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Mr. Colvin: To demonstrate the invalidity of what the hon. Gentleman has just said, may I point out that, first, the United States of America, which is accepted as being the most powerful country in the world in terms of defence, has cut its defence expenditure far more strictly than this country, with reductions of some 40 per cent. Secondly, it is responsible to cut the teeth first, to the extent required for our commitments, and only then deal with the tail. That is why recent reductions in support services have been of a higher percentage than front-line reductions, which is precisely what "Front Line First" is all about.

Dr. Reid: Two points arise from what the hon. Gentleman says. First, people should be careful before accusing others of wanting to cut defence and not being

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patriotic. I do not say that the hon. Gentleman does that, but it has become a habit among Tory Members. The present Ministers are too courteous to do so, but on one occasion I was accused of being almost treasonable, so I pointed out that those who had betrayed this country, whether in our intelligence services or armed services, up to and including Lord Haw-Haw, did not have the same background as my comrades. We question no one's patriotism or commitment to defence.

Mr. Colvin: Nor do I.

Dr. Reid: I know, but some of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues occasionally do. When it comes to testing the statistics, whether they are on wages, expenditure or on a historical basis, people should be careful. Who formed NATO? Ernie Bevin was not a leading member of the Conservative party. I said that we do not attack Ministers just because they cut defence expenditure. I gave a list of how they have cut defence expenditure and said why they should fear that when they face the electors.

We have now been told that the big upheavals are over. In the previous debate on this matter, we asked the Secretary of State to confirm that no more cuts would be made, but he would not do so. We asked whether more changes would be made, but no Minister will say that no more changes will be made because cuts are already in the system and the world is changing. So the Government should not make a meal of saying that there will be no more big upheavals.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement was on BSkyB television last week and said that he expected a surface fleet of fewer than 35. If he is now prepared to guarantee that 35 is the minimum beneath which we shall not go in the foreseeable future, we shall accept that.

Mr. Freeman: I made it plain in my opening statement that the Government's policy on the escort ships is clear. For the foreseeable future, we plan to have 35. On the interview to which the hon. Gentleman refers, perhaps he will do me the justice of watching the entire programme, although I cannot guarantee that all my remarks have been included in it. No one can guarantee that. I implied that the number of platforms is not the sole determinant of defence capability; equipment on the ships and aircraft are also determinants. That point may have been slightly too complicated and sophisticated for the programme, but that point differs from my clear commitment about the number of escort vessels.

Dr. Reid: That was a more courteous end to the sentence than I had expected at one stage. I have not seen the whole programme because the television station would not give me all of it. I do not think that it has been broadcast yet. I saw and studied only the section that was on the news. I did not claim that the Minister said that the number would be below 35, but we did worry. He has cleared that matter up and we accept it, but he will understand why we have such misgivings.

In the past, when faced with demands for assurances, Ministers have always been what Churchill called--if I may quote other hon. Members' family members--"resolute in their equivocation." The role being played in this matter by the former Minister of State for Defence Procurement worries me. I am not sure that he has gone that far away in his new job as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

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When Churchill was put into an eminent position in a period of dark crisis for this country, Royal Navy ships were signalled with the brief telegram, "Winston is back." I doubt whether a telegram is being signalled around all the ships saying, "Jonathan has gone for good", because I suspect that Jonathan is taking a closer interest in the matter than it appears.

It is not just that cuts are being made; they are being made in a non- strategic fashion. There are three examples of that: Rosyth, the Upholders and the merchant navy, all of which have been mentioned. Strategically, the closure of Rosyth assumes that we will never again require substantial naval operations in the water to the north of the country. Is that a wise decision? Operationally, it undermines our primary obligation to defend our home waters by minehunters, minesweepers and offshore patrol vessels. It also undermines our ability to protect our oil, gas and fishery resources.

The Select Committee on Defence referred to the danger of "blind cuts imposed by the Treasury axe".

When it comes to cuts, there is a mad axeman there who knows where the bodies are hidden.

Mr. Freeman: There is a distinction between the fleet's operations in the north-eastern approaches, and the facilities required to support the minesweepers and minehunters. There will still be facilities at Rosyth to support, in certain circumstances, those vessels. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to confuse those two issues.

