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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Willetts.]
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames): As someone who had the privilege of serving for a number of happy years in the 11th Hussars, now regrettably a quarter of a century ago, it is with a feeling of great personal pride that I have the honour to open this afternoon's debate on the Army, one of the institutions in our country of which we can be most proud.
Since we last debated the Army nine months ago, its activities have continued to receive widespread coverage. More than 20,000 members of the Army are currently deployed on operations--some 17,000 of them in Northern Ireland, including the home service force element of the Royal Irish regiment, and more than 3,000 in the former republic of Yugoslavia.
As we sit here in the comfort of the Palace of Westminster, British troops are serving along the green line in Cyprus, as observers on the Iraq-Kuwait border, in Georgia and are training in the inhospitable jungles of Brunei. They are also manning garrisons in both hemispheres and on three continents. In more than 30 countries around the world from Brunei to Bermuda, Hong Kong to Ghana, Malaysia to Mauritius and Belize to Nepal, members of the British Army are providing training assistance for the forces of many of our close and good friends around the globe.
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow): As someone who served with the military police some years ago, I should like to ask the ex -cavalry officer of a Minister a question concerning the deep concern felt by many people in Scotland over the press speculation in relation to the further merging of Scottish regiments. In view of his service experience, the Minister will readily acknowledge that infantrymen need to place absolute trust in their officers, and particularly their non-commissioned officers, when on peacekeeping duties, patrols and so on. That is achieved much more easily within the framework of an infantry regiment. Will the Minister assure the House that the press speculation is utterly groundless?
Mr. Soames: I am very happy to give the hon. Gentleman, in his capacity not only as a Member of Parliament but as a former military policeman, my absolute assurance that no such moves are planned. I also add --I should have said it at the beginning of the debate--that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is away today and he sends his apologies. Opposition Members have been good enough to understand that he is attending to essential and long-standing business.
Of particular note is the 33-man team which is currently deployed in South Africa to assist in the integration and training of the new national defence force. The fact that we should have been invited to perform that task, I believe, speaks volumes for the very high esteem in which the British armed forces are held worldwide.
As I speak, the United Kingdom Allied Command in Europe mobile force is currently exercising in Norway and the First Royal Anglian Regiment and elements of the
Column 498Royal Artillery and the Army Air Corps have just finished a major exercise in the United States of America. The Army is extremely busy.
It has been an important period for the Army in terms of developing plans for its organisation and capabilities for the future. It has participated fully in defence costs studies and, as a result of "Front Line First", we were able to announce some significant enhancements to the Regular Army last summer. In addition, last December we announced our plans for restructuring the Territorial Army. I shall refer to those issues later in my speech.
Since we last debated the Army, there have been the most dramatic developments in Northern Ireland. Because of a bold and thoroughly courageous initiative by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, we have arrived at a situation of considerable promise in Northern Ireland. However, the House should remember that, for more than 25 years, the Army's largest and most important commitment has been within the United Kingdom in Ulster.
The Army has carried out its role in support of the Royal Ulster Constabulary with huge distinction, outstanding skill, determination and almost unbelievable fortitude. For 25 years our young soldiers have had to face, day after day, the possibility of horrific and cowardly terrorist attacks. During that time, 650 soldiers have lost their lives and more than 5,500 have been wounded or injured--some of them grievously--while on active service.
Those young men have carried the greatest part of the heat and the burden. For the past 25 years they have had to face, day after day, the awesome responsibility of making split-second decisions on which their lives, and the lives of many other people, have depended. It is an enormous credit to the quality of their leadership, training, discipline and character that they have carried out their duties to the highest standards. We should all be deeply grateful to and very proud of them.
I do not believe that the service men of any other country could have shouldered the burden in quite the way that ours have. I know that, but for the dedication and unequalled professional skills of the Regular Army and the Royal Irish Home Service battalions, many more lives would have been lost and much more property destroyed.
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and I join him in paying tribute to the professionalism of our soldiers in Northern Ireland. What is my hon. Friend's view about the future of Private Lee Clegg? Does he agree that, when Private Clegg is finally released on licence, he deserves to be allowed to return to normal active duties with the armed forces, bearing in mind the fact that, when he was charged, he was doing his duty trying to defend the people of Northern Ireland from terrorism?
Mr. Soames: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As she knows, we are all aware of the situation of Private Clegg, and the disposal of his case will be a matter, eventually, for the Army Board, which, I have no doubt, will have heard what my hon. Friend has said.
