Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Freeman: My hon. Friend has given notice that he cannot listen to the wind-up speech so, for his convenience and that of Opposition Front Benchers, I should say that his recent flurry of questions has concentrated minds wonderfully. I am happy to confirm that, by the end of this calendar year, we intend to have in place some--I hope, two or three--pilot leasing packages for the Royal Air Force and the Army. If we start with B-vehicles- -non-combat vehicles--we can then explore extending the principle of leasing beyond those pilot projects. I am grateful to the Select Committee for helping to stimulate that valuable exercise.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor: I am grateful for that assurance from my right hon. Friend. I am sure that he will keep a close eye on the matter and ensure that it progresses as it should.

Will he also look at the tankers that are currently used in Bosnia? When the Committee was last there, a year ago, we discovered that the tankers were extremely old. In May 1994, we were told that the burden of an aging fleet would shortly be relieved by a mix of the

Column 523

refurbishment and purchase of new commercial tankers and the procurement of DROPS--demountable rack offloading and pickup system--fuel flat-racks.

I hope that, when we go to Bosnia in four weeks' time, we shall find that that has been done, at least to a degree. I look forward to finding a happy British logistic battalion with whatever it needs to make the necessary provision in difficult circumstances to our troops and our United Nations peacekeeping and humanitarian aid workers. May I make some general points, and strike a suitably optimistic note? I am delighted to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces--we already knew it from the defence costs study, but I liked the way in which my hon. Friend emphasised it in his opening remarks--of the extra reconnaissance regiment and how we can enhance some front-line activities.

I am also extremely happy about the Territorial Army. Ex-territorial soldiers such as myself were afraid that we might suffer in the DCS and we were grateful to the Government, on whom the pressures were great. However, they were heavily resisted and the outcome is extremely satisfactory. The TA can play a much fuller role than it has been asked to do in the past 20 or 30 years and can usefully enhance our small but brilliantly effective regular armed service.

Will my hon. Friend consider introducing a few more senior Territorial Army officer ranks? At present, the senior ranks are almost exclusively filled by regulars. In the days when I served in the TA, the colonels of our regiments were territorial soldiers. I appreciate that demands have increased and the supply of Territorial Army soldiers with regular experience, which is what most of those colonels were, has decreased, so the change would present difficulties.

None the less, perhaps there should be more opportunity for outstandingly good territorials, particularly those who had regular experience beforehand, to progress to the ranks of colonel and lieutenant colonel and take charge of Territorial Army regiments. I should like to see more territorials reaching the rank of brigadier or general.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) has left the Chamber. I am sorry to have to comment in his absence on his remarks on the defence costs and on another review. We have had that debate fully in the House before. I do not believe that such a review would be in the interests of any of our armed services. It is common ground across the House that we have been through great traumas in the past four or five years. Although it was not how I would have conducted it, "Options for Change" and subsequent reviews were to all intents and purposes a defence review, based on the false premise that the ending of the cold war would make the world a happier and safer place. As I say every time I speak in a defence debate, it is a much more dangerous place, but I will not labour the point. Another defence review now would be disruptive. Whatever the hon. Member for Motherwell, North might say, it would put a further cloud of uncertainty over the armed forces. Ministers are absolutely right to reject such a principle. They have given undertakings here and elsewhere that there will be no further cuts in the armed forces. Anything that undermines the armed forces' confidence that they

Column 524

can regroup in their present strength and look forward with confidence to the future can only damage the way in which the United Kingdom is defended.

5.51 pm

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles): The hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) started his speech with a tribute to Nicholas Fairbairn. I concur with that sincerely, because Sir Nicholas was very helpful at the time of the worry and difficulty we were having over the Royal Artillery range at Benbecula. The fact that he was very supportive of the campaign to keep that base open makes me all the more sorry to have to join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to him.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the training that the soldiers undergo before being sent to Northern Ireland. I spent some time at one of those training camps with the second battalion of the Parachute Regiment some four years ago when I went around the very same mock village as members of the Defence Committee. I was extremely impressed by the comprehensive and thorough way in which soldiers were prepared for their duties and by the excellent briefings which they received, full of valuable political and social information about the background to the troubles in Northern Ireland.