Dr. Reid: Unfortunately, I cannot give way on every point, although I appreciate that a dialogue might be enlightening for all of us. The second example is the classic case of the Upholder. I will not go through all the details of the Upholder saga, which were mentioned earlier, but I wonder if the Ministers have thought over the history of the matter. The Upholder design contract was awarded in 1980. The first building contract was placed in 1983. The remaining three were contracted in 1986. The final boat went into service in mid-June 1993. The decision was made to take them out of commission at the beginning of July 1993.

Do Ministers realise what that means? It took 13 years to put Upholder in the water and 13 days to sink it. That is an incredible comparison, quite apart from the money involved. Thirteen years were spent getting a new submarine in the water and, within roughly 13 days of the final boat going in, a decision was made to decommission. That is a classic example of planning and procurement shambles in the MOD.

Merchant navy tonnage has fallen to one third of the tonnage that it inherited, with its strategic, industrial and political importance to this country. That is a fall of enormous magnitude. It is no good Ministers telling us that they are keeping their eye on it. I had to use this example once before. I am always suspicious of Ministers who tell us that they are keeping their eye on things because, as a very young lad, I had to watch a Scottish goalkeeper called Frank Haffey at Hampden Park keeping his eye on the ball, but Scotland lost 9-3. The fact that his eye was on the ball was of no benefit because the ball kept passing him. Could we have some action?

The Government have no coherent defence and industrial policy. The state of our amphibious capability should be a particular cause for concern. Perhaps the

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Minister can reassure me about the worrying case of Intrepid, which, as far as I am aware, still lies in dock, is unable to put to sea, and has been stripped of spares to keep other ageing assault ships going. It is in a state of extended readiness. Where I come from we used to call that mothballed. What we used to call cuts is now downsizing. We have been told that there will definitely be an order for two replacement ships. However, when announcing that order, the Minister said that the Government would order, "up to two". That must be the epitome of equivocation. How can there be any doubt about the numbers one or two? Perhaps it includes none. Apparently, in the euphemisms employed by the Ministry of Defence, that has now been changed to ordering "one (plus one)". Is the Minister having two, one or none?

I will not go on at great length about the Government's response to waste. However, I want to put one thing on the record. I do not intend to be offensive to anyone personally, but it should be a matter of honour in the House that when wastage is on such a massive scale, running into hundreds of millions of pounds, and is serious enough for Ministers to demand the resignation of a public servant--a serving officer--surely it should be serious enough for one of the Ministers or the Secretary of State to resign. How is it that in a Cabinet full of people who have brassnecked their way through scandal after scandal without resignation entering their mind, suddenly a scapegoat is found and a demand for resignation is levied against someone who, at this stage, cannot answer for himself?

I have already mentioned the increase in salaries for the other ranks as compared with that for the top brass. We have no objection to anyone in the armed forces receiving a salary, remuneration, back-up, education or housing that befits the sacrifices and risks that those personnel take. However, at a time of constraint, when morale is being tested and when sailors are being asked to spend longer periods away from home, we do object to a settlement that increases the top salaries by 17 per cent. and decreases the bottom salaries by 15 per cent. We make no apology for our objection to that.

As we approach the extension conference of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the Government's record has hardly been calculated to convince others of the wisdom of an unconditional extension. We have warned the Government about that continually. They have refused to limit the number of warheads on Trident, they have stood out against a moratorium on nuclear testing and they had to be dragged away from the development of a new sub- strategic nuclear system--TASM, the tactical air-to-surface missile. They have constantly refused even to consider a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons. Is it any wonder that there is now such resistance among non-nuclear states to an unconditional extension of the non-proliferation treaty? Can the Government tell us what they will do if they become the victims of their own behaviour and the non-nuclear states refuse to endorse the treaty?

This year, we set the Royal Navy the tasks which, in essence, have changed very little over past decades or even centuries. It has the task of safeguarding our home shores and mainland. We have asked it to fulfil a vital contribution to our allied effort and to represent our interests abroad, in war and peace. This year, as ever, our Royal Navy has responded with the discipline, dedication and

professionalism that we have come to respect and to expect from the senior service.

