two thirds per cent. If something is unanimous, it has 100 per cent. support. The national executive statement received 100 per cent. support as it was unanimous, but the conference decision
Column 231to which he referred received only 55 per cent. or less than two thirds. Had he been informed of that, the Secretary of State would not have been asking fatuous questions from the Dispatch Box. Let me refer now to areas of agreement. We have long supported the Government's position on Bosnia. Indeed, before they adopted it we proposed a limited humanitarian role for the troops. We concur with the Government's view of the danger of lifting the arms embargo. In the Gulf, we support the timely response in terms of the dispatch of the troops and Tornado aircraft, although we point out, as we did to the previous Prime Minister, that international legality is a necessary but not sufficient condition for any action, pre-emptive or otherwise. International legality has to be complemented by international political consensus. That is absolutely essential in the Gulf.
There have been, however, substantial areas of discord between the parties. We have made plain our dissatisfaction with the Government's approach to nuclear non-proliferation and their non-approach to a comprehensive test ban treaty. Those issues were raised by my hon. Friends with whom I am not in absolute concurrence on other matters--my hon Friends the Members for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) and for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson). In particular, we view the Government's refusal to limit the nuclear capacity of the new Trident system to that of Polaris as a serious impediment to international progress.
Our most serious differences with the Government lie in the topics that are central to today's debate--the reformation of military thinking, the restructuring of the armed forces and the reformulation of strategic purpose. Like others who have spoken in the debate--it was even hinted at by the ex-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Bridgwater--we do not believe the Government when they imply that there will be no further changes to our armed forces. No one believes that, except possibly the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Robinson), who in a naive speech tonight-- [Interruption.] It is in the eye of the beholder. I thought that it was a naive speech because he seemed to think that the status quo would prevail indefinitely as far as our armed forces are concerned. There will be change in our armed forces. There may be cuts and there certainly will be a reallocation of resources, irrespective of which Government are in power and it does no one any justice to deny that it will happen. The real question is whether that change will be managed, coherent and in pursuit of a strategic objective, or whether it will be the way that it has been for the past three
years--incoherent with no strategic objective, piecemeal and unfair. That is why the Secretary of State, who is not only a lawyer but a Scottish lawyer, chose his words carefully yesterday. When asked directly whether there would be any further cuts, he said that he did not contemplate any further cuts. He did not quite add, "at the present time", but it was implicit in what he said.
We can all be reassured that the Secretary of State does not contemplate any further cuts. Of course, he did not contemplate a freeze in child benefit; he did not contemplate VAT on fuel; he did not contemplate the biggest tax rise in British history--but they happened, so let us be warned.
Column 232Every time a Minister denies anything, listen carefully and in the background we can hear a chorus of cocks crowing. No denial from a Minister can be taken seriously, especially when we live in a changing world. After all, it is barely three months since the right hon. and learned Gentleman announced the third round of defence cuts in as many years. As with the previous cuts under "Options for Change" and "Defending our Future", the proposals contained in the defence costs study take the form not of a coherent and internally consistent package of reforms designed to serve an identifiable strategic purpose, but of a series of piecemeal budgetary measures and decisions foisted on Defence Ministers by their colleagues at the Treasury.
The Government's defence, as it was tonight with the Secretary of State, is to attack Labour party policy-- [Hon. Members:-- "Right."] Conservative Members may say that, but it is an attack based not on strength, but on weakness. I must tell them that every time I hear the Secretary of State attack Labour party policy, it reminds me of the famous telegram sent by Marshall Foch at the battle of the Marne to Marshall Joffre, which read:
"Hard pressed on my right--my centre is yielding--impossible to manoeuvre-- situation excellent--I shall attack."
That comes to mind every time I hear the Secretary of State--
Dr. Reid: It is obvious that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is not a military historian. It is no thanks to Marshall Foch that we won the war. The expression, "lions led by donkeys" springs to mind--not in relation to the Secretary of State, of course, but Marshall Foch.
The reality is that the biggest squeeze of all is to come. I warn Conservative Back Benchers not to say that we did not tell them. Honest John is putting it on the line for them. Budget predictions produced last year by Ron Smith, a professor of applied economics at Birkbeck college-- not, as far as I know, a member of the Socialist Workers party--reveal the extent of the funding gap that already exists, whoever comes to power in two years' time.
Let us assume that the defence budget falls to 2.9 per cent. of gross domestic product at the end of the century--the exact figure in the Government's projections. Let us assume low inflation and sustained economic growth. Those are all perfectly reasonable assumptions. Let us also assume that the procurement budget is sustained at about its current level. Even then, force levels will have to be reduced to 200,000 in order to balance the books. For the benefit of Conservative Members, I shall tell them now what I told them three years ago--that there was a 27 per cent. real cut. They did not believe it then, but it is now accepted by the Government. That meant a further cut of 32,900 members of the armed forces, or 14 per cent. over and above the present cuts. In other words, between 1985 and the year 2000, the Government--in whose hands we all know defence is safe--will have cut 40 per cent. in real terms from the defence budget. That is not a conference decision with 55 per cent. or 30 per cent. That is not a theoretical proposition of delegates to a party that is in opposition. That is the reality of a Government in power. A 40 per cent. cut is staring Conservative Back Benchers in the face.
The Secretary of State, who has become the master of illusion with figures, the Paul Daniels of Parliament, producing policies designed on paper, an impressive order
Column 233of battle, must admit that the Government have failed to provide the necessary training, equipment and logistic support out of the present budget.
Dr. Reid: If the Government can find the money to offset what is coming, I shall make a promise to the hon. Gentleman. I shall have to find only two other miracles to call for the canonisation of the Secretary of State. We do not need to look in the crystal ball; we can read the book-- the report published by the Defence Select Committee, chaired by a Conservative Member, on the implications of the lessons learnt from Operation Granby.
The Government took us into a war with two armoured divisions. When they decided to send one armoured division to the Gulf, 77 per cent. of our Challenger tanks were not operational. Again, for the benefit of those who cannot deal with arithmetic, that means that 23 per cent. of our tanks were operational. The Lada has more operational success than the British first armoured division did under the Government. Yet Conservative Members criticise Labour party policy. When we look at the explanations given by assistants at the Ministry of Defence in defence of their masters, the situation is not alleviated but made worse. The deputy under-secretary, Mr. Roger Jackling, when asked about the inability to produce soldiers and armoured divisions in the field, said that
"in the former strategic circumstances, what you actually had in the shop window as part of your deterrent posture was of paramount importance. You did not expect to have to use it."
I hope that no one told the Russians. In a further illuminating sentence, he added:
"We are now discovering in the new strategic circumstances that perhaps what constitutes your front line is more likely to be called upon to engage in conflict".
There we have it. Under the expert guidance of the Secretary of State for Defence and his predecessor, we have discovered that the Ministry of Defence, 160 years after Clausewitz, has discovered that, in times of conflict, the front line is likely to be called into a fight.
Secondly, with a terrible irony, the Secretary of State, who declared last year that he did not want paper tiger forces, is now branded by his own staff as being part of a Government who, for 15 years, presided over shop window forces. No wonder there is silence on the Conservative Back Benches. That is how far the Conservatives have gone.