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Column 536ignored, that Europe should seek to be more self-sufficient in meeting its defence responsibilities. The existing policies for co-operation within Europe at various levels and the changing attitudes in the United States will lead eventually to the evolution of far greater integration of defence policies within the European Union.
The evolution of a common European defence policy may cause concern and fears in some quarters. However, it must be viewed in the light of the tragic developments in former Yugoslavia, to which many hon. Members have referred, as well as the outbreak of conflicts elsewhere. There is a rising tide of political and economic instability among the emerging nation states on Europe's eastern borders. They are now free of Russian rule, and they have been released from the constraints that that omnipotent regime ruthlessly applied.
Our armed forces are performing a vital role in Bosnia under the auspices of UNPROFOR. Their bravery and professionalism are major factors in maintaining the humanitarian effort and in curtailing the worst excesses of that war. It is vital that the House opposes any lifting of the arms embargo, either unilaterally or multilaterally. We must not allow the humanitarian effort to be compromised by lifting the arms embargo. In my view, it would be impossible for our forces and those of other countries to remain in Bosnia with any degree of safety in such circumstances.
It is not feasible to consider pulling UN forces out of Bosnia in the current circumstances. Commanders have made it abundantly clear that such action would be very difficult logistically and would be highly dangerous. We should not forget how long it took to deploy the UN force, and any withdrawal would be an equally painstaking process.
The traumatic events in Bosnia have highlighted the importance of developing and maintaining a defence procurement policy that provides--
Mr. Robathan: Did I understand the hon. Gentleman correctly? Did he say that he is opposed to the lifting of the arms embargo in Bosnia? I thought that his right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) said something rather different recently.
Mr. Chidgey: I am not aware of what my right hon. Friend may have said in the hon. Gentleman's presence. I can say that only a week ago, during the debate on the Royal Navy, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Fife, North-East, our defence spokesman, made the very points that I have been reiterating today. I know that, so I can confirm it.
As I have said, the traumatic events in Bosnia have highlighted the importance of developing and maintaining a defence procurement policy which provides the Army and our other armed forces with the specialist equipment that they need, and of maintaining a capability in British industry to service those needs. Opportunities to provide equipment to other European nations, often in partnership, will no doubt increase as the common European defence policy evolves. Furthermore, Britain would reap massive economic benefit from specialisation, inter-operability and common procurement. As has been said, all that is hard to achieve, but those options could become available with greater European co-operation and integration.
Column 537Without a strong home base, built on local procurement by our armed forces, British industry will be disadvantaged. Our European partners are unlikely to take seriously the claims of British manufacturers if they are unable to secure orders from their own Government. I urge the Minister of State to make an announcement soon about how many attack helicopters the Ministry of Defence envisages and which helicopter it will be buying.
On this point, if on no others, I agree with the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman. There is a clear military need for an attack helicopter as soon as possible. The weapons system offers the ground commander an invaluable addition to his tactical flexibility and, in cases such as Bosnia, the attack helicopter's excellent reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering capabilities, together with a formidable precision weapons system, offer a degree of flexibility that is not currently available.
In the general context of defence procurement, I should like to return to more local matters relating to my constituency and to my county of Hampshire. Under "Options for Change" we have already suffered the sad demise of the Hampshire regiment--the Tigers--which could trace its origins to the scaling of the Heights of Abraham to defeat Montcalm at Quebec. Although it is sad to lose those historic ties, the impact of "Options for Change" and "Front Line First" on Hampshire's economy is far greater.
The armed services' presence in Hampshire is the largest single component in the region's economy: Aldershot is traditionally the home of the British Army; Portsmouth and Gosport have provided the Royal Navy with dockyards, munitions and victualling establishments since before the reign of Henry VIII; Farnborough has been a leading centre for aeronautical research since military aircraft development began; the headquarters of the Army Air Corps is at Middle Wallop; and it was from Eastleigh airport that the Spitfire, the forerunner of thousands of aircraft produced in local factories which are today a vital part of the local defence industry, made its maiden flight. I cannot emphasise too strongly how important defence is to Hampshire. In 1992, the defence-dependent economy in Hampshire employed some 127,000 workers, or around 20 per cent. of the county's work force. Nearly three quarters--some 81,000--were civilians engaged in defence- related industrial employment. Research undertaken at Portsmouth university reveals that in 1993-94 £1,750 million was spent on United Kingdom defence equipment procurement in Hampshire. In terms of industrial production, the £1,750 million accounted for 50 per cent. of the aerospace output, 40 per cent. of the shipbuilding and 30 per cent. of the electronics output and involved more than 500 local companies in the region. Hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that Hampshire has been classified as having the most defence-dependent economy in the country.
