The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames): The 8th Battalion the Light Infantry will begin to re-role as a national defence reconnaissance regiment in the Royal Armoured Corps from 1 April 1995. The battalion looks forward to its new role with enthusiasm.
Mr. O'Brien: Does the Minister accept that the 8th Battalion the Light Infantry is a direct descendant of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, which has a 200-year history in Yorkshire and which is one of the fundamental regiments ever formed in Yorkshire? Does he accept that the proposed change is not in the best interests of that Yorkshire regiment? Will he assure me that the cap badge will not change, and that the role of an infantry division will be maintained?
Twenty-four thousand men were recruited to, and fought in, the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in the first world war, in which 10,000 lost their lives, and eight Victoria Crosses were awarded to its men. Will the Minister assure me that that battalion will not be lost to Yorkshire?
Mr. Soames: I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the heirs and inheritors of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, one of the proudest regiments in the British Army. Indeed, many streets in Yorkshire are named after its Victoria Cross winners.
I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the assurances that he wants. The regiment is re-roling and it is looking forward to its new role with enthusiasm. I have a letter from its colonel, informing me how much members of the regiment look forward to their new role.
There is, naturally, anxiety about the new cap badge. Discussions are taking place between the regiment, the director of infantry and the director of the Royal Armoured Corps. It is likely that the new cap badge will incorporate elements of the old 8th Light Infantry badge, reflecting the regiment's heritage, and a Royal Armoured Corps symbol.
Column 824All the proposals will be put to the executive committee of the Army board and will ultimately require the final approval of the sovereign.
Mrs. Peacock: My hon. Friend will be aware that we have had one or two discussions on this matter in recent months. The regiment accepts the re-roling, but many of us would like its great tradition, together with the cap badge, to continue.
Mr. Soames: I pay warm tribute to my hon. Friend for her vigorous lobbying of Ministers on behalf of the regiment. I assure her that the regiment will have every opportunity to ensure that it retains its battle honours and its important regimental distinctions, which, rightly, are the source of great pride and pleasure to all the people of Yorkshire.
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Roger Freeman): My Department is evaluating tenders to meet the Army's requirement for an attack helicopter. We hope to make a decision on the purchase of that equipment before the summer recess.
Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. He is well aware that many thousands of my constituents work at British Aerospace Warton, which is one of the bases that is heavily involved in the British Aerospace bid for the attack helicopter. I hope that he will be able to reassure my constituents that British Aerospace's bid will be seriously considered when future provision of RAF attack helicopters is considered, as it is obviously an excellent product.
Mr. Freeman: I can give that assurance. Our four criteria in taking a decision about the attack helicopter are, first, whether the bid meets the operational requirements of the Army Air Corps; secondly, the cost-- whether it represents good value for money; thirdly, the impact on the United Kingdom defence industrial base, including employment, for example, at British Aerospace; and, finally, the risks involved in further development.
Mr. Martlew: As the question refers to helicopters for the RAF, will the Minister say whether progress has been made in ordering the utility helicopter for the RAF because it is now nearly a decade since the Government promised to buy it? Is the Minister aware that the job security of employees at Westland in Yeovil depends on his placing an order for the EH101?
Mr. Freeman: That is well understood. We have made substantial progress in negotiations with Westland and Boeing and expect to make an announcement shortly. The importance of an indigenous UK helicopter manufacturing company is of direct relevance, which is why my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has made it plain that our preference is for a mixed fleet order, but not at any cost. We expect to reach a decision soon.
Column 825decided not on price alone but on the quality of the product. May I make a plea that, if he is looking for a quality product and to ensure employment, he must look to Westland's involvement in an attack helicopter order, which would meet the requirements of the Army extremely well?
Mr. Freeman: Westland's contribution to an order for one of the attack helicopter contenders--the Apache--would be relatively modest compared with the contribution that it would make, for example, to a support helicopter order. The programme for the Merlin version, which is for anti-submarine warfare, is going extremely well and Westland is to be congratulated on its achievements.
3. Mr. Dalyell: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will put in the Library copies of the advice that Air Chief Marshal Sir Sandy Wilson received from those responsible for the maintenance of official residences in Her Majesty's Government in relation to his official residence.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind): I have already placed in the Library a full report on the outcome of investigations into expenditure on official service residences, including the last two residences occupied by Air Chief Marshal Wilson. I do not propose to publish any further documents.
Mr. Rifkind: There is no question of anyone being a victim of the system. All members of the services carry responsibility for their actions, including their judgment. These matters have been investigated fully and I can add nothing to what I have already said.
Mr. Wilkinson: In reaching his decision, did my right hon. and learned Friend take into account the precedent that he would set in forcing that very senior officer to retire prematurely? Was he conscious of the fact that there were no official guidelines against which such expenditure could be judged, and that the Air Chief Marshal had not broken the Queen's regulations or, according to my right hon. and learned Friend, acted improperly? How did my right hon. and learned Friend compare the expenditure on Air house, Rheindahlen and Haymes Garth against the £700,000 spent on the Bois de Mai residence of the chairman of the military committee of NATO or the £400,000 spent on the residence of the Commander Allied Forces North West Europe in High Wycombe?
Mr. Rifkind: As my hon. Friend knows, the properties to which he referred were all the subject of an internal audit, which concluded that there was no cause for substantial concern, except with regard to certain Royal Air Force residences. In that light, further examination was made of those matters. Air Chief Marshal Sir Sandy Wilson decided that he should seek early retirement and I do not disagree with his conclusion. The service that he has given the Royal Air Force, including the continuing service that he will give until he retires this July, will have been of a high order with regard to his operational responsibilities.