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The Opposition join others in the House in recording our gratitude to the men and women of the Royal Navy. That includes those involved in the protection of our territorial waters and fisheries, those in the national carrier task group, the ships of Operation Maritime Guard in the Adriatic and the Sea Kings at Split, all of which stand ready to provide close air support, casualty evacuation and additional assistance to our ground troops in Bosnia. It also includes those in the Armilla patrol in the Gulf who, for a decade and a half, have protected peaceful commerce in that region, and the men and women who serve our country, whether on shore and at home or abroad, in the warm waters of the Mediterranean or the icy flows of the south Atlantic. Tonight we signal our appreciation and our debt to them all. We firmly believe that their professionalism, commitment and dedication deserve a better Government than they have at present, and we pledge ourselves to ensure that they have such a Government in the not too distant future.

9.34 pm

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames): That was, as usual, a tidy and polished speech by the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) who seemed to be getting a little ahead of himself by regarding these Benches with goggle eyes. We shall do our very best to fight him off.

I hope to deal with most of the issues raised today but any specialist points relating to procurement will be dealt with separately by way of a letter from my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement. I therefore hope that the House will indulge me if I deal only with the more general issues. Clearly, this debate has been interesting and important, as such debates always are. I share the disappointment expressed by the hon. Member for Motherwell, North that so few hon. Members have come to debate a matter of extreme importance to the interests of the United Kingdom and of our services. Before I embark on the substance of my speech, I, too, pay a warm tribute to the men and women of the Royal Navy as they continue to play a crucial role in the defence of the United Kingdom. It is a great privilege to be Minister of State for the Armed Forces and have the opportunity to deal for a time with such admirable people.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State outlined some of the important operations in which the Royal Navy has taken part in the past 12 months. The hon. Member for Motherwell, North paid a handsome tribute to the Navy's extensive operational role. In addition to its operations in the Adriatic and its contribution to the international task group off Somalia, the Royal Navy continues to operate vessels all over the globe. As we have been debating here tonight, in the south Atlantic HMS Dumbarton Castle is returning from a deployment to the Falkland Islands while HMS Endurance, the ice patrol ship, is on her annual deployment to the Antarctic--rather her than me. HMS Marlborough is making her way to the South Atlantic and, far out underneath the oceans, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, the independent strategic deterrent patrol, is on guard for the life of Britain.

In warmer climes, the current West Indies guardship, Broadsword, and her tanker, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Brambleleaf, represent our interests in the security and

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stability of the independent territories in the Caribbean. As my right hon. Friend rightly said, they regularly take part in anti-drugs operations in support of civilian authorities and seize the drugs that are increasingly bound for Europe.

In the far east, the Hong Kong patrol craft continue their duties to patrol the waters of the colony and support the civil authorities in very difficult anti-smuggling operations in which they demonstrate exceptional courage and skill. HMS Liverpool is also in the region, having just completed a visit to Malaysia, and is on her way to India.

As some hon. Members said, closer to home several Royal Marine units are in Norway for winter training and have this week participated in a major exercise in the Norwegian sea. They are being supported by several ships, including the assault ship HMS Fearless. Next week, all those units will move on to participate in NATO's major exercise, Strong Resolve. It is a large amphibious exercise, also in the Norwegian sea, and one that I very much look forward to visiting.

While on the subject of the Royal Marines, I am delighted to be able to say that Brigadier Thomson and General Le Pichon, the commanding officers of 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines and the French 9th Marine Infantry Division, have today signed an exchange of letters promoting closer links between the two formations. The letters identify a wide range of opportunities for co- operation, ranging from exchanges of personnel to observing and participating in exercises. That link between marine units represents a valuable and practical step in building closer links between France's armed forces and our own.

Coming closer to home and to an interest close to your heart, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Navy remains busy in home waters around the United Kingdom. Her Majesty's ships Anglesey, Guernsey, Lindisfarne, Cattistock and Shetland are all on fishery patrol tonight on duties around our coastline. A number of ships are undergoing their operational sea training--indeed, today they will have been fighting the Thursday war before deployment on operational tasks--and several others are undertaking trials. That is extremely demanding and important work. A major joint maritime exercise off the north coast of Scotland, involving numerous Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships, alongside those of our NATO allies, completes tomorrow. Meanwhile, 42 Royal Marine commandos are on patrol duties in Northern Ireland.