The soldiers arrived quite knowledgeable about the general and particular context of the region to which they were sent, in County Fermanagh. I joined them again at a later date and spent a weekend with them. I went around with them in patrols, heavily disguised as a soldier. Again, I was impressed with how they were going about their job and implementing their training. However, I draw a different conclusion from that of the hon. Gentleman. We should not consider relaxing the strict guidelines and safeguards that were laid down for the soldiers. Those guidelines have played an essential role in bringing about the peace that we are now enjoying.

I am sure that all sides accept that errors and mistakes were inevitably made in the early years of deployment in Northern Ireland because the situation was so fraught and novel. The guidelines have evolved out of hard experience and should not be relaxed. There is a case for reviewing the judicial sentences that should be passed when cases such as that of Private Lee Clegg come before the courts, the requirement for mandatory life sentences and the need to pass sentences for murder rather than manslaughter. Those issues need to be reviewed, not the guidelines that soldiers have to follow. I now turn to a constituency point concerning the Royal Artillery range in my constituency at Balivanick in Benbecula. The Government have accepted the need to keep that range open to carry out its valuable task but are moving towards having it operated and manned largely by civilian personal. How far has that process progressed? There is some worry in my constituency that some of the military aspects of the range are now being wound down without the civilian part being fully up to speed and there might be a gap between the two.

That obviously causes concern about whether the whole process will be carried through in the way that we understood from the Government it would. I would like the Minister of State for Defence Procurement to address that question and to give me the reassurance that my constituents seek--that, as soon as possible, the range at Balivanick will move towards civilian operation along the lines that the Government intended.

Column 525

I should now like to turn to the most important overseas operation now being carried out by the British Army--in Bosnia. I would concur with what has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House about the great majority of the operations carried out by the British Army. The majority of soldiers have carried out their tasks with great skill and bravery and, above all, a genuine desire to fulfil their difficult humanitarian mission. We have to commend them for the way in which they have gone about their work, and express our gratitude to them. We wish them well, in particular the new commander of UNPROFOR, General Rupert Smith, whom I met at a British Council seminar on peacekeeping early last year around the time of the imposition of the Sarajevo exclusion zone. Undoubtedly, he has an impressive record and we look forward to him adding to that record in his year in Bosnia.

I am afraid that I have to depart from the commendations that have been passed on the performance of General Sir Michael Rose over the past year. He has left General Smith a difficult task, not just to fulfil the humanitarian mandate he has from the United Nations but in large degree to restore the credibility of UNPROFOR in Bosnia, as it was much diminished by the performance--particularly latterly--of General Rose. We have to learn from General Rose's failures and mistakes if they are to be avoided in future.

In trying to discuss some of these failures, I should refer to the "Panorama" programme late last month, referred to by the Minister of State for the Armed Forces and by the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). I shall not dwell on what the Prime Minister of Bosnia said on that programme, because this is not a debate about him or about the Bosnian Government. However, I suggest that the Minister and the hon. Member for Blaby look at the transcript of that BBC programme. They will see that their accusation that the Bosnian Prime Minister made false claims about the situation in Bihac is spurious. According to the transcript, in his famous confrontation with General Rose, the Bosnian Prime Minister said:

"There is no call for the air strikes from General Rose here or from Mr. Akashi--those are the responsible people. If a lot of people die in Bihac it is because of them".

It is clear that he meant that, if there was no action, many people would die. He did not say that 70,000 people had died, which would be an utterly absurd and ridiculous claim. The notion that the Bosnian Prime Minister misled General Rose or the world's press is false. Unfortunately, the "Panorama" programme made that claim, but one can see from the transcript-- I shall happily show it to the hon. Gentleman later--that it is completely false.

Mr. Robathan: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I should be delighted to see that transcript later. Following the press conference given by the Prime Minister of Bosnia, I believe that newspapers --particularly those in America--reported that 70,000 people had died in Bihac. I may not be entirely correct on that. At the end of the programme, the Bosnian Prime Minister was challenged about his claim that 70,000 people had died, and he lost his temper. I am straying slightly from the point, but it is an important matter. We are talking about a very senior British Army officer who I consider has done a very good job. When General Rose went to Sarajevo in January last year,

Column 526

it was under intense artillery fire. Almost singlehandedly, through his own robust form of diplomacy, General Rose managed to lift that fire on Sarajevo.