Inevitably, the implementation of "Options for Change" and "Front Line First" has had a major impact on our local economy. More than 13,000 military and civilian personnel jobs have been lost, more than half of them in the defence industry. Equally important in the structural planning of Hampshire's economy are proposals to release no fewer than 27 sites occupied by the Ministry of Defence, representing more than 1,200 hectares.
Column 538I hope to emphasise the dramatic influence of the MOD estate on local land use and am therefore glad to see the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) in his place, because I wish to mention his constituency. More than one third of the land area of the borough of Gosport, a town with a population of some 70,000, was until recently occupied by the defence forces and support organisations' establishments. Clearly, that would have a dramatic effect on any community.
"Options for Change" and "Front Line First" have been instruments of deep structural change in the economic base of Hampshire. The many large firms in the defence industry in Hampshire are continuing to downsize as a direct result of defence cuts in what have been our main growth sectors-- electronics, marine engineering, aerospace and research and development.
Whereas in 1990 the rate of unemployment was only 3.4 per cent., by 1993 it had almost tripled to 9.9 per cent. The determination and skill of our defence sector firms and their workers in developing diversified markets and products has been a major factor in reducing that level of unemployment slightly to around 7 per cent., but it is still twice as high as in 1990. That proves that successful diversification in our high-technology defence industry becomes a hostage to fortune if left to market forces alone.
Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): The hon. Gentleman mentioned my constituency. I am well aware of the research done by Portsmouth university. I remember that one of its lecturers attended a meeting in Havant and said that, at the rate we were going, Portsmouth and Gosport would become like Liverpool. I suggest that the reverse is the case. Although there have been changes in the defence forces, Portsmouth and Gosport have come through "Options for Change" and "Front Line First". Thanks to a concentration of naval presence in the Portsmouth and Gosport area, we have done quite well. If there is a high level of unemployment, it is mainly due to the loss of civilian jobs, especially in a television factory in my constituency, and is nothing to do with the Government's defence policy.
Mr. Chidgey: The hon. Gentleman probably does not know that he and I trod the same streets in our youth. In the 1950s and 1960s, I remember thousands of people employed in supporting or serving in the Navy. I agree that Gosport, Portsmouth and other parts of the south coast in Hampshire have benefited from the restructuring of the Navy, but my point was that in the industrial sector of the defence industry there has been an inevitable loss of orders because of "Options for Change" and "Front Line First".
Mr. Soames: I know that the hon. Gentleman does not mean his speech to be a litany of gloom, so perhaps I can assist him. What my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) said was correct. Last week, I had the honour to be invited to speak for a colleague--an unusual event, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will admit. In fact, I spoke for my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts). GEC Marconi has a factory at Waterlooville in his constituency. It has just received an enormous order
Column 539for torpedoes from the Royal Navy, and I was assured that the defence industry was booming in that part of the world.
Mr. Chidgey: I do not doubt the Minister's deep knowledge; I merely wanted to question certain principles. The research that I have cited and the region's employment level prove that there have been problem in Hampshire, although I accept that there have also been successes. My point is that we could do much better if--to use a hackneyed phrase--we had the level playing field that we need in Europe. We could benefit far more from a more integrated, co-operative European defence policy. I accept that there have been successes and I welcome them, but we need to do better and to do more.
The unemployment rate is still twice the 1990 rate. The successful diversification of our high technology industry will be a hostage to fortune if it is left to market forces. We have to recognise the fact that, in other European countries, national and regional government resources have been and are being provided to help defence sector industries to accelerate their diversification. Assistance is being provided to develop management, strategic planning, marketing and technical skills, over and above the support that has been available under the Konver programme, from which Hampshire also benefits. I take Bremen as an example. It is the smallest federal German state and has less than half the population of the county of Hampshire. It is a relatively minor player in the defence industry, but is already receiving DM10 million a year for an arms conversion programme. It has been receiving that sum since 1993 and will continue to receive it for the foreseeable future. That is in addition to moneys that it receives from the European Union Konver fund. The level playing field concept is important.
I have the highest regard for the entrepreneurial skills and determination of our defence sector firms, but it is unreasonable to expect them to compete effectively in the marketplace if there is uncertainty in procurement policy at home and if their competitors abroad are benefiting from proactive state support. It is therefore imperative that the defence industry in Eastleigh and in Hampshire generally should enjoy a period of stability and calm and that the Government should make the major procurement decisions with all due urgency so that they can become part of industry's forward planning. I now draw attention to an aspect of defence procurement which, although minor in terms of expenditure, provides probably the best investment for any expenditure in the defence budget. I am referring, of course, to the funding provided for the Army and other cadet forces. For very little outlay in the defence policy, the cadet forces provide as much as one third of all armed forces recruits. They are young men and women who have already developed a knowledge of the demands of service life and are well adapted to pursuing careers in the forces where they continue to excel.