As the House will realise, operating in the face of terrorism places a very great burden on all ranks, and when difficulties for our soldiers arise, we therefore have a high responsibility to resolve them effectively. That, of course, is why we have provided all possible legal and
Column 499welfare support to Private Clegg and to Guardsmen Fisher and Wright, and why we shall co-operate fully with the review of the law recently announced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.
In the meantime, our first priority plainly is to support the peace process. The Army has been able to assist in this by adjusting the profile of the armed forces to reflect the welcome absence of terrorist attack. Soldiers no longer undertake routine daytime patrols in most towns and cities, and it is very encouraging that the Royal Ulster Constabulary has been able progressively to extend the areas in which it operates without routine military support. Tangible signs of a return to normality are all the more remarkable when the House recalls that, during the first half of 1994, both republican and loyalist terrorist attacks showed absolutely no sign of abating. In the first four months before the ceasefire, there were 261 terrorist attacks, which resulted in 37 deaths, whereas in the past six months, in addition to the incident in Newry, two bombs have been planted, neither of which caused any injury. We recognise only too well that, while terrorist organisations retain their weapons and explosives, the peace process could be frustrated. Thus, we remain hopeful but at a very high state of vigilance and readiness. British troops are now in the third year of operations as part of the United Nations protection force in the former Yugoslavia, where they continue to make a truly vital contribution. The British contingent, which operates in central Bosnia and the eastern enclave of Gorazde, is based around two infantry battalion groups equipped with Warrior and Saxon armoured vehicles together with elements of an armoured reconnaissance regiment equipped with Scimitar and a regiment of Royal Engineers.
Those troops are admirably supported by soldiers from the Royal Logistics Corps, the Royal Signals and the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. They serve a six-month tour and the roulement of units in theatre continues on a regular basis. The 1st Battalion Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment, after an extremely distinguished and successful tour, has just started handing over to the 1st Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers, while the 1st Battalion Royal Highland Fusiliers is to be replaced by Devon and Dorsets in May.
British troops continue to support the humanitarian effort by helping to distribute aid, and have assisted some 4,200 convoys carrying more than 230,000 tonnes of aid through central Bosnia since the operation began--a task that has proved particularly important over the winter months. It is worth noting that, in the two months since Christmas, there has been almost a 20 per cent. increase in the amount of aid delivered compared with the previous two months. The House should be in no doubt about the importance of this mission and the number of lives that will have been saved by our people. The logistics operation in Bosnia has been a brilliant success, and the Royal Logistics Corps deserves the greatest praise and credit.
Column 500not possible to take medical aid into the safe haven of Gorazde, which would be vital to save many lives? Why cannot we deliver medical aid into that safe area?
Mr. Soames: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the precise reason. I suspect that it will have been because of the great difficulties of getting any convoys and equipment in or out, because of the difficulties of which the hon. Gentleman is well aware. I will look into that and let him have a more detailed reply.
In addition, we have also played a crucial role in implementing the Muslim- Croat ceasefire in central Bosnia, which has allowed tens of thousands of ordinary people to start rebuilding their homes and lives. Anyone who has seen the damage in that part of the world will understand and comprehend truly the importance of that task. It has involved confidence-building patrols on the former confrontation lines between the parties, manning observation posts, brokering local agreements between the factions and helping to rebuild the local community. The experience, training, hard-won skills and cool heads of our soldiers, of all ranks and arms, have enabled them to handle all this with the greatest skill, imagination and flair.
British forces have helped to underpin those efforts by providing the key support for a large number of civilian infrastructure projects which are creating the foundations for peace to be sustained. That is clearly a fragile process, and one that is often overlooked. We should not underestimate the importance of the work. More than 116 infrastructure and public utilities projects have been completed with British help. They include the construction of nearly 100 km of roads and the maintenance of another 970 km of important aid routes, the lifting of more than 1,500 mines and the construction of a new bridge and bypass at Bijela, near Mostar, which has carried more than 200,000 vehicles since its completion. Other projects have included the reconnection of electricity, water and gas supplies, vehicle maintenance, refuse collection and the opening of schools. The role of the Royal Engineers in particular has been outstanding, and is a source of the greatest pride and satisfaction to the Army.