Mr. Macdonald: I do not wish to dwell on the incident because it is not completely germane to the debate. The hon. Gentleman referred to American news coverage and I think that he derived his information from the clip that was shown on the "Panorama" programme. However, the transcript and the American news clip made no mention of 70,000 people having been killed. One was given that impression from the way in which the programme was constructed, but that is not the case. Another aspect of the "Panorama" programme is germane to the debate. The programme contained an interview with General Rose in which he told John Simpson that Bosnian Government forces had engaged in ethnic cleansing of the Serbian population of Gorazde at the outset of the war. He made that claim while he was in Gorazde, and he invited the BBC crew to come to that city. It was the first visit by a television crew since the siege began.

In making that claim, General Rose challenged the perception of the Bosnians as victims and of Karadzic's Serbs as aggressors in Gorazde. He implied that Governments, in failing to understand that point, had misjudged the situation in Gorazde completely. According to the BBC transcript, General Rose said:

"Yes, practically every house in Gorazde has been damaged, but most of the damage was done in the fighting that had taken place some two years before" --

in 1992--

"when the Bosnian Government forces drove the Serbs from this town, and there were twelve and a half thousand Serbs at that time living here and they were all driven off".

General Rose went on to describe what had happened to the Serbs as "ethnic cleansing". He concluded:

"And, of course, at that time, the international image of what had happened in Gorazde was very different from the reality. What was dangerous was that policies were beginning to be put together on both sides of the Atlantic about what we should do in Gorazde, but these policies have been put together on totally flawed information." If General Rose's accusation is correct, his description of the forcible eviction of 12,500 Serbs from Gorazde in 1992 would count as one of the major war crimes to occur in the Balkans, for which the Bosnian Government should be held to account. But is there any evidence that that occurred?

The most comprehensive and authoritative report about war crimes in the former Yugoslavia is the report of the United Nations commission of experts which was set up by United Nations Security Council resolution 780 in 1992. The commission was chaired by Professor Cherif Bassiouni and its final report was published in May last year. Annexe 4 to that report is currently at the printers and it is supposed to be published at the end of March. It deals exclusively with ethnic cleansing.

In neither the final report, which was published last year, nor, I understand, annexe 4 is there any evidence of ethnic cleansing of Serbs in Gorazde, as was claimed by General Rose. I have talked with Professor Bassiouni and with others who have worked for the commission. No one knew anything about that claim--indeed, some officials expressed amazement that such a claim was made.

Mr. Robathan: I am again grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in giving way. He may be right; I do not know how many Serbs used to live in Gorazde. However, other hon. Members and I visited Gorazde with

Column 527

the United Nations in September 1993. It is true that a great many buildings have been destroyed in the fighting. I cannot say who was responsible for that destruction, although I suspect that the Serbs were largely responsible. It is true that the enclave was besieged by Serbs. However, it is also true that a large number of Christian Serbs lived in that town at some stage--I saw a destroyed Christian church on the way out of Gorazde. I have no idea whether there were 12,500 Serbs in Gorazde, but they certainly were not there when we visited in September 1993.

Mr. Macdonald: The hon. Gentleman takes an interest in these matters, so he will know that it was the practice of the Serbian paramilitary to inform the Serbian population of towns and villages of an impending assault and to encourage them to leave before that assault began. That made it easier for the assault to take place. Those who were left behind would do everything they could to retain those Serbs for as long as possible as a kind of insurance policy. Mr. Robathan indicated dissent .

Mr. Macdonald: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that point is made in the report by the commission of experts which was published last year. If he refuses to accept that, he will have to produce evidence--which the United Nations commission could not find--to substantiate his position.

I tried to learn about the situation in Gorazde by examining 1992 and 1993 press reports from the Serbian press agencies, as I thought that if I were to find a report of ethnic cleansing anywhere, it would be among those reports. However, I did not find any contemporary reports about ethnic cleansing of Serbs by Bosnians in Gorazde. I even checked with some "propaganda" material published by pro-Karadzic groups in the United States. I examined a publication by the Serbian-American Voters Alliance entitled "The Suppressed Serbian Voice", which takes a very pro-Serbian line about the events in the Balkans and contains a chapter called "The Truth about Gorazde". It makes no reference whatever to any ethnic cleansing on that scale.