In Eastleigh, as in other constituencies, there has been a phenomenal growth in interest in the cadet forces. The number of cadets in the Air Training Corps 1216 Squadron in my constituency has more than doubled in the past year. The enthusiasm of the cadets, coupled with the help that their involvement gives in guiding them through the difficult early teenage years, reinforces the value of cadet forces to the community. I hope that the
Column 540Minister recognises the value of the cadet forces and ask him to confirm that there are no plans to reduce the level of funding and support currently provided to them.
It would be a gross omission to let such an occasion pass without paying tribute to the courage and professionalism of our armed forces, especially the Army. Everyone in the House and in the country at large can and should be proud of the remarkable contribution that they make, often in extremely difficult circumstances, to British and United Nations operations in spheres of conflict throughout the world.
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): It is some five years since I had the opportunity to speak in a defence debate. I am therefore honoured, and approach the defence arena of the House with some humility. I have not been neglecting defence issues--how could I?--as I hope that I shall show.
I link my words to the spirit at least of the Member of the European Parliament for Itchen, Test and Avon, Mr. Edward Kellett-Bowman, with whom I have worked closely on a number of defence issues. Together, we keep an eye on, for example, Konver funds. It is vital that we recognise the importance of putting in the European Parliament the British point of view on defence, otherwise the opinions of European politicians on British defence may be, shall we say, not the same as ours.
We must address not only the challenge of the defence of the realm but the management of change. I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench on the way in which they have managed change over the past few years. That has been manifest in my constituency, where I have seen the most tremendous management problems resolved with great success and sensitivity by not only people in the Ministry of Defence in London, but local management, which quite often depends on retired officers and men who have enormous experience. It is always good to feel that we are in safe hands when it comes to, for example, the management of the Salisbury plain training area.
Mr. Soames: I want only to endorse my hon. Friend's point and join his tribute, which I should have made from the Front Bench, to the work of retired officers, their enormous importance to the management and their breadth of experience and steadiness. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting that and I apologise for not having raised that matter myself.
The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) was right to refer to the importance of cadet forces of all services. They flourish in my constituency, as in his and, indeed, across the country. I did not have the privilege of serving in the forces as a regular soldier, sailor or air man. I was, however, in the cadet force at school, in which I rose to the dizzy ranks of company serjeant major and played tuba in the school band. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to mark the importance of the cadet forces.
In my constituency there are no fewer than 13 Ministry of Defence establishments. I do not want to dwell on my constituency, but it is home to a cross-section of service establishments, especially Army establishments. Pre-eminent among them is the headquarters of UK Land
Column 541Forces at Wilton, shortly to become Land Command on 1 April. We are immensely proud of that establishment in our constituency. It grew out of the old Southern Command, which I recall so well from my childhood days in Salisbury. It has an immensely important role, not only as a major local employer but because we know that the community I have the honour to represent is at the heart of the defence of this country.
We also have Old Sarum, which still retains an important military presence. It happens to be the oldest operational airfield in the United Kingdom; a source of some complaint to the residents of Stratford sub Castle who now feel that the airspace is becoming a little crowded as diversification into civilian flying takes place. We also have Bulford, which is known to almost everybody in the British Army, past or present, of any rank. It is a very fine example of the interface between the military and civilian communities, on which I should like to dwell.
The relationship between the military and civilian communities has changed very much over recent years, particularly as people have come back from overseas, especially from Germany, and pressures on civilian communities have been redoubled. At Larkhill, too, we have a wonderful relationship with the Royal Artillery, which is very much appreciated. The large garrison there is an important part of the military and civilian communities for so many people. Rollestone camp, for example, is a sort of standby camp. It has been used by the Home Office as an overflow prison. In the summer, it is used for Territorial Army exercises and, on one occasion during the Gulf war, it was Britain's only prisoner of war camp. I had the duty to visit Rollestone camp during the Gulf war to check, to my satisfaction, as a Member of the House of Commons, that the Geneva convention was being observed, which of course it was.
