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Column 510architecture and identity, is the Minister convinced that this is still a useful assumption? What consideration is being given to this question?
A number of projects could have a significant impact on the ability of the British Army both to act in concert with its European allies and to benefit from a Europe-wide logistical organisation. I mention the attack helicopter, the medium-range and long-range anti-tank systems--TRIGAT--the future reconnaissance vehicle, light-armoured vehicles and future gun and missile systems. Can the Minister tell us tonight how many attack helicopters he intends to order? Can he be more specific about the date when he expects to make a decision on the purchase of the attack helicopters?
Does the written answer from the Minister of State for Defence Procurement dated 31 January, in which he said that the decision would be taken "later in the year" suggest that there has been slippage since his previous statement on 4 May last year? Has there been slippage in the intended in- service date? In last year's defence statement, it was noted that the in- service date intended for the attack helicopter was the "end of the decade".
In another written answer dated 31 January, the Minister referred to the in -service date as
"the early part of the next century."
Hon. Members may think that I am being churlish in distinguishing between the phrase, "end of the decade" and the phrase
"the early part of the next century".---[ Official Report , 31 January 1995; Vol. 253, c. 560. ]
However, we have become used to such apparently minor nuances marking some slippage in projects. Can the Minister clear up the matter tonight?
I shall deal now with Bosnia, the first of the two general matters, and more specifically with United Nations peacekeeping. In the nine months that have elapsed since the previous Army debate, our service men and women have continued to perform their difficult and demanding duties in Bosnia with great skill and determination, as the Minister noted. There has been some criticism of the United Nations protection force over the past two years. Although some of the criticism has been justified, much of it has been highly irresponsible. People should not doubt, whatever view they take of the conflict in Bosnia and whatever side their prejudices tend to lead them towards, that the British troops and the UNPROFOR troops are making an invaluable contribution in that theatre. The number of innocent lives blighted by the conflict would have been far greater without UNPROFOR's efforts, as the Minister said earlier.
No one should be in any doubt about the regard, affection and admiration that we have for General Sir Michael Rose. We have found him to be as professional as we would have expected, more impressive than we thought that he could be and endlessly civil when we have made inquiries, even under the most trying of circumstances. General Rose is not the first to have been accused by one or more of the factions in Bosnia of leaning towards this or the other side of the argument. We are convinced that he has carried out his duties as we would expect him to, without bias and within the objectives that have been given to him. He has applied the rules of engagement and he has maintained neutrality. The United Nations is not in Bosnia as a party to the internal civil war. It is there for
Column 511specific, limited purposes. We have no doubt that General Rose has carried out his duties not only to the best of his ability, but to the best ability of any soldier who could have been given the post. We wish his successor, Rupert Smith, well.
On more general matters connected with UNPROFOR, in the last Army debate I identified several serious flaws in the UN operation in Bosnia. Sadly, it is clear from what has happened since then that those flaws have not been rectified. In particular, the position in Bihac, just like the attack on Gorazde which preceded last year's debate, has highlighted the continued mismatch between the objectives established in UN Security Council resolutions and the means provided by the UN to realise them.
Resolution 836 authorises the use of "all necessary means" to defend safe areas. However, in the 20 months that have elapsed since the passage of that resolution, none of the ground forces required to fulfil their mandate have actually been put in place. As we have seen, attempts to control the situation on the ground through the sporadic use of air power above the ground have failed.
The next reason why the safe areas policy has been thrown into crisis is the failure of the United Nations to insist on their full demilitarisation. Territory that is used as a centre for the military operations of one of the combatants will naturally and always become the target of the military operations of the other. Unless and until the safe areas are cleared of all combatants, it will not be possible to make them truly safe for the civilians who inhabit them. Experience has taught us that the way in which the UN makes and implements policy needs to be thoroughly reviewed in order to ensure that the mistakes made in Bosnia, as in Somalia, are not repeated in future. In particular, there is a need to ensure that, when it is formulating mandates and drafting resolutions, the Security Council takes account of what is militarily achievable as well as what is politically desirable.
I have said before from the Dispatch Box that there are some problems to which there are no military solutions. We are aware of the tendency of politicians when they are under pressure to pass the buck to the armed forces. What I have said implies an enhanced role for military advisers in the initial planning stages of UN operations and in the drafting of UN resolutions.