Dr. Reid: I know that my hon. Friend takes these matters very seriously and looks at them in detail, but I must caution him, however, against investigating matters through press reports. From experience, I have found that, depending on the person to whom one speaks in an area that has been cleansed of a particular group, one group will claim that it was ethnic cleansing and another group will claim, precisely as my hon. Friend did, that the Serbs left because they were encouraged by the Serbs, or the Muslims because they were encouraged by the Muslims.

The inadequacy of press and media reports was brought home to me. I stood in Gorazde and listened to the BBC World Service, which was saying that, for several days, a major artillery bombardment of Gorazde by the Serbs had been going on. I stood with the Muslim commander and not a shot had been fired for five weeks. Yet the BBC was continually repeating the news that the Serbs were bombarding Gorazde. I merely add a word of caution: a propaganda war is going on, and none of the press reports can be taken at face value to establish the facts.

Mr. Macdonald: I am not relying on press reports, as my hon. Friend would realise if he had taken on board what I said. I started by referring to the report published last year by the United Nations commission of experts on war crimes

Column 528

in the former Yugoslavia. It is by far the most authoritative source--I would regard it as the only authoritative source. I concede that we cannot rely on press reports from one side or another, but we have to rely on people who investigate on behalf of the United Nations or the international community, and those are the conclusions that they reached.

I must ask my hon. Friend: if things are as murky as he claims, how could General Rose make that quite remarkable assertion without any evidence whatever to back him up? It appears to me, from the research that I have done, that what General Rose said was simply not true. The ethnic cleansing of 12,500 Serbs from Gorazde never happened. It was a complete fabrication. Why General Rose would wish to make such a fabrication, only he knows, but I rather suspect that it was to excuse the failure of his own mission in Gorazde last year, and to smear the Bosnian Government forces and the Bosnian Government themselves.

The matter could be clarified by the Government. Ministers could clear up the matter very easily. They could say whether they know of any evidence whatever to back up General Rose's accusation of massive ethnic cleansing by Bosnian forces in Gorazde. If they do know of such evidence, they should present it to the UN commission on war crimes and to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague; it would be a major war crime, and they have a duty to present that evidence. If they do not have such evidence, I must ask them whether they think it acceptable for the most senior British officer in Bosnia to have broadcast such a fabrication about the Bosnian Government via the BBC.

It is small wonder, given that background, that General Rose's relations with the Bosnian Government had sunk to rock bottom by the time he left his command. Nor was it surprising that he should have been showered with gifts --two oil paintings, no less--by General Mladic, Mr. Karadzic's commander, on his departure, but his happy acceptance of such gifts is just another example of his lack of judgment. What I find truly extraordinary--

Mr. Freeman: I have listened with great care to what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I think that the House would feel that he has gone too far. I honestly believe that the charges that the hon. Gentleman is laying against General Rose are unfair and unjustified, and I hope that he will reconsider his position.

Mr. Macdonald: I would happily look at any evidence that the Minister cares to present to me that shows that what General Rose claimed happened in Gorazde is true. He made a very serious claim. To have a senior British officer making such a claim is serious. I would welcome any evidence from the Minister that what General Rose said was true.

Dr. Reid: I do not want to debate the whole issue with my hon. Friend. I think that what may have caused offence was the implication that General Rose was being showered with gifts from the Serbs, said in the context of an accusation of bias. It is clear what implication could be drawn from that, and I hope that my hon. Friend will take

Column 529

the opportunity to put on record that he was in no way suggesting anything that could impinge the honour of that British officer.

Mr. Macdonald: Absolutely. I will happily do that. No implication whatever of that kind was intended. My point was that General Rose showed a serious lack of judgment in accepting such gifts. I hold to that firmly.

I want to come on to a different aspect of General Rose's performance over the past year, because I think it is important that we go over these things if we are to learn about mistakes--

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes): Order. Before the hon. Gentleman continues, I remind him that the proposed subject of debate tonight is the Army. Of course, it is in order to make reference to particular points, but I think that he is going rather beyond the brief if his speech is entirely centred on one person.