Although by no means exhaustive, I hope that that list adds to the quick spin that my right hon. Friend gave of the Royal Navy's commitments. It justly claims to be and remains a worldwide, blue-water Navy, of whose achievements we may be truly and justly proud. We are privileged to have a force of dedicated, highly trained, skilled and well-motivated men and women to undertake such important roles and to maintain a state of high readiness in what is often a fast-changing scene.

In any fighting force, great care must be taken to protect the well-being of the uniformed people. The Royal Navy is keen to deploy its assets effectively to meet a wide range of commitments, but, in so doing, it is keen to ensure that reductions in uniformed strength should not place undue pressure on individuals through stretch. In praising their commitment I would not wish to overlook the contribution made by the civilians who support the modern Royal Navy. They perform an increasing variety of essential work, whether as industrials, stores officers,

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engineers, scientists or administrators, working in tandem with Royal Navy service men and women to maintain the Royal Navy's presence around the world.

I shall deal with some of the points made by hon. Members. I begin by welcoming the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) to the Opposition Front Bench in his first service debate. He did a pretty--well he did a job. Indeed, by the end of it, he convinced me, and I suspect that he successfully reinforced the views of all of us on the Conservative Benches and of most people in the country, that there is no field of politics in which the Labour party is less convincing than defence.

I suppose that the hon. Gentleman gained a good deal of experience of the services when he was a junior research assistant at the London School of Economics. None the less, he made a detailed speech into which he had obviously put a good deal of effort and I shall try to deal with some of the points that he raised. Clearly, he made a sensible and important point about matching resources to tasks, with which we all agree. The Royal Navy is busy. That is exactly what it is there for and that is just as it should be. It is true that it has borne this year a heavy operational load and everyone agrees that it has done so with remarkable success. It is trained and equipped to influence events in the interests of this country, to exercise control of the sea and to be able to project power from the sea. Those are the principal roles of the Royal Navy, of which we should not lose sight.

The hon. Member for Leeds, Central talked about the housing trust--a familiar hobbyhorse. He knows that we are setting up a new tri-service housing organisation to be known as the Defence Housing Executive, whose sole purpose is to manage and maintain better the married quarters estate on an integrated basis, rather than on single-service lines. We remain extremely confident that the Defence Housing Executive will make an important and significant contribution to improve management of service housing for the benefit of service families and taxpayers alike.

The hon. Gentleman made some criticisms of the chief executive, Mr. Robinson, who was recruited on a three-year, fixed-term appointment. It is certainly not Mr. Robinson's fault that the trust proposal did not succeed. On the contrary, he has done a very good job for us in reorganising our housing effort.

The hon. Member for Leeds, Central made some points about the services' pay. Indeed, we have seen a rush-job, cack-handed press release put out by the shadow Secretary of State for Defence. The House should know that since 1979, we have always implemented the recommendations of the Armed Forces Review Body. These

recommendations and this body have the full confidence of the services. The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong to attack an independent body in that way.

The hon. Member for Leeds, Central went on to discuss the naval stores consultation, a matter also raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence. As they know, the Government have responded to the Select Committee's report and have welcomed the Committee's qualified endorsement of our naval stores proposals. We consulted widely on those proposals with the work force and the local authorities. Decisions were not taken until all the representations had been received and thoroughly dealt with.

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The hon. Member for Leeds, Central also mentioned the disposal of the Upholders. It was clearly a difficult decision, which was taken in the light of a changed strategic environment. Their primary task was to patrol the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap where their shorter endurance and slower speed compared with SSNs--strategic submarines nuclear--was not a disadvantage. The relative importance of this area of operations is declining. A greater requirement now is for flexible and mobile forces capable of responding to the more diverse range of tasks that we face world wide. The greater speed and endurance of the SSNs is better suited to the new security environment.

My right hon. the Minister of State for Defence Procurement set out the position on procurement in a full and detailed speech. The hon. Gentleman--

Dr. Reid: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Soames: No, because I must get on. The hon. Member for Leeds, Central praised my right hon. Friend on his enlightened approach to procurement. Clearly, procurement is an important matter industrially and militarily within the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of a defence review. I tell him, as the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) rightly said, that nothing could be more calculated to damage and destroy the morale of the armed forces, for no good reason, than such a review. The Government will maintain balanced forces who are well equipped and well maintained.