If the prospects for a peaceful long-term settlement of the conflict in former Yugoslavia seem remote, we can at least take comfort from the fact that the temporary ceasefire has led to a significant reduction in the level of violence. In the near future, however, we should flag up the fact that there is a serious risk that the military situation may again escalate out of control, perhaps even to the point where containing the conflict may no longer be possible.
The threat comes from two sources. The first is the ultimatum issued by President Tudjman that the Croatian Government will not renew UNPROFOR's mandate when it expires on 31 March and that all personnel attached to UNPROFOR will be required to leave the country within three months. Quite apart from the facts that UNPROFOR will lose the use of Zagreb as the location of its headquarters and that access to Bosnia from the Adriatic, which has been so crucial to the humanitarian aid operation, will become impossible, the withdrawal of UNPROFOR's presence in Croatia threatens to destabilise the region as a whole.
Column 512The second general threat to UNPROFOR's operation, and also to UN peacekeeping efforts more generally, comes from a distant quarter, in the form of the United States National Security Revitalisation Act passed by the House of Representatives last week. I can understand that the Minister may find it difficult to respond to this point. However, we believe that that Act, which requires the US Government to deduct from their contributions to the UN peacekeeping budget any costs incurred unilaterally in the course of conducting peacekeeping efforts, including UNPROFOR, is not a move forward.
It is our sincere hope that, on reflection, Congress will decide to reject the Act and, if it does not, that President Clinton will be able to veto it. United Nations peacekeeping should be regarded as a vital element in any strategy to promote international peace and security.
It is in that context that we consider the question of Angola. The Minister did not refer to that subject earlier, and perhaps some reference to it by the Minister of State for Defence Procurement when he replies to the debate would enlighten us about the present position.
The UN Security Council has agreed to send a peacekeeping force of 7,000 to Angola. As far as we understand it, the Government are considering whether, and in what way, they can make a contribution to that force. I understand that consideration has been given to sending support and logistical troops.
We are sympathetically disposed to the general aim, particularly as the lack of transport and logistical support appears to have been a significant obstacle to the progress of the peacekeeping process in the past. However, we would want to know, and to satisfy ourselves, that the Government are satisfied that we have the resources to do that; that the UN planning has been adequate; and that both the objectives and rules of engagement are clear and concise. Are the Government happy with the contingency planning if things were to go wrong in Angola as they have done in other areas? The Opposition are only too well aware of the dangers in Angola from the widespread distribution of anti-personnel mines--a point that has been raised on several occasions by Opposition Front-Bench Members--and we are aware of the fact that two previous UN missions--although they were not peacekeeping missions--to Angola have failed. We would like to be satisfied on all those points before we could record our full support for a Government decision on that matter.
I want now to consider a matter which rivets Ministers as it is at the core of our considerations: British defence policy and our argument for a defence review. The Minister, who I know follows this argument word by word, line by line, will forgive me for going over it in some detail today. He expressed some reservations about this, as did others, during the debate on the Navy.
What is the context? Since the last Army debate, the Government have announced the conclusion of the defence costs study, which is the third round of defence cuts in three years. Like the two previous rounds, it failed to square the circle of dwindling resources and escalating commitments.
It is our contention that Ministers have arrived at wrong answers because they have asked the wrong questions. Instead of asking how to produce the best defence for Britain, they have been asking how to produce the biggest
Column 513cuts to meet the demands from the Treasury. The budgetary imperative of the defence costs study was even more blatant this time than it was through the "Options for Change" exercise. I am sure that hon. Members noticed that a Treasury "enforcer" sat on each of the study teams set up by the Ministry of Defence.
Over the past few years, we have made it plain that we believe that the Government's approach to the restructuring of our armed forces has been incoherent and lacking in strategy. We have made it equally plain that any changes should have been predicated upon a full and comprehensive defence review. Only then could we have ensured that any reduction in defence expenditure was coherent, managed and based on strategic rationale.
The need for a defence review, far from diminishing, has never been greater than it is today. In the past, the Government have obstinately refused to recognise the advice given to them. That advice was proffered by the Labour party and by a formidable range of opinion inside and outside Parliament.
Because the Government refused that advice, it is no surprise that, when the man from the Treasury called, as he did in his annual visit over the past three or four years, the MOD door was lying open. When the man from the Treasury left, not only was the cupboard a little barer, but the Office of State was left in a shambles.