Mr. Macdonald: I take that on board absolutely, Madam Deputy Speaker. That is why I want to move on to the subject of the relationship between the senior British commander in Bosnia and NATO, because their ability to work together is crucial to the success of UNPROFOR in Bosnia and the British forces in Bosnia.

I visited NATO headquarters in Brussels just before the Bihac debacle last year. Even then, I found senior officers dismayed and exasperated at the failure to enforce the Sarajevo exclusion zone and at the failure of UNPROFOR to pursue the humanitarian mandate in the robust fashion that officers in NATO thought necessary. They were deeply concerned at the consequent erosion in the credibility of NATO itself.

After Bihac, of course, NATO's mistrust of UNPROFOR plumbed new depths. I have already referred to that in an intervention. NATO eventually threatened to withhold details of aid patrols from UNPROFOR headquarters for fear that they would be divulged to General Mladic, thus putting NATO aircrew at risk. I have put much store in those news reports after Bihac, simply because the same remarks were made to me at NATO before Bihac.

We must learn lessons from the mistakes of General Rose and the failures of UNPROFOR over the past year, because, as has been pointed out, momentum was gained when the exclusion zone was first imposed around Sarajevo in February last year, but it was thrown away at Gorazde just two months later. The failure to defend a safe area from sustained attack dealt a body blow to the credibility of UNPROFOR. General Mladic, it seems to me, clearly won the battle of wills between himself and General Rose. Afterwards, he redoubled his defiance of UNPROFOR and his obstruction of the UN humanitarian mission.

There are many examples of that, including the failure to allow any medical supplies to go into Gorazde since the siege last year. In effect, citizens live in a giant concentration camp. To this day, the airport at Tuzla, which was ostentatiously reopened in March last year by the United Nations special representative, Yasushi Akashi, has not seen a single aid flight land. The safe area of Bihac did not receive any aid between May 1994 and the outbreak of intense fighting there just before Christmas: all the aid was blocked by Karadzic's Serbs. Convoys to Bihac continue to be obstructed.

Column 530

The humanitarian mission led by General Rose ended in failure--failure to get his convoys through; failure to deliver aid; failure to defend the area from being ransacked, or "raped", according to a young Coldstream Guards officer whom I met recently. By those means-- ironically--Karadzic's Serbs have received more aid per head than the Bosnians themselves, including vital military supplies such as fuel. I am referring to United Nations figures.

There was also the failure to protect the civilian populations in the safe areas. As has already been pointed out, General Rose was given a mandate for that in Security Council resolution 836, but he failed to fulfil it in Gorazde and Bihac. Finally, there was General Rose's failure to protect even his own soldiers--British soldiers--who were threatened, obstructed, clubbed and beaten to the ground by Karadzic's forces, who experienced no effective reprisals or punishment.

In defence of UNPROFOR, it has been argued that, although it had a mandate to deliver humanitarian aid and to deter attacks on safe areas, it did not have the means. It has been said that the blame rests with the United Nations, and with Governments and the Security Council in particular. I believe, however, that we must learn the lessons of the failure of the past year. The humanitarian mandate provided by the UN cannot be fulfilled by a policy of compromise and empty threats; it can be fulfilled robustly only through tough and determined action, and the use of force when necessary.

Of course, UNPROFOR does not have a mandate to impose peace in Bosnia. It has no mandate to retake Bosnian territory by force. It does, however, have a mandate and a duty to provide humanitarian aid, using whatever means are necessary, and to deter attack on safe areas. That is a limited mission, but a clear one: any party that gets in the way of it should be told to stand aside, and if it does not stand aside it should be pushed aside.

We are talking about a strictly limited objective, not an open-ended commitment. It is nonsense to claim that the international community has not the means to carry out that limited mission. It has the means; what it lacks is the will--and, without that will, we must see more generals going the way of General Rose.

6.22 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I am keen to observe the normal courtesies of the House, for it is thus that we stop ourselves falling into the uncivilised brutalities of Bosnia. I must, however, tell the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) that his speech was misguided, ill informed and--I have to say--somewhat unworthy of him.

I believe the hon. Gentleman to be a decent and honest man, but his speech did not give General Rose due credit for work that he did in incredibly difficult circumstances. It did not reveal that Sarajevo now lives in what passes for peace and quiet because of General Rose's actions; nor did it take due notice of the fact that General Rose could not single-handedly make the Bosnian Serbs, Muslims and Croatians sit down together and make peace when they did not want peace.