The safety of our forces remains of paramount importance, and I assure the House that their position is kept under the most careful and constant review. They are thoroughly trained, well equipped and well led; but, tragically, 12 British service men--11 soldiers and one Royal Marine--have been killed since operations began in Bosnia. I know that the House will wish to extend its profound sympathy to their families in recognition of the ultimate sacrifice that they have made in the pursuit of peace.
The new year ushered in a different phase in the conflict, with the four- month cessation of hostilities agreement that came into effect on 1 January. That agreement is an important step towards a negotiated settlement, and Britfor is already playing a crucial part in helping to implement the agreement on the ground. We have also responded positively to the United Nations' request for additional resources to support implementation--an action that further serves to illustrate our firm and continuing commitment to securing a lasting and peaceful solution to the conflict. Four Lynx helicopters from the Army Air Corps have already deployed; another two Lynx and six Gazelle helicopters
Column 501from the AAC, together with six Royal Air Force Chinook helicopters and 19 UN military observers, remain on standby.
Let me take this opportunity to pay the warmest tribute to the achievements of Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, who recently completed a distinguished 12-month tour in Bosnia. He displayed throughout a remarkable resolve and determination in steadfastly continuing UNPROFOR's mission in support of the international community's efforts to secure a peaceful solution to the war. He deserves our whole-hearted congratulations and thanks for the vital part that he played in helping to transform the situation on the ground--and transform it he did. I also send the House's best wishes to his successor, General Rupert Smith, and wish him well in dealing with the many great challenges that he will have to face. The House will realise that the Army is truly fortunate to have such exceptional officers, and I wish to salute their efforts.
Mr. Macdonald: The Minister mentioned General Rose. Will he say something about the apparent breakdown of relations between NATO and the general towards the end of his tour? NATO threatened to withhold details of flight plans from him, fearing that he would disclose them to the Serbians and thereby put the NATO aircrew at risk. Will the Minister explain the background to those events?
Mr. Soames: I will not explain the background to any such events, because they did not happen. General Rose is rightly regarded as a highly operational and robust officer, and I have no doubt that he and NATO have had robust exchanges of views from time to time; but by and large, as General Rose has regularly said since, his relationship with NATO worked extremely well and contributed to a very successful tour.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I do not know whether my hon. Friend had the opportunity--probably not, because he is too busy--to watch a recent television programme by John Simpson, in which he put a good question to the Prime Minister of Bosnia, who had said that 70,000 people had been killed in Bihac. Mr. Simpson said that surely that town contained only about 1,000 people, most of whom were soldiers, but the Prime Minister of Bosnia refused to answer that point. It was an extremely good television programme and I commend it to my hon. Friend. Are not some people taken in rather easily by propaganda, from whatever side?
Mr. Soames: I agree with my hon. Friend. I saw that "Panorama" programme and I agree that it was fascinating. I was horrified by that interview. His point about black propaganda is well taken, and should be accepted by all people who try to understand the matter. The United Nations protection force still has an important mission to perform. British forces should continue their substantial and valued contribution to the international effort in former Yugoslavia. We can all be proud of their courage and skill in carrying out their mission, in what I know from my visits to Bosnia are difficult, demanding and sometimes extremely dangerous circumstances.
Column 502The United Kingdom made a major contribution to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda--UNAMIR. Some 600 service men and women played a key role in that operation. The British contingent included technicians from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, who did sterling work in repairing vehicles and who literally got UNAMIR back on the road. Fifty four-tonne trucks were also made available to the UN.
The contingent of 150 men and women from 23 Para Field Ambulance, which formed another part of the British contingent, treated more than 125,000 people, and the field squadron from the Royal Engineers helped in the reconstruction of Rwanda's infrastructure by rebuilding bridges and repairing roads. They were backed by logistics specialists whose skills were at the disposal of the whole UN force. The British members of UNAMIR filled a critical gap. Their work, lending invaluable assistance to the Rwandan population, non-governmental organisations and the new Rwandan Government alike, was highly praised by all. Their task was completed by the end of November, when they returned home. It was a highly successful deployment, and all the people who took part deserve great credit. Finally, and closer to home, I should not neglect to mention the important part that the Army has played in assisting the civil authorities to cope with the atrocious conditions that have affected so much of our country in recent months. In December, soldiers from the Territorial Army assisted Strathclyde police in evacuating houses and in delivering emergency supplies during the floods in Paisley, and more recently various units of the Regular Army were deployed in flood relief activities in the north of England.