The MOD has been the victim of its own negligence. It has stumbled and staggered through half a decade of decimation. It is now saying, with no sense of irony, that it should warn against a full defence review because that would mean a period of instability for our forces. Ironic though that might be, that suggestion--preposterous as it is bearing in mind whence it came--demands a response.
The first point to be made to those who say that a full defence review would cause change and instability is that changes are continuing, and will continue, irrespective of the assurances of Ministers. We need only read the papers: last week the generals were depleted; the week before it was Rosyth and yesterday morning it was the Marines. The mayhem resulting from the cuts already planned is continuing, and will continue for some considerable time. More than that, even as the Prime Minister issued bland assurances that the upheaval was over, further cuts and upheavals were being planned and discussed. My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow asked whether any discussion was taking place within the Ministry of Defence about the eventual abolition, elimination or diminution of the regiments. He appeared to receive a blanket denial that any such discussions or considerations were taking place. I advise my hon. Friend to read the Minister's words extremely carefully, because the Minister will not deny that consideration is to be given to various projects, one of which, British Army 2000, postulates a new corps involving at the very least a diminution of the traditional role of the regimental system. Last weekend's press revealed that, but it has been known for some time.
The regimental system has made our Army the pride and envy of the world.
Mr. Soames: I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but may I put his mind at rest about the article that appeared in the Sunday Express ? There is indeed important work being conducted on the future of the
Column 514Army, as the hon. Gentleman would expect-- the Army will not stand still between now and the next century--but the suggestion that the regimental system is under threat in any way is absolute nonsense. It is quite untrue, and I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance from the Dispatch Box.
Dr. Reid: I thank the Minister for saying that--and especially for saying that the Army will not stand still between now and the next century. That is precisely the point that we are trying to make. The Minister said as much last week, and I think that he was quoting the First Sea Lord when he used a telling phrase. I cannot remember his exact words, but it was something like, "Let the word be known among the multitudes that the storm has passed." Then he felt compelled to add, "But the swell will be felt for some time." No wonder he felt compelled to add those words, because major change is under consideration. The Army and the other armed forces will not stand still.
The swell continues not only because of the most recent changes but because other changes just as great in extent and effect are under consideration. I see that the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor), the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, is nodding, although the Minister is not. Sometimes I do not know whether the Minister is in control--
Dr. Reid: Let the nod be struck from the record, although I felt that the hon. Gentleman was shaking his head in a positive manner. The Minister was talking about waves last weekend. Those who know about such things tell me that the wonders of technology now allow the owners of aquatic leisure establishments to use a new device for the entertainment of customers--a wave-making machine. I have a funny feeling that someone in the Ministry of Defence has got his hand on one of those machines, because for the past four years, every time a Minister denies at the Dispatch Box that any further upheavals or waves of cuts are being contemplated, within six months he or a fellow Minister is back in the House announcing yet another wave. To those who declare that instability will be avoided and change will not occur so long as we do not have a defence review, I reply that I am merely stating the obvious: change will occur, and it is being considered.
Dr. Godman: The Minister's assurance about the retention of our military regiments is not only good for us to hear but most important for soldiers serving with the infantry regiments, and even more so for their families.
Dr. Reid: Yes. I have no doubt that this Minister at this time and in this position will argue strongly against any idea of abolishing the infantry regiments or other regiments. However, we are all aware that some people believe that the Army could be made leaner, fitter and all the other euphemisms designed to introduce cuts and radical change, if the regimental system were abolished. That idea is still under consideration.
Column 515Gentleman is aware of those. He has good views on many of them, which he and I have discussed from time to time. But please may I try to drag him off that pointless argument about abolishing the regimental system?
The British Army 2000 project is important, and plainly tactics and strategy, like everything else, change. I know that the hon. Gentleman gets around quite a lot, but if he met the coming generation of future leaders in all three services they would tell him that they expect and know that change will come. The Army is always an evolving animal. Please could we lay that argument to one side? I ask the hon. Gentleman to accept that there is no such plan afoot, and to move on to more serious and substantial matters on which there can be real and important debates and arguments. Dr. Reid rose --
What I said about the regiments was a response to points raised by my hon. Friends. The significant factor--I am glad to agree with the Minister here- -is that change will occur. Let no one suggest that not having a defence review means that there will be no change. Thus, I have established the first premise of our argument.