I intend to speak about the subject tabled for debate--the Army. First, let me do what all Conservative Members wish to do: I welcome the opportunity to quote Sir

Column 531

Winston Churchill, especially to his grandson, who has now returned to the Chamber. On 8 August 1904, Churchill said:

"The Army was not an inanimate substance, it was a living thing. Regiments were not like houses; they could not be pulled down and altered structurally to suit the convenience of the occupier and the caprice of the owner. They were more like plants; they grew slowly if they were to grow strong; they were easily affected by conditions of temperature or soil; and if they were blighted or transplanted they were apt to wither, and then they could only be revived by copious floods of public money. That was true with regard to any Army, and it was still more true with regard to a voluntary army."--[ Official Report , 8 August 1904; Vol. 139, c. 1415.]

I believe that it is as true now as it was nearly 91 years ago. I welcome the commitment to stability given by my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. I agree with nearly every word that he said. Since "Options for Change" there has been great disruption, and there is a danger --which I think that my hon. Friend will appreciate--that the Army is already blighted, and may wither if we do not take care. At present, the dust is settling and we can see what has been left; I urge my hon. Friends the Ministers to ensure that we have sufficient soldiers to fulfil our commitments. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State will be well aware, since "Options for Change" 14 tank regiments have been reduced to eight. We shall have fewer than 400 tanks by 1999. France will have approximately 1,000 and Germany about 2,000. Already 29 countries have larger tank fleets than the United Kingdom. Comparisons are not always worth while, but I believe that four years ago to the day we were using 1 Armoured Division in the Gulf--under General Rupert Smith, who has already been mentioned. Would we be able to do that now? Four years after our invasion of Iraq, we can hardly consider the world a safer place. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) said as much a moment ago. There is the problem of Iraq, and various other problems in the middle east; there is the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Only yesterday, there were reports of gas being used against the Karen tribe in Burma. There is also the growth of ethnic and national conflicts, especially around the edge of the Russian Federation in Chechnya. I think that we have heard enough about Bosnia today, but there is a risk that that conflict may spread.

As the world becomes less safe, the capabilities of unfriendly nations are growing. Iraq, for instance, has largely rearmed. Meanwhile, we can no longer rely on the same level of speedy United States support as in the past. We accept the need for the Army; we must therefore eradicate any blight, and watch for any sign of withering.

I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister--in supporting him--that great uncertainty and unhappiness remains in our forces. That needs to be assuaged. The Bett review hangs like a storm cloud on the horizon; it may or may not burst over us. Above all, in all ranks there is a perceived erosion of the quality of life--a difficult concept.

There is a new breed of civil servant, which is thought to be chipping away at every perk or benefit that may exist. That is the perception, whether or not it is true. There have been attacks on senior officers in the press: it has been considered ridiculous that they might live in staffed houses. We read that cavalry men are going

Column 532

hunting in Army time, and that that is disgraceful. Let me say this to those who run down that practice: what more does a man leading a tank attack need than courage and a love of throwing himself into the unknown, across a hedge at full tilt, on a horse? I do not hunt, and I am not advancing any particular defence of hunting; but I think that it is good training in courage and spirit for young officers. At the same time as those reports appear in the press, financial and time restrictions are imposed on the quality of life in all ranks. The perception exists, and it could be a sign of blight. We do not pay our Army all that well, certainly by the standards of life outside, but we expect soldiers to work hard and to die if necessary.

Lady Olga Maitland: They are well paid by the standards of Members of Parliament.

Mr. Robathan: Indeed: I would be earning more if I were still in the Army. That is unusual in terms of standards outside.

Mr. Soames: Worth a hell of a lot more.

Mr. Robathan: I thank my hon. Friend for that comment.

Mr. Soames: I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend has said. May I reassure him that there is not an army of civil servants chipping away at the ethos and standard of service life? There is, however, an insidious and disagreeable drip of disaffection and ignorance from the Labour party, which causes great unsettlement and deep and abiding resentment. I agree with what he says about the Bett review and about the fact that, plainly, people are anxious about it, as they inevitably will be. He knows, and will wish to confirm, that that review is entirely independent. It will be presented to the Government. It is for the Government then to decide how they will dispose of its recommendations.