Dr. Godman: I am grateful to the Minister for mentioning the fine work carried out not far from my constituency in Renfrewshire. When he and I served in a cavalry regiment and in the military police respectively, few officers came up through the ranks. Is he satisfied that the opportunities for promotion are much more widespread and developed for talented non- commissioned officers than they were a few years ago?
Mr. Soames: The opportunities were substantial in my regiment. I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman the assurances that he seeks. Opportunities for promotion throughout the service are available on merit. He knows that no one is keener than the Army to promote young men and women who are likely to make good officers.
The Army has, of course, been actively involved in the implementation of the defence costs study, the results of which my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced last July. The study impacted widely on all elements of service activity outside the field Army itself.
"Front Line First" was a great success in identifying areas where savings can be made without impairing the fighting capability of the Army. We have managed to cut costs, not defence, which is allowing us to maintain the Army's capability and to participate in the activities that I have already outlined.
An example for the Army are the proposed changes to the UK command structure. Land command will be established on 1 April 1995. The responsibilities of the new command, which will be the premier operational
Column 503headquarters of the British Army, will include not only the land forces in the UK, but those in Germany, Brunei and Nepal, as well as training support organisations in Belize, Canada and Kenya. In consequence, the current UK district structure will be rationalised, and improved operational efficiencies will result. That will result in significant savings and give the Army a command structure that is relevant to the changed strategic environment, and one that we hope will serve it well into the 21st century.
As a result of savings from the defence costs study, we have also been able to make a number of enhancements to the Army's front-line capability. In particular, we announced last July that we would be increasing the planned number of front-line major units by re-roling the Royal Armoured Corps training regiment as an armoured reconnaissance regiment, increasing the number of such regiments from two to three.
The Third Armoured Reconnaissance regiment will form on 1 April 1997. The 9th-12th Lancers, which is currently the Royal Armoured Corps training regiment, will take on the recce regiment role and will be based at Bovington.
This addition to the front line demonstrates our commitment to preserving and indeed increasing the fighting strength of the field Army, even though savings in the support area will result in some reduction in overall military manpower numbers.
Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham): Does my hon. Friend agree that, shortly, he and the Minister of State for Defence Procurement will be considering an attack helicopter for the Army? Does he also agree that a machine that has 90 per cent. of the ultimate capability at two thirds of the cost and which has a high proportion of highly advanced British avionics would be an attractive proposition for the Army?
Mr. Soames: It is not for me to be tempted down that road. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be dealing with that matter later. I am sure that he will be able to give my hon. Friend an extremely comprehensive reply, which I am unable to do. We also announced in "Front Line First" the development of the joint rapid deployment force. The Army is closely involved in the work to define the role missions and concept of operations of the JRDF, and the consequences for such things as command and control, the capabilities that are needed within our force structure, and logistic support implications including strategic lift. In this work we plan to build, where possible, on the capabilities of our existing rapidly deployable forces, to allow us to project military forces quickly at a distance in support of our defence and security policy objectives.
We have already announced a number of communications enhancements and developments of existing command and control arrangements to that end. We will make further announcements as the work that I have described matures.
Initial planning has focused on lighter forces, including the 5th Airborne Brigade in the Army, but in principle we might wish to draw on any of our national contingency forces for a rapid operation. The important point is that the force we send must be adequately matched to the needs of the operation, the tasks that it is asked to take on and, above all else, the risks that it is likely to face.
Column 504The Army's principal war-fighting formations are assigned to NATO's Allied Command Europe rapid reaction corps--the ARRC --commanded by a British officer, Lieutenant General Walker. The ARRC headquarters is now firmly established in its permanent peacetime location in Rheindahlen, near Monchengladbach, where the United Kingdom is well placed to fulfil its role as framework nation. Thirteen nations are represented in the headquarters in Rheindahlen, which is due to be declared fully operational in the spring.
Last autumn, the United Kingdom provided the headquarters infrastructure for two major exercises, one in the local area and the other immediately afterwards in Denmark. Those exercises demonstrated the viability of the headquarters and underlined the major contribution that the United Kingdom is making to the ACE rapid reaction corps.
The headquarters of both l(UK) Armoured Division and 3(UK) Division were involved in those exercises, as well as NATO's multinational division central, to which the United Kingdom contributes a quarter of the headquarters' staff and to which we assign 24 Airmobile Brigade.