At West Down camp, another operational camp for territorial and other regimental activity, we see an interface between the civilian and military communities. I was sad at the decision to close Netheravon in future and to amalgamate the Army Air Corps activities in Hampshire over the border at Middle Wallop, but I was delighted that the Ministry of Defence made such a great deal of effort to try to ensure that jobs would be transferred to other units rather than simply lost. That effort was made for not only the military personnel but some hundreds of civilian personnel who had worked there for a long time. West Dean represents the Royal Navy's interest in my constituency and the activities there need no explanation in this debate, although it is a very important part of the constituency. It is with sadness that I recall the closure only last month of RAF Chilmark, a distinguished Royal Air Force base, which has served the Royal Air Force so very well for more than 50 years. It was very moving, and an illustration of the continuity of defence in this country, that the station flag, which was hauled down for the last time, was presented to a fine old gentlemen in a wheelchair, who had been one of the first employees on day one of the opening of RAF Chilmark.
The aeroplane and armament experimental establishment Boscombe Down is the sound of freedom to the local community, with the sound of Tornados keeping us awake during the day and sometimes at night, too, supplemented at weekends by the welcome presence of the Southampton university air squadron. One of the highlights
Column 542of life in the local community is the battle of Britain celebration at Boscombe Down, which thrills everyone who attends. It has rightly been somewhat scaled down in recent years. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) that we discard at our peril what he described somewhat unkindly and self-deprecatingly as the baggage of the military. It is a great tradition.
The importance of the research base is often not mentioned in defence debates. Some years ago, when I was member of the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts, we investigated the science budget and discovered that a substantial part of it was, in fact, paid for out of the defence budget. In my constituency, the chemical and biological defence establishment is at Porton Down, but there are a number of other establishments with a scientific base.
Porton Down is remarkable and has done perhaps more for the defence of the west than people will realise for many years to come. I pay particular tribute to Dr. Graham Pearson and his scientific staff, who not only lead our efforts at Geneva in defence and disarmament in chemical and biological weapons but have had an immense impact on the policy of the United States on chemical and biological defence. They have made an enormous difference to the stability of the world, no less.
At Porton Down we also see an interface with the environment in the remarkable landscape and precious ecology known for the great bustard, which I suspect no longer resides there. Certainly, it has the largest colony of juniper trees in the country. The way in which the MOD has opened up its landscape to local ecological and environmental interest groups, wildlife trusts, and so on is very much to be commended and gives the lie to the idea that once the Ministry of Defence takes over the landscape, that is the end of it. Far from it. If it were not for the Ministry of Defence in the south of England, we would not have such wonderful environmental havens at Salisbury plain, Porton down and, closer to the coast, Lulworth.
The nuclear, biological and chemical school at Winterbourne Gunner is another establishment I have the honour to represent. It, too, has done enormous work in training our soldiers in chemical and biological defence techniques. Quite remarkable activity has gone on there and that activity has spilled over into the United States and into the whole defence of the west.
The final establishment which I must mention, because it is known around the world to all British service men, is the NAAFI--the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute. The headquarters at Amesbury has fed and watered British troops for a long time and is an excellent organisation. When it moved out of its headquarters in London and went to Amesbury, it brought with it 300 jobs, and we were grateful for that. I was, therefore, sad to read the Defence Committee's third report on food supply to the armed forces, which was printed on 25 January this year. Although it is a matter for the Comptroller and Auditor General, all I can say is that, if there were an opportunity for me to give evidence to suggest that the NAAFI was an excellently run organisation, I would leap at the opportunity of giving it. The NAAFI is not just the best brewer of tea in this country at its tea factory in Amesbury but a remarkable logistical organisation. When we had a substantial garrison in Germany, the NAAFI delivered 12,000 loaves of bread a day from Britain to Germany. It did not come back with empty trucks and it does not do so today. Potatoes feature
Column 543largely in an effort to supply the British market with slightly cheaper potatoes than farmers in Britain can currently produce. Employment is crucial in any community that has a defence presence. It is not just a question of the number of serving officers, men and women but a question of civilian employment. In my constituency, we are fortunate to have seen only a small drop in the number of service personnel. There has been a drop of about 260, but there are still almost 5,000 personnel. There are more civilians working directly for the Ministry of Defence than there were. The NAAFI has 600 jobs at Amesbury and another 500 in shops and clubs in the area. It is a substantial employer.
Once again, I pay tribute to the retired officers, men and women of all ranks who enrich our community by choosing to return to their roots. If ever there was a rootless career, it is in the Army, the Royal Air Force or the Navy. That is especially true of the Army; Salisbury seems to draw people back. We are glad to have those people because they contribute so much to the community. That is true of any community that has a defence interest.
One of the problem areas which I want to highlight in the interface between the military and civilian populations is the responsibility of our local authorities for housing, for example. When soldiers leave the Army, they have a dilemma. Do they go back to their place of origin in, say, Liverpool or Newcastle, which they left when they were 16? Alternatively, do they stay in the area where they have spent much of their life, often married life, and in which their children have gone to school? That puts a particular strain on district councils as housing authorities. In Salisbury, the relationship between the local managers of Army housing and the district council is good, as is the relationship with Wiltshire county council, which provides other services such as education and social services.