Mr. Robathan: I agree with my hon. Friend. The next few months and year will be an opportunity to restore the confidence that has been eroded to a certain extent, because of the cuts and the changes that he acknowledged. I agree that the suggestion that the Opposition might provide a better defence policy is ludicrous.

Soldiers are different. They are not just civil servants or salesmen in uniform.

"A soldier is not as other men and when he thinks he is, he ceases to be their guardian."

My hon. Friend, among others, will know that that is a quotation from Julius Caesar, a fine soldier and a successful politician until 15 March.

We cannot treat our soldiers in exactly the same way as we treat people in other jobs, as no other job expects one to leave one's family at the drop of a hat for months or years to go to war, possibly to be killed or to kill one's fellow men. No ways exist of measuring productivity in peacetime. One can measure efficiency, but it will not be productivity.

That subject relates to contracting out and market testing. It is true that a Chieftain tank can be easily dealt with by a civilian mechanic in Bovingdon, but it would have been very different on the approaches to Basra four years ago, or in the drive towards Berlin 50 years ago. In the same way, an appendicitis in Britain can be treated by the national health service, but gunshot wounds under fire

Column 533

require dedicated medical personnel, field ambulances, and field and base hospitals. I urge my hon. Friend to consider closely the reductions in medical provision. Although such provision may be unnecessary in peace, that is rarely so in war.

I welcome the support of the hon. Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) for the regimental system. The Army has many quirks that do not stand up to late 20th century cost analysis. They include ceremonial bands, bearskins, kilts and red berets, but try telling the tourist boards that they are not necessary. One hon. Member is keen on getting rid of such things as ceremonial swords, and he makes a great fuss about them in newspapers.

I am sure that it is shocking to many hon. Members to know that, seven years ago, when I was serving as an officer in London, among his other duties, a soldier cleaned my kit for extra pay while I was taking part in trooping the colour and other ceremonial duties. In Northern Ireland three months later, that same young man worked extraordinarily hard as my personal escort in an entirely operational sense. I hope that people would say that I was worth protecting at the time.

It is easy to say that there is no reason why soldiers should not live in the same conditions and in the same way as civilians, but one tampers with all the ceremonial, tradition and, as it were, baggage of the Army at one's peril. It contributes to making our Army so greatly admired at home and abroad, as we have heard from hon. Members on both sides of the House today.

The Territorial Army is being restructured. In Leicestershire, my own county, I have had representations from 7 Royal Anglian, which is being disbanded. I regret that enormously. Of course, there is no immediate need for the TA in peace, but there will be in war. When we are reducing our regular forces, the last thing we need to cut is our reserves--the reverse should be the case. In peacetime, the TA acts as a conduit between the public and the armed forces. In a society that is less aware than ever before of military life and of military structures, it is essential to give our TA all possible support. The enthusiasm exists. I understand that the London University Officer Training Corps is oversubscribed by five applicants to each place. That may be a comment on student grants, but it shows the enthusiasm that exists. The TA may wither away if it is not well regarded, so I urge my hon. Friend to make best use of those enthusiasts. I support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster and I go further than him--a senior TA officer should direct TA policy in the Ministry of Defence.

I am delighted that there is greater co-operation with our European partners. I hope that a further standardisation of equipment, ammunition and vehicles for industrial and operational reasons takes place among our North Atlantic Treaty Organisation partners. I hope that greater co- operation will arise between industrial companies making the military equipment that we require. But we must be careful as we contemplate any moves towards a single European army. The Franco-German Corps, renamed the Eurocorps, is nearly half the size of the British Army, but, so far, it is not renowned for its

Column 534

operational efficiency. We should be delighted to co-operate, especially at planning level, as we are doing with the air force, but let us consider the facts.

NATO has protected the peace in Europe for nearly 50 years and it remains our best vehicle to do that. France may be part of the Eurocorps, but it withdrew from the military side of NATO some 30 years ago and, I understand, it has shown no intention of coming back. Hon. Members may recall that Belgium refused to supply ammunition to Britain, its NATO ally, during the Gulf war. Germany has just re-established diplomatic representation in Baghdad, which is in contrast to Her Majesty's Government's policy. In the Gulf, France, which played an active and honourable role, launched its own peace initiative without allied knowledge, just before the outbreak of war. That is not specifically to criticise all our NATO allies, but our strength must be in our own forces. I say yes to co-operation, planning and alliances, but I cannot envisage the circumstances in which we should move towards a single European army.