I know that the Territorial Army is a matter of great concern to the House. The Government remain wholly committed to a wider use of the Territorials. That was exemplified by the deployment of a TA platoon, drawn principally from the 4th-5th Royal Irish Rangers, as part of the Falkland Islands garrison from July to November last year.
That deployment was a success, and a composite TA company will therefore undertake a four-month garrison tour in the Falklands from next month. In addition, during the past year, a number of individual TA officers have served on special regular engagements in Bosnia. When the Royal Welch Fusiliers deploy to Bosnia in May, we expect to include in their number some 30 TA personnel on special engagements.
As we announced last year, the Territorial Army is to be restructured at a size of 59,000 with a new role as that of general reserve to the Army. There will be some alteration in the balance of arms and services within the TA reflecting that new role, in particular a shift from infantry towards armour and the logistic services. Within the Royal Armoured Corps, the Royal Yeomanry will re-role to form the Army's nuclear, biological and chemical defence regiment, thus demonstrating the Government's confidence in the TA providing this unique capability for the Army.
Within the infantry, the support weapons platoons of the eight battalions currently so equipped will be concentrated in four specialist fire support battalions. Some reservations have been expressed about this element of our plans, but it is our firm view and that of the chiefs that that arrangement, by permitting heavy weapons to be made available to support any TA infantry battalion in training or on operations, will greatly enhance the flexibility and operational effectiveness of the TA infantry.
Our plans build on the one-Army concept. That concept is based on the TA and the Regular Army sharing a common military ethos, the same command structure, common doctrine and tactics, the same regimental system and similar equipments and training. The future TA will
Column 505be highly relevant to our operational needs, cost-effective and usable in an even wider range of circumstances than hitherto. There has, of course, been understandable disappointment in some units that are to convert or amalgamate, and I understand the concerns of those affected. I assure the House, however, that we have kept the changes to the minimum consistent with our operational needs taking priority. In such cases, it is our intention to take forward into the new unit those traditions, honours and unique distinctions which are so important to each and every part of the Army. The Government's commitment to strong reserve forces is undiminished, and I believe that the restructuring will enable the Territorial Army to continue to be a key component of the Army and, as such, to provide challenges and rewards for the men and women who voluntarily give up so much of their spare time in the service of their country.
I do not like to introduce a note of bipartisanship into our agreeable debate, but I am afraid that I shall have to. Events have come to a pretty pass when, last week, in the debate on the Royal Navy, the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) had to pray in aid the Conservative research department in telling us what Labour's defence expenditure plans would be.
The hon. Gentleman is a new boy and a welcome addition to Labour's defence team. Indeed, as I said, he made an excellent speech. He claims not to have read all the documents that come out of Walworth road. If he had not read any since 1987, he still would not have missed any on Labour's defence policy. Members of Labour's Front Bench do not have a policy on defence expenditure, because, if they did, it would be unacceptable to the party or unacceptable to the country.
However, the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) has blown away the twisted construction that passes for the Front Bench team's camouflage of Labour's defence policy. He has spent the past few weeks stating time after time after time that the Labour party's policy towards the single currency is absolutely clear--it was the one passed at the 1993 party conference. If the 1993 labour party conference is good enough to establish the Labour party's policy on a single currency, surely the 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994 Labour party conferences are sufficient to establish what its defence policy is.
Opposition Members had better understand what the country and, for that matter, the Conservative research department, will assume from here on: in the lifetime of a Parliament, a Labour Government would reduce defence expenditure to the average level of other western European countries. That is a cut of more than £6 billion from current levels, which already include the 25 per cent. reduction from the end of the cold war. What is Labour's policy--to get rid of the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force or--the subject of today's debate--the Army?
The country can assume that the Labour party will scuttle all the Navy, ground the Royal Air Force or disband the Army until it is prepared to present a cogent defence policy to the House that it can carry at its party conference.
Column 506of the Army, should resort to such platitudes and attacks. He cannot keep a straight face himself, but may I ask him a particular point? He mentions in great detail the Territorial Army and, as the Minister knows, we support him in his efforts to try to modernise the reserves and find a place for them in the modern Army.
Dr. Clark: I am sorry that the hon. Lady has shouted, "Rubbish." The Minister also knows that, to find that place, we need legislation. We in the Labour party recognise that and have told the Minister that, if we were involved in some minor consultation, we would be prepared to give a fair wind to such legislation because we believe it necessary for the future of the Army. May I ask the Minister seriously when may we expect that legislation?