There are, however, still problems that need to be addressed, such as the huge problem of empty Army housing. I know that the Government have addressed it, because I was a Minister for part of the time when we had the working party on empty housing and I am aware of the work done. However, it still needs to be rounded off and assistance needs to be given in certain circumstances to ensure that housing is not empty. I understand that there are many reasons why it is empty. Sometimes, the quality of housing put up in the 1950s and 1960s for service men is now too low and is unacceptable for civilian use; it would therefore represent a bad use of local authority money. Nevertheless, there is a problem and I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to address it.
Planning is another problem. We must grasp the nettle of Crown exemption in planning for Ministry of Defence land. In my constituency, there are thousands of acres of such land, not just in one large area but in many areas. I have already said that there are 13 establishments owned by the Ministry of Defence in my constituency.
On the environment, I pay tribute to the defence land agent and his staff. The headquarters is at Chessington and I pay particular tribute to the DLA at Durrington. The impact on the local community is enormous, not just in terms of the relationship between the Army and farming. The Army is a big landlord of tenanted farms across the country and especially around Salisbury plain.
The matter goes wider than that. There is, for example, the planting of trees. The Ministry of Defence has been assiduous in planting trees on Salisbury plain, which is not a happy environment for the tree. It is ironic that it has
Column 544planted so many that I have started to get complaints from environmentalists and ecologists that there are too many trees and that they are upsetting the balance of nature. One cannot please everybody all the time. The Ministry of Defence has done well there. An article in the national press last month pointed out that the tank tracks-- the scars gouged out on Salisbury plain--have become a haven for certain flora which otherwise would not have been established in the area.
I now turn to the question of roads across the plain. For many years, at Salisbury plain and at Otterburn, there has been a real problem of the environment being eroded by heavy military vehicles. Of course there will be a conflict between the use of land for military purposes, the use of land for civilian purposes and conservation. However, the decision taken to spend a good deal of money on the provision of these roads is welcome. It has not only taken pressure off local roads used by the civilian community but enhanced the environment and prevented the wholesale rutting of many hundreds of acres of land. It is a huge success.
My right hon. Friend the Minister may like to know that the DLA at Durrington has leased earth-moving vehicles to perform the task--no doubt, on an experimental basis, if he has not yet heard about it. The vehicles work extremely well, and the sight of fast-moving earth scrapers and movers is familiar around the edges of the plain. There is, of course, a problem of noise from the firing of guns. The AS90 has been put through its paces and we are glad that its trials have now finished. It was a bit of a trial for us in the local community. The people of Otterburn should not worry too much about the noise, not just because they will get used to it--they have been used to such noise for many years--but because the story has been overwritten.
I was absolutely delighted to see on today's Order Paper a petition from the residents of Otterburn drawing attention to the fact that there are moves in the local community in the north-east of England to try to get the Army out of the ranges at Otterburn. The petitioners clearly ask that the Army does not leave Otterburn, because it provides enormous assistance to the local economy. I am sure that those of us who have the defence of the realm at heart are grateful to the people of Otterburn who have signed that petition. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) who has asked me over the past few months about noise on the Salisbury plain training area and about the extent to which it is disruptive. I know that he will be able to convince his constituents that it is a price worth paying.
I was delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) mentioned vehicles because I, too, have been pursuing one or two little queries about vehicles. There are a number of problems here and I asked some parliamentary questions. I wondered how many vehicles there were in the Ministry of Defence. I thought that it would be an immense challenge for the Ministry--as if it did not have enough to do--to count the number of vehicles. I was delighted that the MOD managed to produce a very good answer, stating that it owns 109,279 vehicles while there are 246,926 personnel. That is not a bad ratio in terms of vehicles to people, but it raises a serious issue about the procurement of vehicles--a subject in which the Select Committee on Defence is interested--and the way in which those vehicles are currently maintained, registered and used.
Column 545The registration of military vehicles is somewhat arcane. I am sure that it is performed very well, but I wonder whether the time has come to computerise and amalgamate that registration with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency operation and possibly link it into the police national computer. In terms of value for money, that point could be worth exploring, as that is a very large vehicle fleet, by any standards.
In a community where there is military activity, there is often aggravation between civilians and the drivers of military vehicles. When a regiment moves to a training area and the drivers are unfamiliar with the roads, people will take wrong turnings, no matter how brilliantly the training area staff sign the roads as unsuitable for vehicles, forbidden to military vehicles, and so on.