The question is not whether change will take place--it will--but whether the process of change will be managed, systematic, rational and strategically coherent. That is what we mean when we talk about a full defence review. A review represents the sensible precaution of reading the route map before setting out on the journey. Of course, especially in military and foreign affairs, there will be necessary diversions, unforeseen obstacles, climatic conditions and atmospheric changes, but if we had a full defence review at least we should have some rational idea of our ultimate destination, and of the area that we mean to traverse to get there.
In contrast, over the past five years we have seen two Secretaries of State for Defence standing in the bows of the good ship Ministry of Defence and sailing into waters that they have never considered, without charts and with few navigational aids and few friends. Compared with that, a defence review would be a godsend for our forces.
Having established the fact that change will happen and must be managed, let me deal with the calumny that a defence review would mean the big bang catastrophe--that somehow within six months the Labour party would try to restructure everything all over again. Far from introducing further instability, a full defence review would promise the potential for a bedrock of stability. It would be nothing more than an analysis leading to the reasoned establishment of a framework of strategic criteria for consistent application to any future proposals for change. I know that some of those words--such as analysis, reason, criteria, strategic and consistent--are alien to the Government's traditions, but they represent what we are talking about when we ask for a full defence review.
Column 516The Minister and other Conservative Members have asked to hear some of our views--and we can tell them about those, because even now some of the parameters of the framework are obvious to anyone who has observed the shambles of the past few years.
First, it is recognised that defence is not only the primary duty and responsibility of the Government, but largely the daughter of foreign policy. We can see that that immediately creates problems for the Government. If they do not know what their foreign policy is, how can they work out a coherent defence and security policy if it is a consequence of their foreign policy? For a Government who do not know from week to week what their relationship is even with our European allies, far less than with countries further abroad, the most simple primary criterion of a defence review becomes a major problem.
Mr. Soames: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that our principal and main defence relationship--one to which we are irrevocably wedded--is with NATO, and that therefore the prospects which he is raising simply do not exist in terms of foreign policy?
Dr. Reid: I have no difficulty in agreeing with the Minister's proposition, but I do not know what he thinks may be the implications of what he has said. No one can discuss our participation in NATO without discussing our relationship with the rest of the European defence architecture, including the Western European Union and the intergovernmental conference. A Government who are split down the middle about our relationship with Europe and about the intergovernmental conference cannot have a fixed relationship with NATO. Difficulties are created for the Government even on the first premise of a full defence review.
The second criterion is obviously the matching of commitments and resources. There must be a balance between resources and commitments, and between different capabilities. Those factors, and the balance between front-line units and support services, have been primarily determined during the past years on factors which have nothing to do with Britain's real security needs.
In the late 20th century, our defence structures are a product of a complex network of interrelationships between a diverse range of elements which comprise military power. Defence policies shaped in a piecemeal fashion with successive waves of cuts in different sectors will never be adequate for that task. We cannot entirely blame the present Ministers, who have only come along on the crest of the fourth or fifth wave and have inherited the present situation. Nevertheless, the consequences of successive waves of cuts, and the piecemeal fashion in which they have been carried out, are obvious. The process of a defence review by stealth that the Government are engaged in--one year looking at combat arms, the next year considering the role of the reserves and the year after that restructuring support services --has produced nothing but chaos and confusion. That is why the Government have failed, and why we insist that a proper defence review is necessary.
The third criterion--I am only choosing those criteria which must be obvious to most hon. Members--would be the relationship of our defence security needs with the strategic industrial base of our defence industries. Once again, the Government have particular problems in facing
Column 517up to that, because--whatever they may say-- they are in practice apparently wedded to the theory of non-intervention in the free market.
I admit that we took some heart from the speech of the Minister of State for Defence Procurement during the debate on the Navy. I would hesitate to ruin the future career of the right hon. Gentleman, but it did seem that perhaps the first chinks of light on this subject were beginning to fall, even in the darkest recesses of the MOD. We can use those three criteria to start the evolution of a defence review and, subject to them, we can identify some of the secondary criteria that would flow from them in relation to the structure of the Army and our armed forces. There are three key words here--flexibility, deployability and sustainability.