Mr. Soames: I am happy to consult, but may I say that that was an unsatisfactory response to the fly that I lobbed on the water about Labour party policy on defence. It proves what I said in the debate last week on the Royal Navy: that, to be frank--I regret to say this to the hon. Gentleman, who is a nice man--
"there is no field of politics in which the Labour party is less convincing than defence."--[ Official Report , 16 February 1995; Vol. 254, c. 1225.]
I am, however, grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support of the Territorial Army, which he has made plain in the past. We hope to bring forward the paper for consultation as soon as possible and as soon as we have a firm date, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State will wish to involve the hon. Gentleman. For the Army, the past year has been one of high operational activity and of change and planning for change. The nation can be proud of the way in which our soldiers have carried out their duties, often in the most difficult circumstances, in this country and abroad. Nevertheless, we are, regrettably, having to reduce the size of our armed forces and to make redundant men and women who have served their country very well.
Perhaps we should pause to consider why almost 80 per cent. of those who leave the services are in employment or another chosen activity within three months of leaving and why 93 per cent. of them are in that position after 15 months. It is not only because of the remarkable work done by the resettlement organisations--they do a fantastic job. There are other important reasons which I believe to be quite clear.
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): While my hon. Friend is talking about percentages, and knowing that he is a very fair-minded man, would he care to comment on the 50 per cent. cut in the defence budget and the services proposed by the Liberal Democrats, which is especially relevant in the south-west, and the fact that, in my constituency, a quarter of all jobs are in defence?
Mr. Soames: That is perfectly true, and my hon. Friend makes a fair point. To be frank, it is neck and neck in which are least convincing, Labour Members or the Liberals. Plainly, under the kind of policies proposed by the Liberal Democrats or by the leader of the Labour party, job cuts in my hon. Friend's constituency would be very serious.
I return to why there is such an extraordinarily high take-up of service men and women on leaving the services--quite apart, as I said, from the excellent work of
Column 507the resettlement organisations. It is due to their reliability, adaptability, self-discipline, self-organisation, self- reliance, resourcefulness, loyalty, teamwork, leadership, goal-orientation, integrity, decisiveness, self-motivation, commitment and responsibility, which mark out the men and women who serve in Her Majesty's armed forces. They are truly of a quality not found in any other organisation in the land.
A journalist recently remarked that, as nearly every British institution seems to be undergoing an almost total systems failure, only the armed forces seem to have maintained a high degree of credibility and a unity of language and performance. He went on to say that he believed that their words of "can-do" seduced and impressed a country that so often and so sadly feels that it cannot. That is what makes the Army and the other two services the best trained, the best led and the best motivated work force in the country. That is what makes me extremely proud to be the Minister responsible for the armed forces, and to rejoice that this wonderful country should possess such a priceless and golden asset for the defence of the realm and the vigorous promotion of our national interests all over the world.
Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North): May I first join the tribute paid to our armed forces, especially to our Army since we are debating it, by the Minister? It is customary that we pay such a tribute, but because it is habitual, it does not mean that it is any less sincere. I know that the House will understand, in this week of all weeks, if I pay tribute in particular, as did the Minister, to those members of our armed forces who over the past 25 years and more have been left with the awesome and awful task of combating terrorism in Northern Ireland. I am sure that, as we reflect on yesterday's first step forward, all hon. Members present will have thoughts for the families of those who have lost loved ones in serving all the people of this country over that quarter of a century.
In that context, I should also say that, while we normally refer to the dedication and commitment of our armed forces, if the events in Northern Ireland have shown one thing, it is that the professionalism of the British Army is without doubt the highest of any army in the world. I can think of no other army which could have conducted itself under such circumstances, with so many young men and women, and have committed so few mistakes. Mistakes have been made, but in comparison to the potential number, they have faded into insignificance. That is not in anyway meant to diminish any loss of life because of those mistakes, but it puts into context the cases of Private Lee Clegg and others.
Labour Members, as well as--I am sure--the Government, have never believed that the containment and defeat of terrorism in Northern Ireland or elsewhere was a sufficient condition for a solution to the problems of that unhappy Province, but it was a necessary condition. As is often the case, it was a task imposed on our armed forces, not by the success of politicians, but by our failures. So the first chinks of light which are beginning to pierce the decades of darkness are a tribute not only to those who are engaged in dialogue in the Province and outside, but to those who for a quarter of a century have been engaged in the maintenance of law and
Column 508order. We can only express the hope that, as politicians increasingly put away their prejudices, members of the British armed forces will be allowed to operate in a context in which they may increasingly put away their guns.