We must also consider the non-standardisation of military vehicles. I am not too bothered about standardisation per se. However, it is difficult when vehicles are used and run according to the Joint Service Road Transport Regulations 1988, which bear very little, or no, relationship to the Road Traffic Acts and to the construction and use regulations that apply to other vehicles on our roads. Many of the vehicles in the MOD fleet are tanks. Although we do see tanks on the roads in my constituency, we do not see them in large numbers. However, we often see 38-tonne lorries with military registrations pounding up and down our motorways. Under military regulations, tractor and trailer are registered separately and have different registration numbers. A police car in front of such a vehicle would see one registration number, while a police car behind it would see another. If the parts are swapped around, matters become a little tricky. I believe that all that is rather over-bureaucratic. I suggest that there may be value for money for the taxpayer if that problem with registration is considered and action taken. We are very fortunate in this country with regard to our police forces. However, a problem is developing which must be addressed. Citizens in my constituency may encounter no fewer than six different police forces. The primacy in policing lies with the Wiltshire county constabulary--primus et optimus, first and best. It is the case throughout the country that the Home Office constabulary has primacy.
However, there is an interface with the MOD police. Some years ago, I served on the Committee on the Ministry of Defence Police Bill and I am aware that that legislation has had a very beneficial effect. There was always tension between different police forces, particularly between the MOD police and county police forces. That situation has improved dramatically, which is good news. In the Salisbury area and in the Salisbury plain villages, we are grateful that the MOD police are present to deter crime as well as to look after the interests of the MOD. The fact that the MOD police are now full constabulary policemen and women is very good news for us. The Royal Military police are also in evidence in my constituency. They are not a constabulary force and legally and technically are not policemen in respect of civilians. That sometimes causes problems. I wrote on that point to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, who is in another place, on 23 January and anticipate an answer quite soon.
Column 546If a military police vehicle is on a public highway, looks like an ordinary county police car and has a blue light, it is technically illegal for that vehicle to be on the road, whether or not the light is flashing.
In addition to the police forces to which I have already referred, we have the Guard force and we even see the provost-marshals from time to time. We also have the Atomic Energy Authority police and the British Transport police. There are also private security firms. I want to flag up the problem in communities where there is a military presence, as there is sometimes confusion between the different police forces in terms of what they are doing, what they can do and what notice one should take of them.
I am sure that my hon. Friends will be glad to hear that I have nearly finished. However, I must mention the education of forces children. In defence debates, we sometimes forget that we are not just talking about fighting forces; we are talking about communities that involve families. The British forces have a fine tradition of educating the forces children.
This is a difficult matter. I know many people, as I am sure all hon. Members do, who have been to school in perhaps a dozen different establishments during their school days. Two organisations are now responsible for the education of service children--Service Children's Schools (North West Europe), which has a responsibility mainly in Germany, and the Service Children's Education Authority UK, which is a non- departmental public body with responsibility in the United Kingdom.
I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench are considering the education of those children. Education matters enormously to children who live a peripatetic and often a global life. We must ensure that they have the finest education possible.
When I was a Minister in the Department of the Environment with responsibility for the poll tax-- [Interruption.] --that was indeed an honour--it fell to me to be responsible for the payment, or non-payment, of poll tax by Her Majesty's forces. I had some interesting negotiations with the Treasury and the MOD. On one occasion in my constituency, the commanding officer of a unit on the plain busted down several score of soldiers who had defaulted on their poll tax to make the point that soldiers are part of the civilian community and that they and their families need to be regarded as such.
In these days of citizens charters, public consultations and public inquiries, it is important to be absolutely clear where the families of service personnel stand with regard to their civil rights. The Minister of State for the Armed Forces answered a parliamentary question from me which makes it clear that
"The families of service personnel enjoy the same rights as other citizens to make representations during public consultations and public inquiries and to make complaints under the citizens charter. The same rights apply to service personnel provided that the impartiality of the armed forces is not compromised, and that such representations do not involve the disclosure, without permission, of information obtained in the course of their official duties."--[ Official Report , 31 January 1995; Vol. 253, c. 565. ]
That is an important point because there are pressures on the families of service men and women. Conflicts can sometimes arise. I would not suggest for a moment that military discipline should not be observed. It is absolutely right that it should be. We cannot have soldiers rushing off and contradicting the good discipline of their unit. On the other hand, where
Column 547military communities are threatened by civilian activities, there is a case for listening rather carefully to what they have to say. I flag that up as a problem area in the case of Stonehenge in my constituency, where the Department of Transport has a proposal to put a dual carriageway within 100 m of married quarters at Larkhill. I hope very much that it will not be a case of, "Oh, they are only soldiers' married quarters, so we need not pay attention to their concerns," in circumstances where, I suggest, a road simply would not be considered if it were to affect one of the villages that we have the honour to represent.