Our armed forces must be flexible, and able to respond to a wide variety of challenges. The Opposition oppose the purchase of a stand-off nuclear missile, because, among other reasons, it failed to meet the criteria, and did not represent value for money. Our forces must be deployable, and have the tactical and strategic mobility required to move rapidly in the event of a crisis.
There have been fewer interventions since we started discussing the real meat of a coherent strategy. Conservative Back-Bench Members are sitting listening to every word.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): Order. I am not totally sure that I heard the word used by the Minister. If it was the word that I thought it was, the Minister would perhaps like to withdraw it.
The Minister will agree with much of what I have said, but I am putting it in a coherent format. Our ability to deploy the British Army out of area is as important as ever, but it is being called into question by the Government's policy--specifically by sealift. Our armed forces must be sustainable and be provided with the full range of stocks, spares, maintenance facilities and logistic support required for them to function effectively in combat. Never again must we find ourselves in the situation we did before the Gulf war, when 77 per cent. of our tanks could not be used. As I said on that occasion, the Lada had a better record of reliability than some of the British tanks. The Minister well knows that it eventually took two divisions to produce one.
A full defence review would not be a catastrophic big bang. It would be an attempt to create the criteria by which judgments can be made in a coherent fashion.
Column 518There are other reasons why a defence review is needed, including the appalling levels of waste and financial incompetence which still characterise the Government's management of Britain's defences. Many examples of that have been given, and I do not intend to publicise them any further today.
Another reason why a review is needed is that the Government's defence plans are unsustainable in financial terms. It has been revealed by Professor Ron Smith of Birkbeck college and David Greenwood of Aberdeen university that there is a massive funding gap at the heart of the present defence budget. Projections produced by Professor Smith show that reductions in defence expenditure to 2.9 per cent. of GDP by year the 2000- -the Government's own target for 1997-98 is 2.8 per cent.--will require force levels to be cut by a further 32,900, or 14 per cent.
Incidentally, the Government have cut defence spending in the past 10 years by a bigger percentage and by more in absolute terms than any Government since the war, have increased the differentials between the lower and higher ranks by more than any Government since the war, and have spent the smallest percentage of GDP on defence of any Government since the war. For members of that Government to criticise not the practice but the theoretical conference decision of an Opposition party seems to me to be the height of cheek. The message from all that is clear. It is not a full defence review that the armed forces have to fear--it is this Government. Only this week, the Under-Secretary said that the Government had
"no target or ceiling for the future strength of the Royal Marines".
If the Government cannot refuse to rule out reductions in the numbers of the Royal Marines, we can presume that they are unable to rule out any further reductions in the size of the Army. If so, the Secretary of State's much-vaunted promise is worthless.
In conclusion, we do not need to ask what is the policy of the Conservative Government, or what will be the experience of the armed forces under their continued--albeit temporary--Administration. We do not need to look in the crystal ball, because we can read the book. It is on the record--cuts, chaos, mismatch and muddling through. Almost 200 years ago, Clausewitz urged:
"Be audacious and cunning in your plans, firm and persevering in their execution, determined to find a glorious end."
Rarely have a group of politicians so confounded his advice as this bunch of Defence Ministers. Timid and unimaginative in their planning, equivocating and irresolute in their execution, they stagger slowly onwards to their finale. It cannot come soon enough for the benefit of the armed forces and the salvation of the whole country. 5.30 pm
Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster): Before dealing with the general subject of today's debate, I ask the House to bear with me while I pay a brief tribute to Sir Nicholas Fairbairn. As everyone present knows, he was a member of the Select Committee on Defence, and it was an enormous privilege to work closely with him in the past two and a half years. Nicky had a very flamboyant style and I am sure that he would not mind me telling the House that his dress and wit occasionally took aback some of the people whom the Select Committee visited.
Column 519Underneath that flamboyance, however, were two people whom the public did not often see--one, a serious politician with deeply held convictions, and the other, a personality of great warmth and generosity of spirit, who was a close and dear friend to all of us who worked closely with him. The greatest benefits that Nicky gave the Defence Select Committee were not merely his penetrating mind and extremely good sense of humour, but his great legal knowledge. I shall now deal with Private Clegg and the situation in Northern Ireland, about which Nicky Fairbairn felt strongly and on which he wrote to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and to Defence Ministers.