I shall deal now with my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster. The House listened with respect to the powerful contribution by my hon. Friend, who has done a distinguished job as Chairman of the Select Committee. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and I noted with care his fears about Russia, about Islamic fundamentalism and its insidious spread and about the need to keep our defences in robust good shape. My hon. Friend speaks regularly and authoritatively.

My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster was pleased with the progress made in a number of our procurement projects. I share his pleasure at the announcement of the two assault ships which the hon. Member for Motherwell, North called into question. Clearly, there are two assault ships to be ordered and the landing platform helicopter HMS Ocean. I noted the points that my hon. Friend made about Manadon and the type 23 simulator. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State will let him have the details on that price. My hon. Friend congratulated my right hon. Friend on the way in which he is handling these complex procurement matters.

My hon. Friend made an important point about the Merchant Navy. I am pleased to have the opportunity to deal with that matter. The size of the merchant fleet has decreased, but studies by the Government have shown that despite that, there are generally still sufficient vessels on the British registers for defence purposes and that we would have no difficulty in manning chartered or requisitioned ships with British crews if that were necessary. We are not, however, complacent and we maintain a continuing dialogue with the Chamber of Shipping and the Department of Transport on manpower issues. My hon. Friend also expressed concern about the impact of funding constraints on Royal Navy exercise programmes. I hope that I can reassure him that an

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appropriate level of training is an integral part of any ship's programme. Each year, such a programme is drawn up for each vessel, including ministerially approved operational tasks, other operational commitments and exercises, and is then funded accordingly. The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) made a thoroughly thoughtful and interesting speech. I congratulate her whole- heartedly on what has obviously been her own admirable deployment with the armed forces parliamentary scheme and the Royal Navy. She has covered herself in glory. I am sure that the Navy will have greatly enjoyed showing her its splendid ships and people. I look forward to sharing her experience on a jackstay. I am not sure that they will not drop me in the middle, though.

I am very sorry, as my right hon. Friend will have been, to hear about Walter Strachan and about Lord Ewing. The House will wish to send them its best wishes.

The hon. Lady has been a doughty fighter and champion for her constituency interests. She dealt at length with Rosyth. As she knows, the decision was reached only after the fullest consideration of the many points that were raised during the most extensive consultations. In the final analysis, we did not accept that there would be any operational disadvantage arising from our proposals; on the contrary, there will be operational benefits.

Although we naturally regret the number of job losses, it is simply not possible to ignore the significant savings that will be available. There will continue to be 4,500 defence jobs in the Rosyth area. The dockyard will have a substantial allocation of ship refit work for some time to come. I wholly understand the hon. Lady's concern and anxiety--I will deal with the other points that she made by letter--relating to decommissioning submarines and how we will help the economic regeneration of the area.

The hon. Lady referred to my right hon. Friend's assurance on his recent visit to Rosyth that RD57 would not be used to store decommissioned nuclear submarines. Our policy in respect of those submarines continues to be that they will be stored safely afloat at the location where they are decommissioned. In regard to those at present stored at Rosyth, no decision has been made yet about their future storage. Should a decision be taken to move them at some point, there should be no difficulty in doing so.

The hon. Lady has had a bad week of it, I agree. I am sorry that she continues to receive the dreaded letters. I am sorry about Pitreavie, but the rationalisation of naval command, control, communications and intelligence facilities will generate savings of £22 million over the next 10 years. Again, they are substantial savings which, in the present climate, we could not possibly not take. We had to take them. No convincing rationale has been advanced that would justify forgoing them. I will be in touch with the hon. Lady in more detail on the rescue co-ordination centre.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves) made a thoroughly well-informed and detailed speech. Again, I am delighted to hear that he had such an excellent visit with the Royal Navy. Of course I shall pass on his thanks. I share his high opinion of those with whom he has been dealing. It is a great joy to deal with service people. Their can- do culture is a refreshing change from the rather banal world in which we live.