This has been a remarkable debate so far and I look forward to the contributions of my hon. Friends. However, it is a great honour to represent a community like Salisbury which is a microcosm of the military community in this country. I look forward to representing it for many years to come.
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow): I was astonished to hear that the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) had served as a company sergeant major, albeit in a cadet force. He is nothing like some of the CSMs I have met in my admittedly dated military experience.
Rightly and properly, the Minister paid tribute to the soldiers who have served with such bravery and stoicism in deeply disturbing theatres such as Northern Ireland, Bosnia and elsewhere. I echo that tribute. Many of those soldiers, of course, came from Scottish regiments.
In his opening remarks, the hon. Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) paid an equally fine tribute to Nicky Fairbairn; I was pleased to hear that. Nicky Fairbairn and I came from opposite ends of the political spectrum, but in all my dealings with him he always behaved with extreme courtesy and friendliness. It was always a pleasure to watch him, as a member of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs, cross-examining Ministers and civil servants with those brilliant forensic skills for which he was so justly famous in Scottish legal and political circles.
I part company with the hon. Member for Upminster over the deeply disquieting case of Private Clegg. Those who speak to people in Ulster about that affair hear opinions of it that contrast starkly with the view honourably offered by the hon. Gentleman.
I thank the Minister for his robust and emphatic assurance that the press speculation surrounding the possible merger of Scottish and English infantry regiments is just that--sheer speculation, which must be discounted. Infantrymen have to perform--or, I would like to be able to say, had to perform--such arduous roles in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, and the infantry regiment is the best kind of institution for such service. As I said to the Minister in an earlier intervention, infantrymen must have complete trust in their NCOs and officers, and that is best found within an infantry regiment rather than in a larger organisation of soldiers.
Is it the MOD's intention to acquire more land for Army training centres in Scotland in the near future? The Minister may not be able to answer that question immediately but I would be grateful for an answer eventually, because that matter is of some concern to many people in Scotland, despite the assurances offered by the hon. Member for Salisbury.
Column 548I was pleased to hear the Minister claim, with his usual honesty, that there are now widespread promotion opportunities for talented male and female NCOs. I do not expect an answer to my question this evening, but I would like to know how many serving officers have come from our public schools and how many from our state schools, how many have been promoted from the ranks and what ranks those people now hold. Is the Army on a level with the other two services in terms of promotion opportunities for other ranks? That is an important issue for young highly intelligent non-commissioned officers. I would also like to know how many female officers have come up through the ranks.
I shall not talk about strategy in my brief speech--at least, it will be briefer than some of the fine speeches that we have heard this evening. I am concerned with what may loosely be called welfare matters.
What guidelines have been issued to commanding officers concerning the treatment, counselling and advising of women soldiers and officers who become pregnant? Not long ago, a woman constituent came to see me after reading about one such case involving a former woman soldier at an industrial tribunal claiming unfair dismissal by the forces because of pregnancy. I must confess that when I looked at the lady I thought that she probably had not served with the forces recently, and she admitted to me that she had become pregnant in 1945. When I wrote to the Ministry of Defence, I was told that her complaint was time-barred.
I am given to understand that nowadays, where appropriate, women soldiers and officers who become pregnant are encouraged to remain, or to return to the Army. I would like the Minister to confirm that, because my information may be wrong, although I hope that it is not. Staying with the theme not necessarily of pregnancy, whether unwanted or otherwise, but of the welfare of our constituents who have served so honourably in the Army, I noticed that the Minister paid tribute to those who have been killed or wounded while on active service, but that he made no mention of the treatment and care of soldiers who have been wounded, in some cases severely. I should like to know what energies and resources are devoted to their welfare and rehabilitation, and to their being brought back into the regiment, or into whatever arm of the services they were with when they were wounded. Is the Minister satisfied with the treatment and care of those soldiers?
Early-day motion 616 refers to Gulf war veterans. Again, the Minister may not be able to answer my question tonight, but how many soldiers or former soldiers who served in the Gulf war have claimed to be suffering from what is known as Gulf war syndrome? I am trying to be as fair-minded as possible but I must ask whether, as is alleged in the early-day motion, the Ministry of Defence and the Government as a whole have treated those soldiers much less favourably than the American Government have treated their counterparts who served with the United States armed forces. What is happening to those soldiers?