The Defence Select Committee had been unhappy for some time about our young men in Northern Ireland and elsewhere operating under the terms of the yellow card, which we do not find acceptable. The yellow card has no force in law and, therefore, while we can advise young men and order them to obey what it says, we cannot guarantee that even when they do so they will be immune from prosecution if it results in the death of someone whom they considered to have been threatening their lives at the time.
About a month ago, the Select Committee visited our Northern Ireland pre- training area. We were a rather large bunch of middle-aged gentlemen pretending to be a platoon of young soldiers, which was perhaps not entirely realistic. We went round as though we were a platoon and went through the same experiences as young men who go to Northern Ireland are put through before being sent there. It was an impressive course. There is a mock-up village, which looks like a Northern Irish village, and the troops spend a substantial amount of time there immersed in what appears to be real Northern Ireland life. The pub and the fish and chip shop work, and the system works as though they were on the streets of Ireland.
We were fired at--had it been for real, some members of our platoon would undoubtedly have been injured, if not killed. Two young men in balaclava helmets, armed with rifles, ran across in front of us, at a range of about 30 yards. A little further down the street, someone came out from another door and hurled a tin can at us--mercifully, from a considerable range, as it exploded.
I give those examples because in neither of those circumstances would the soldiers concerned have been allowed to fire--in the first example, because their lives would not have been considered to be in danger at that stage, as the men were not looking at us and, in the second, because the law states that, once an object has left the hand of the person throwing it, one is no longer in danger--or so the argument goes--from that person and so one is not allowed to shoot him, although one does not know at that stage whether it is an empty bottle or some sort of explosive device.
I find that wholly unacceptable. It is doubly unacceptable because, should one fire and kill the person, the penalty would inevitably be life imprisonment. Senior ranking officers advised the Government that they did not want a change in the law for a variety of reasons, all of which I understand, but I hope that they will reconsider their position. We cannot tolerate sending our young soldiers into positions of substantial personal danger with that type of threat hanging over them, in addition to the obvious direct threat to their lives. I hope that Ministers
Column 520will press the Home Secretary and others involved to ensure that there is a change in the law without delay, so that that does not occur in future.
I hope that our troops will shortly not be necessary in Northern Ireland, but I do not rely fully on that, and even if they are not they will be sent on parallel peacekeeping exercises, such as in Bosnia, where they must be equally protected against life imprisonment for stepping over the bounds in the exercise of what is otherwise their duty.
The Select Committee is going to see the pre-training area for Bosnia next week. It is slightly different from the one that I described, but I hope that it is still a useful exercise for our troops. Two weeks after that, the Committee will go to Bosnia. The pre-training exercise that we give our troops is extremely good. I believe it to be the best in the world and plenty of other countries would like to share it with us, or hire it. Whatever happens in Northern Ireland, I hope that we will be assured-- perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement can assure us later today--that our training centres will continue. However much we move towards a more peaceful domestic scene--I sincerely hope that we do--I hope that we will not lose the opportunity to give our troops such training.
I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has decided to change the structure of our training operations so that we have a joint inspectorate general of doctrine and training at Upavon in Wiltshire. I believe that that follows the lines of the American army, and although I certainly do not recommend that we follow the Americans in many areas, I believe that that is a good example and that it will improve and enhance the control of our training systems.
In a recent report, the Defence Select Committee expressed some concern about the shooting skills of some of our soldiers who are not in infantry battalions, especially the Royal Engineers and the Royal Signals, who do not seem to be attaining the skills that we would hope for in our soldiery. When we raised that matter with the Ministry of Defence, we were told that it was "not seriously concerned" because engineers and the like
"have small arms issued for personal protection and shooting is not their primary skill".
That may be so, but they may come under attack in Bosnia and elsewhere, and they will not thank the Army and those responsible for their training if they are inadequately trained to defend themselves and their comrades. I hope that the matter will be given close consideration.
I believe that there are plans to change the shooting skills expected of soldiers and to make an allowance, which would mean that infantry soldiers would take a different test from those in support and logistics. If so, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will tell the House in detail what is proposed and be able to assure us that, whatever the new structure of the shooting test, all soldiers will be brought up to a standard that will enable them to defend themselves and others properly should they need to do so.