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I noted my hon. Friend's views on aircraft carriers, and I shall certainly pass them on to my right hon. Friend. I wholly endorse his views. Early studies into a replacement for our current carriers are in hand. My hon. Friend was pleased with the order for the assault ships and the landing platform helicopter. I note his points about the joint rapid deployment force. He also mentioned a matter relating to the type 23 command system. If I may, I will let him have a letter on that matter.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend is pleased with the news about Tomahawk. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State announced on 14 July, we are exploring the procurement of Tomahawk land attack missiles from the United States for fitment to our submarines, and we are grateful for a quick and helpful response from the United States Government. I wholly endorse my hon. Friend's assessment of the brilliance and great success of the Royal Navy and, above all, the fact that that service is in extremely good heart. I hope that the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East will not be embarrassed when I say that he made a first-class speech. I found very little in what he said with which I could disagree. On stability, which he and I have discussed at great length, I refer him to an admirable remark made by the First Sea Lord the other day, that the storm has passed but the swell will be felt for some time. The hon. and learned Gentleman is right. As "Options for Change" continues, as the defence cost studies come to a conclusion and the changes go downstream, plainly there will be turbulence to come. I wholly agree with the views which the hon. and learned Gentleman expressed in a thoroughly clear way about the defence review. He talked of the Bosnian lift, and he expressed the view--with which we would all agree--that a unilateral lift of the embargo would be a disaster. Plainly, if such an action were to take place we would find ourselves in an untenable position and we would have to withdraw. Everything has been done to try to ensure that that does not happen. The hon. and learned Gentleman also remarked on the importance of Europe and of a future European security and defence identity. He will be reassured by the fact that, for the Government, NATO remains the bedrock of the UK's defence policy. For nearly half a century, we have chosen to organise our collective defence against major external threats through NATO, which is the only security organisation with the military means to back up its security guarantees. A good deal of work must be done in Europe, and it must enable us to retain our ability to respond in a flexible manner.

The hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned combined joint task forces, and plainly they will help to develop a European security and defence identity which is fully compatible with NATO. He spoke of the need for a balanced Navy and, in the judgment of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and the service

chiefs--particularly the First Sea Lord--we have an effective and balanced Navy which is adequately trained and equipped. I entirely agree with his view about the requirement to maintain absolutely our ability to fight at the very highest end of the spectrum. We are wholly and irrevocably committed to that.

The hon. and learned Gentleman welcomed the decision on Tomahawk. I acknowledge his views on Rosyth which he shares with the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West. I am sorry that that part of the world

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has had such a rough time. My right hon. and learned Friend has made the matter of allocation refits known to the hon. and learned Gentleman, and I again join him in paying tribute to the work of the Royal Navy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) gave me notice that he had to do go down to his constituency tonight. I pay tribute to him for an excellent speech, and for the admirable work which he has done in representing to me and to all of my colleagues at the Ministry of Defence in a robust and vigorous manner the real concerns of his constituents. I acknowledge the difficulties which are being faced in the west country, and my hon. Friend was quite right to draw attention to the lamentable record of the Labour party on defence matters.

I noted with great sympathy my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton's calls for stability in Devon and Cornwall. I know of the anxieties about base- porting and assault ships, and I should like him to know that, following my visit to Plymouth, I have passed on the concerns to the First Sea Lord. I know that the Navy planners are looking at the matter.

I assure my hon. Friend and all those who represent the Plymouth area that, whatever happens at Chivenor, there will always be a substantial Royal Marines presence in Plymouth. I noted my hon. Friend's strictures about Bickleigh, which I visited the other day. It is an excellent camp which does need some work, and I will make sure that the matter is carefully considered.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) made a breathtakingly trivial and ineffective speech. It was a ridiculous tirade which I am going to gloss over as it did not even dignify a serious reply.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) dealt with a number of important points, including the questions of the EH101s and of the chaplains' school, which are receiving consideration.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) has found that our correspondence has been rather more prolonged than it should have been. I have noted the points he has made tonight, and I shall study his latest letter with the greatest care. I should be

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pleased if he would come in to have a talk to me about the letter. I wholly agree with his views on the beauty of Greenwich. The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), as one would expect, made a thoroughly polished and sensible speech. He was, however, a little churlish about the Navy programme. One cannot possibly exclude Trident from the procurement programme, and by any stretch of the imagination, the programme has done extremely well. VSEL has done a marvellous job on Trident, and the Navy has a handsome procurement programme in the pipeline. I shall study the other points which he made about the reserves, and let him have a letter.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) made some important and significant points about the non-proliferation treaty. It is a sad loss for all of us that, even though he is still a member of CND, he fails any longer to wear his button. We do understand that, in these politically correct times, he must no longer wear the single battle honour or medal he is ever likely to win.