I shall now say something about discipline. I have no sympathy for soldiers who commit serious and violent crimes and then receive what appears to be only a mild reprimand from their commanding officers. What guidelines are issued to commanding officers for dealing with such soldiers? Admittedly they are few in number
Column 549but none the less they bring their regiments into disrepute with their violent behaviour. I would like to know something about the guidelines on dealing with them when they have been convicted in the criminal courts of violent crimes against individuals. Those who bring disgrace on their regiments should be dismissed. I do not believe in punishing a person twice for committing a crime, but our soldiers must conduct themselves with honour while going about their leisure activities.
The hon. Member for Upminster mentioned the yellow card and the tragically inadvertent shooting of civilians in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the Scottish charge of culpable homicide should have been introduced long ago to deal more fairly with such cases.
I have met many young men from my constituency who serve in the British Army, usually as NCOs or private soldiers with infantry regiments. All of them are extremely proud, and rightly so, of their military careers and vocations. I am proud to represent them in this place, which is why I seek to ask questions concerning general welfare matters.
In some respects, the armed forces have been ahead of large industrial organisations in terms of defending the interests of personnel. For example, grievance procedures were introduced in the forces many years before such procedures were introduced in industrial organisations. As recently as 1972, the Industry Act persuaded many industrial organisations to introduce formalised grievance and disciplinary procedures, but I can remember many years ago when I was in the forces that a private soldier had recourse to such grievance procedures up to the senior ranks.
We must examine the role of the British Army within the framework of NATO. The impression I get is that there is an increasing disaffection among Americans--not just American citizens, but politicians--concerning the involvement of their forces in continental Europe. In the not too distant future, we may have to examine the implications of a Europewide defence review because of the growing disillusion felt by so many Americans.
Gore Vidal--he is not a politician, but a would-be politician--gave a speech not long ago in California and said that his opinion, which is shared by many Americans, was that Europe was rich enough and powerful enough to look after its own defence interests, and that the day would come when the Americans would pull out of Europe. One may have little respect for Gore Vidal and one may think that he should stick to writing historical novels, but he reflects a growing body of opinion in America. The view among ordinary Americans to whom I have spoken and among American politicians--both Republican and Democrat--is that the time is approaching when the American military presence in continental Europe will be reduced to a minimum.
My interpretation of what has been told to me by many Americans and what I have read in American newspapers and periodicals may be wrong but I think that that is the shape of things to come. We may well have a European defence force buttressed by a European treaty that will not involve the Americans. That might sound unnecessarily gloomy, but we must accept that there is a growing American disaffection for all matters European. One can
Column 550see that in the American attitude to Bosnia, and in other respects. The Americans do not want a single body bag returned to the States from a European theatre.
That alienation from Europe will grow. I do not wish to make a party political point, as we should all be involved in discussions on this matter. That is the way in which we Europeans--principally, I believe, within the European Union through the Western European Union--are heading, perhaps with an enlarged European Union. NATO will have to change, and it will change dramatically because of American decision-making and not because of the way in which we in Europe think.
Mr. Matthew Banks (Southport): I follow the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) with pleasure, although I was a little surprised that he was surprised that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) was a former company sergeant major in his school's army section combined cadet force. My hon. Friends would not want me to hide my history under a veil, so I shall say that my hon. Friend is not the only one who has served with distinction in that capacity.
Unlike some of my hon. Friends who are in the Chamber, this is the first time that I have spoken in a defence debate. I bring to it my experiences as a former young rifleman with the 1st battalion the 51st Highland Volunteers, and also as someone subsequently commissioned into the Gordon Highlanders. Very few hon. Members at the younger end of the spectrum have served either as a volunteer or in the Regular Army. It is therefore important that those of us who have, take a particular interest in the armed forces.
It is entirely right and proper for me--before I make any remarks concerning the Army--to follow the lead of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) in referring to the sad and untimely death of Sir Nicholas Fairbairn. Nicky was a colourful character and I always enjoyed his company, as did other hon. Members from both sides of the House. One of his ancestors was a founder of the Gordon Highlanders, and he and his family had a great deal of history behind them. He will be sadly missed.
Before I speak on the youth wing of the services, the Territorial Army and the Regular Army, I must say how much I enjoyed the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, whose tour de force around his constituency brought back happy and nostalgic memories of Salisbury plain. If I may say so, it brought back some unhappy memories as well.
Both my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury and the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow referred to the Army cadet force. In this annual debate, it is important that we do not lose sight of the fact that there are the adult forces, if I can call them that. I pay tribute to the officers and adult instructors throughout the British Isles who give up so much time to put so much into the Army cadet force. It is a tremendous, cost-effective and well-recruited organisation, which encourages young people who wish to have a career in the services and also those who do not. In the case of the former, it can bring on the brightest and the best, while in the case of the latter, it helps equip young people to be better citizens in their communities.