We were disappointed with the Minister's speech. We thought that a record was going to be set tonight. For the first 34 minutes of his speech, I sat in astonishment because I found that I could not disagree with any of the words that he uttered. Indeed, towards the end, there was an almost half- hearted attack on the Labour party; a token and symbolic act that had been handed to him by central office. I suspect that, in the great office of Minister of State for the Armed Forces, we have a secret thinker. I do not know how someone who thinks on such a level could have sneaked into the Ministry of Defence. Obviously, the Minister would not have got the post had there been an election for it among his colleagues.
Labour Members could agree with the vast majority of what the Minister said, as far as it went today. Therefore, it has been no surprise that the question of promotion, asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman), has been answered. There must be ample scope for promotion when a relatively insignificant unknown cavalryman, without family connections or social advantage, can rise to the great office of state as Her Majesty's Minister of State for the Armed Forces. We can all take heart from that living embodiment of meritocracy in Britain.
Dr. Godman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way as he referred to me. I do not believe for a moment that the 11th Hussars of 25 years ago had a healthy mixture of officers who went in through the traditional methods and officers who came up through the ranks--no way.
On a more serious note, we are concerned about promotion. There was rapid promotion through the ranks until 1945 as a direct result of the conditions of war and the death of the officer class. After that, there was a dramatic reduction in the number of officers who rose through the ranks. The trend is now moving in the other direction. I know from my experience of spending four days with some new recruits at Westbury during the officer selection that there is a stringent selection test. I understand that more than 50 per cent. of the new recruits at Westbury now come from non-public schools. However, a high proportion of recruits still come from public schools, which account for only about 8 per cent. of the population. The trend is moving in the right direction, although not necessarily at the correct rate.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): It is interesting that this place has a high proportion of people from public schools. I understand that the leaders of two out of the three major national parties went to public schools. Is that correct?
Dr. Reid: I did not know that there were three major national parties; I thought that there were only two. As I understand it, foremost among the schools that have sent people here as Members of Parliament--I am pleased to say that they are members of the party that is about to be
Column 509the party of government--is St. Patrick's in Coatbridge. With three Members of Parliament here, it is comparable even with the public schools. As one of the three hon. Members, I take some pride in that.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the balance between the number of public schoolboys and the number of state schoolboys who became soldiers. Does he agree that state schools should put more leadership into their teaching of children?
Dr. Reid: The Government should put more resources into state schools. I do not think that everything in our state schools is good and that everything in our public schools is bad. The curriculum and ethos of public schools lend themselves to the leadership qualities that are demanded at Westbury. Nevertheless, I believe that the major difference between the two types of school is resources. I do not, however, want to go into an education debate with the hon. Lady. The Minister's attack on Labour seemed, at best, half-hearted. The Minister accused my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) of praying in aid Tory central office. The fact that the Minister had to pray in aid the shadow Foreign Secretary, quoting a Labour party conference decision on the European single currency as a reference to how much we would spend on defence, seemed far more convoluted than anything that my hon. Friend said. However, let us return to our bipartisan approach. We were in agreement with much of the Minister's speech, as far as it went.
I shall mention today some procurement matters and one or two specific matters. However, I shall major on peacekeeping and, the Minister will be glad to hear, on Labour's demand for a full defence review, which he has questioned. I shall try again to explain to the Minister in simple terms what we mean by that.
We welcome the widening use of the Territorial Army and the move towards integrating the experience of the Territorial Army with that of the regular Army. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) said, we are disappointed that there has not yet been any positive or concrete movement on a Bill for the reserve forces. We would be willing to give our backing to such a Bill. We do not give an open cheque, but we want such a Bill to be enacted as soon as possible.
General procurement matters, including the management and system of procurement, were dealt with fully by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central in last week's Navy debate, so I do not want to dwell at length on them. However, I want to raise one or two matters of particular interest to the Army. Standardisation and
inter-operability are arguably even more vital on the land than in the air or at sea. The Minister will be aware that, for many years, standardisation and inter-operability have tended to mean buying American. Given the new and emerging European dimension and the European defence