We must beware of inflicting blight on the Army. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench and to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. They are doing an excellent job, but that does not mean that some of us do not retain some concerns, which we would like to have assuaged. They must not ignore the reasons for the Army's high reputation. Not everything the Army does in peace will stand up to rigorous logic and cost analysis, but it goes towards making a culture, ethos and esprit de corps that is admired throughout the world, and that has been commented on by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

In the last defence estimates, under the title, "A Sharp Sword in a Steady Hand", the Government said:

"Our armed forces are widely regarded--and rightly--as a valuable and prestigious national asset. The possession of such an asset is not a luxury; and it is not something we could surrender without grave injury to the security and reputation of this country." I wholeheartedly agree with that. The Government have my and, I suspect, the House's support in that. This valued national asset needs careful nurturing.

6.38 pm

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh): Hon. Members will know that this is the first opportunity that I have had to participate in a debate on the Army. I have listened carefully to the speeches thus far, and it is clear that the format of concentrating on a single service provides an excellent opportunity to focus, in this case, on the role of the Army in the United Kingdom's defence. It is also clear from those speeches--in the main--that a wealth of experience and detailed knowledge can be contributed by hon. Members. I am sure that that will be reinforced by hon. Members who speak later.

Although I do not propose to challenge the expertise developed by hon. Members over many years, I will confirm certain principles that should be considered and that should perhaps govern our defence policy in relation to the Army. I shall then concentrate on more local matters in relation to Eastleigh and to Hampshire.

I have been interested as, during the debate, hon. Members have, in various forms, discreetly and modestly, displayed their distinguished military careers. I should add that I am the first male member of my family this century

Column 535

not to have followed a professional career in the Army, which some might describe as a small footnote to the peace dividend. Today's debate is perhaps a little low key compared with the earlier debates on "Options for Change" and "Front Line First", but we must not forget that, although the political decisions have been taken, many of them are still being implemented, with the inevitable disruption that they will generate still to be faced in many quarters. The feedback from commanders at all levels and throughout the armed forces carries the clear message that what they need above all is a period of calm and stability to come to terms with and to absorb the effects of implementing "Options for Change" and "Front Line First". That is important not least to prevent morale from declining further.

Hon. Members have referred to the worries about the on-going Bett review. The concern is that it will have a damaging effect on forces' morale. I was glad to hear the Minister recognise that concern in an intervention.

There is an overwhelming case for conducting defence policy on a series of clear principles. I express my support for the views that have been put forward in a recent debate in the House by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell). The first principle is that foreign policy should dictate defence policy; secondly, resources should match commitments; and, thirdly, we should endorse the presumption that the stability that our senior commanders are seeking can best be met, now and for the foreseeable future, by no further reductions in the defence budget.

When considering the first principle, developments in the debate on Europe must have a direct bearing on our debate on the defence of the United Kingdom. The award of associate membership status to the Western European Union for nine eastern European countries has widened that debate. Ministers will acknowledge that they have recognised that the evolution of the European Community defence policy is now an inevitable outcome of the Maastricht treaty. No one expects such developments to take place overnight, or that such policies, which in some quarters might be received with suspicion or even condemnation, will be evolved rapidly. However, the evolutionary process has begun and elements of common policy are already in place. As the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) said, for nearly two years France and the United Kingdom have been engaged in extensive, although little publicised, co-operation, particularly on nuclear matters. Some five months ago, co-operation on air resources between France and the United Kingdom was announced. Hon. Members will know that the United Kingdom and Dutch amphibious force has existed for some time.

For over a year the opportunity has been recognised within NATO for the development of combined joint task forces, making NATO's resources available to European members of NATO for operations in which the United States would not expect or may not wish to take part. Those are factors of prime importance in developing our defence policy.

Hon. Members have already mentioned the fact that there is some doubt about the direction that the United States' defence policy will take in the future in terms of its commitment to involvement in events in Europe and elsewhere. There are strong signals, which should not be

Next Section

  Home Page