The hon. Member for Motherwell, North in, as usual, an excellent and sensible speech--except when he started being silly towards the end-- endorsed almost everything that the Government believe about the need for a stable front line. I wish to tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government have made it absolutely plain that the major cuts in defence are over and finished; the front line is now safe and secure; we are delivering a stable front line, which will represent well-trained men and well-equipped ships. That is vital, because only with a stable front line can we build and plan for the future, for a Royal Navy that we can continue to be proud of and grateful for. It has been an excellent debate. I congratulate almost everyone who has spoken, and I look forward to the Army debate next week. It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.



That Mr. Richard Page be discharged from the Committee of Public Accounts and Sir Kenneth Carlisle be added to the Committee.-- [Mr. Burns.]

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Rural Dispensing

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Burns.]

10 pm

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle): The present regulations on rural dispensing are outdated and, in my belief, need reforming. They do not serve the purpose for which they were originally designed, they do not implement present Government policy of encouraging care in the community and patient choice, and they are divisive of the professions of medicine and pharmacy.

In Lincolnshire, there is a greater proportion of dispensing doctors than in any other part of the country, so my constituency of Gainsborough and Horncastle is especially affected. I can best illustrate the problems by referring to the health centre in Welton, slightly north of the city of Lincoln.

There has been an excellent health centre there for many years. A patient could visit the doctor, who prescribed the medicine required, having all the patient's records at his fingertips. The prescription was immediately relayed to the pharmacy department in the same building, and the patient collected the medicines with little delay. The system worked well and to everyone's satisfaction.

When the villages were small, no pharmacist would consider the district profitable enough in which to open a shop. The doctors were obliged to prescribe and dispense. Now that the villages have expanded, there is sufficient business to make it viable for a chemist to set up. That has made it attractive for an independent pharmacist to apply to open a pharmacy--in Welton's case, a large supermarket, which has a branch in the village and which already has a near-monopoly of the pharmacies in the Lincoln area. I think that that alone is worrying.

As the regulations stand, if the application succeeds, the pharmacy department in the health centre must, by virtue of the regulations, close to all patients except those who live outside a one-mile limit. In Welton's case, that is a very small percentage. However, the first criterion to be considered, as stated in the regulations, is that no loss of service to the patients should be caused by the opening of the pharmacy. Indeed, the intention of Government, as I know, is to improve and extend services.

The procedure was as follows. In 1990, the chain store applied to open a pharmacy. Then it had to prove that the village was rural. Although it would have taken an Act of Parliament to change Welton's status from rural to urban, apparently for pharmaceutical purposes it could simply be declared urban at a hearing. Then the family health service authority considered the situation and turned down the application, on the grounds that, if the pharmacy at the health centre was closed down with the loss of income, services to the public--which should concern us in the House--were bound to deteriorate.

Predictably, the chain store appealed. The appeal was heard by the drugs committee of the Yorkshire--not Lincolnshire--health authority. It consisted of two doctors, two pharmacists and a chairman. Bearing in mind the constitution of the committee, obviously the result turned on the chairman's casting vote, and he, not being a local person, could not possibly have been aware of the strength of local feeling, and anyway he was restrained in his decision by the regulations.

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The decision--in favour of the pharmacist in that case--was relayed to the FHSA, which then had to decide whether the new pharmacy, in the words of the regulations, was "necessary or desirable". In so doing, it was not allowed to take into account the wishes of the patients and the doctors or to take note that pharmaceutical services were already available from the health centre.

Let me emphasise how the patients felt about the decision. At a public meeting, nearly 600 people turned up--just in one village--and only six voted for the opening of the new pharmacy. The wishes of the majority were ignored. If I called a public meeting in the village of Welton on whether we should join a single currency, six people would turn up, but 600 people turned up to the meeting on the pharmacy and all but six voted to keep the status quo.

A huge number of letters on the issue were written to me--my postbag was overloaded with them--to councillors and to the FHSA, but I, as the Member of Parliament, the councillors, the FHSA, the local doctors and local people could not do anything.