I was glad to hear that BATUS--British Army training unit Suffield--the training area in Canada, was fully used in 1994 and will be again in 1995. The Defence Select Committee had planned to visit it last year. Unfortunately, the trip had to be cancelled, so I have not seen it. I remain worried about the general level of collective training
Column 521available to the Army, especially the amount of live firing that is available to many troops. I welcome the fact that we are buying time at Hohne ranges for battle groups based in Germany, and look forward to hearing that collective training has been enhanced in those areas.
At the invitation of the Belize Government, two weeks ago I had an opportunity to visit our extremely valuable jungle training systems in Belize. Those responsible for training the British troops told me how excellent the facilities are. This year, we shall send seven company- strength training groups. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister confirm that we shall also send one battalion-strength training group next year? I hope that that will be a regular occurrence so that we can make full use of facilities in Belize. My hon. Friends and anyone who reads previous debates will know of my strong belief that Britain has a duty to help Belize to defend itself, should it come under threat from Guatemala. It is much better to prepare for such an event and, hopefully, to prevent it, than, as with the Falklands, to send a weak signal and then have to react with military force. If we give Belize clear undertakings that we will not tolerate an invasion from Guatemala, it is much less likely that that event will occur.
We have frequently covered the subject of the emergency tour interval, so I shall refer to it only briefly. Last year, the Secretary of State gave evidence to the Select Committee in which he appeared to say that he thought, as we certainly did, that the 24-month interval was a minimum rather than an average. After he had given that evidence, I received a letter stating that that was not right and that 24 months was an average interval. That is not good enough; 24 months must be the minimum that is allowed. A shorter interval should be against the system and that matter should be reviewed. Many soldiers have much shorter intervals between emergency tours. We must deal with that important matter at group level and in terms of individual soldiers on attachment.
The Ministry has often said that it is not easy to provide the necessary figures. The Defence Select Committee does not find it difficult at all, and some months ago we sent a helpful template to the Ministry to show how easy it is, but have had no response. The Committee Clerks are extremely able, but so are Whitehall officials, and it is not beyond the bounds of the capability of the Ministry of Defence to provide proper figures showing the emergency tour intervals in individual units. I hope that we shall be given the latest figures for 1994-95 and the projected figures for 1995-96 in due course. I imagine that those will assume a two-battalion Bosnian commitment and no change in Northern Ireland. Will my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces confirm that to me later? The Select Committee on Defence is undertaking a joint inquiry with the Select Committee on Trade and Industry. It has ambitious terms of reference but a fairly modest time scale--we hope to issue our report within the next four or five weeks after only four meetings. We are studying aspects of defence procurement and industrial policy, concentrating on ammunition, electronics and vehicles. I do not want to anticipate what the sub-committees reporting on the full Committee may say, but it is worth making one or two points about army vehicles as that subject has caused long-term concern. If
Column 522my hon. Friends have been fully alert, they will have noticed that I have tabled a string of parliamentary questions on army vehicles. The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Roger Freeman) indicated assent .
The gist of my questions is whether the Ministry is properly considering alternative methods of equipping ourselves with essential equipment and whether it is considering leasing, buying or contracting out to the independent sector, as it said it would and which it promised would save some £90 million on the four-tonne truck fleet and a further £20 million by reducing peacetime holdings of commercial standard equipment.
My questions resulted in some inconsistent details. For example, our truck- mounted concrete mixers are built to military specification. That seems to be going to considerable trouble, because I gather that the Army requires only two. It is hard to believe that the civil sector could not provide two truck-mounted concrete mixers without our going to the enormous expense of having a special specification for them. I was told that ultra-light dumpers could not be leased because of cost and their extensive use in overseas deployment. Again, I find that slightly unconvincing. I was told that fuel servicing vehicles, of which there are 675, must be built to special military standards and so cannot economically be leased; that we can buy 12 light dumpers only from Denmark; and that rough terrain wheeled tractors and container handlers also have military specifications, despite the fact that rough terrain fork-lift trucks were specified in an earlier answer from the Ministry as one of the vehicles that it was trying to buy from the private sector.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will look closely at how the Ministry of Defence is progressing on procurement and ensure that changes that should be made are made speedily. It should not be a red-tape operation, with some people in the Ministry trying to tie it down to its traditional long-term procurement policy.