The regulations give the FHSA no choice but to uphold the appeal, even though the FHSA obviously knew from its earlier decision that the outcome of the appeal would adversely affect local services. It was left with no authority: everything was a foregone conclusion. The whole process took two and a half years and resulted in thousands of letters, public meetings and a huge amount of antagonism. What is worse, public expectations were built up. People felt that, if they were consulted, as they were, their views would have some effect. In fact, the whole process was a total waste of money and a total sham. It did not offer proper consultation. It is not surprising that a huge amount of resentment has been built up in just one village on one issue alone. That is what has happened in peaceful, rural and contented Lincolnshire. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of that, and will do something about it.

New regulations should incorporate a clause requiring the FHSA or the appropriate health authority to act in an advisory capacity. Many of the current problems could have been avoided if the FHSA had brought the doctors and the pharmacy applicants together to discuss the situation to their mutual advantage. The FHSA should have knocked heads together. The practice had applied to employ a pharmacist, but that application was refused by the FHSA. The doctors were not advised about alternative solutions that would have involved co-operation and avoided all the confrontation that has led to such angst and unhappiness.

The process is now concluded. What has been the result in the health centre? Let us remember that we are not talking just about regulations, pharmacies, doctors or their renumeration. What should concern us in the House is what has happened to the services provided by that particular health centre. First, four partners were reduced to three. Secondly, the senior nurse, who ran the pharmacy department and whose knowledge and advice was well-respected, could no longer be financed.

Thirdly, two other receptionists had to go, and fourthly, surgery times had to be reduced, including before and after work surgeries. Patients attending surgeries must now take time off work which they and their employers

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can ill afford. In addition, facilities and security for dispensing at the health centre and maintained by that centre are not now available to approximately 80 per cent. of patients. That process, when repeated many times in the county as well as throughout the country, must represent a huge waste of resources.

All in all, the regulations have produced a system exactly the opposite of that for which they were designed, and of that which is Government policy as stated by my hon. Friend. I urge my hon. Friend that the Government should reform their regulations to allow an open, free market. That is what Conservative Back Benchers and our colleagues on the Treasury Bench presumably believe in--an open, free market. That is our philosophy of government. It is a ridiculous position which allows a grocer to employ a pharmacist while a doctor may not. How absurd that we have got into such a position. If there was an open market, in which all Conservatives believe, urban doctors as well as those in rural areas would benefit, because they too could employ a pharmacist and open a pharmacy if they so wished. I am not suggesting that it would be possible to move to such a beneficial open, free market throughout the country straight away--I know the pressures that my hon. Friend is under--but perhaps we could start with rural areas.

Until one has experienced the difference between an in-house pharmacy and a trip to the chemist's shop, it is hard to convey what it means to the patient--convenience, privacy, consultations between patient, doctor, pharmacist and patient records; and, perhaps most important, the co- operation between doctor and pharmacist at all levels where now there is division.

Like other professions, pharmacists are fighting for their continued existence, and I have considerable sympathy with them. Outside the NHS, they are obliged to waste their undoubted talents being shopkeepers in order to make a living. Inside the NHS, they can concentrate on being pharmacists.

The argument that doctors should prescribe and pharmacists should dispense is sound, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will make that point when he replies to the debate. It should be used not to separate the two professions, but to bring them together and encourage co-operation between them.

If over-the-counter medicines were available at chemists' shops or health centre pharmacists, there would be simple competition and we believe in that. A great many common drugs, such as aspirin, are available in ordinary shops. The enormous number of drugs now available off prescription would then be available in rural districts. If health centres are to be run on business lines, as encouraged by the Government, the regulations need to be changed. Dispensing by rural doctors is said to be more expensive than dispensing by pharmacists, because doctors over-prescribe to their own profit, use brand drugs instead of generic drugs, and prescribe more than urban doctors. However, rural doctors claim that, by being able to dispense, they can reduce hospital costs and thus the total cost of providing health services in rural areas. They say that prescribing brand drugs reduces their legal liability when things go wrong.

If the regulations allowed for pharmacists to be incorporated into health centres, a new system could be devised that would be less costly to the NHS and fair to both professions.

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