Column 826Dr. David Clark: Does not the Secretary of State appreciate that the manner in which he scooted out of London on the morning of Sir Sandy Wilson's sacking, thus refusing to make a statement to the House, did neither his great office nor himself any credit? Having spent £100,000 of public money on a consultant's report, will he make the full report available to hon. Members in the House of Commons Library and confirm that Sir Sandy Wilson was not the chief budget holder for Haymes Garth?
Mr. Rifkind: Sir Sandy Wilson was not the chief budget holder for Haymes Garth. However, he was the chief budget holder, with full budgetary responsibility, for Air house--the house that he occupied previously, which also formed part of the investigations. The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) will be interested to know that the relevant papers to which he referred have been made available to the National Audit Office in the normal manner and, in that sense, we are pursuing procedures that the House understands fully.
Mr. Cohen: Should there not be a de-emphasising of NATO and its military mentality and a concentration on improving political and economic co-operation with America and with the whole of Europe? Is it not the secret truth that NATO Ministers and generals still think in cold war terms and regard Russia as the enemy? Are we not missing the opportunity, presented by the ending of the cold war, to scrap nuclear weapons? This Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the nuclear non- proliferation treaty. Should we not use that occasion to announce huge cuts in nuclear weapon stockpiles worldwide, including those in Britain?
Mr. Rifkind: The hon. Gentleman, in his usual engaging manner, shows that he totally misunderstands the relevance of NATO when he talks about reducing its military identity. NATO is a military defence alliance. That is its strength and that explains why it is the most successful defence alliance in the history of the world. We believe that NATO continues to have a crucial role to play in a very unstable Europe. Many countries are seeking to join NATO, which suggests that they believe that it has continuing relevance for the well-being of Europe and the entire western world.
Column 827year's meeting of NATO Defence Ministers in Seville. That represented a small step for mankind, but a great step for France. The French Government and the French people must now determine how much further along that road they wish to go. We will welcome any further integration of France into NATO that they deem appropriate.
Mr. Menzies Campbell: May I ask the Secretary of State about NATO's current role, in particular in the former Yugoslavia? The United Nations has confirmed persistent reports of large transport aircraft operating in Bosnia. Are any of those aircraft from NATO countries and are any of them breaking the arms embargo?
Mr. Rifkind: We are aware of various reports that suggest that there might have been some breaches of the no-fly zone in Bosnia, but there is little hard evidence available of the kind to which the hon. and learned Gentleman refers. However, NATO continues to pay close attention to the matter and it will use the surveillance aircraft available to it to identify any breaches of the no-fly zone.
5. Mrs. Ann Winterton: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has to establish a national monument in Northern Ireland to commemorate those service men and women who have lost their lives serving there.
Mr. Rifkind: The nation owes a great debt of gratitude to the security forces in Northern Ireland; this is already marked in different ways and there are no current plans to establish a national monument.
Mrs. Winterton: Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, while peace would be a fitting memorial to the 500 service personnel who have lost their lives in Northern Ireland--and to that end the terrorists should surrender their arms immediately--would not the erection of a national monument in the Province serve as a lasting tribute to them? Furthermore, does he accept that any appeasement of the Irish Republican Army in pursuing a nationalist agenda would betray that sacrifice and would perhaps lead to the break up of the Union and the break out of further sectarian strife?
Mr. Rifkind: I agree very much with the feeling behind my hon. Friend's question. The main purpose of the armed forces and the Royal Ulster Constabulary in the battle against terrorism over 25 years has been to ensure that Northern Ireland's constitutional status can never be changed without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. I believe that they have been totally successful in that endeavour.
In respect of the earlier part of my hon. Friend's question, we take into account the fact that in the past 25 years, in addition to the 648 service men who lost their lives, the Royal Ulster Constabulary suffered 196 fatalities and some 1,846 innocent civilians were killed. Therefore, it would be felt within Northern Ireland that any commemoration of those events should pay equal attention to all who have lost their lives in the struggle against terrorism.
Column 828as there is a move to remember the civilian bomb victims of the blitz in London and a national monument to the police who have died in keeping the peace, surely such a memorial could be erected in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the Government could even pledge to maintain not simply the concept of consent, but the Union for which those men gave their lives.
Mr. Rifkind: I am very sensitive to the important points that the hon. Gentleman makes. There are a number of memorials across the Province: for example, the books of remembrance at St. Anne's cathedral in Belfast and the Garrison church in Lisburn. Any further memorials require sensitive consideration and we are open to any constructive proposals that would be welcome to all those concerned.
Mr. Soames: We continue to investigate the allegations of Gulf war syndrome with scientific rigour, principally through a medical assessment programme that will be subject to independent clinical audit by the Royal College of Physicians. There remains no evidence that those who served in the Gulf conflict are suffering from a mystery illness.
Ms Eagle: Why has the Ministry been so half-hearted and slow in its response to the plight of Gulf war victims who report the appalling symptoms that we now call Gulf war syndrome? When they were called to serve their country, those service men and women were not slow and half-hearted but willing to lay down their lives. Why cannot the Minister and his Department give them the same consideration in their present plight?
Mr. Soames: The hon. Lady is rather overdoing it. [Hon. Members:- - "No."] She is rather overdoing it. As she knows, we approach the matter with a sympathetic and open mind. The soundest method of assessment of all such cases is individual medical examination. We have taken steps to invite all those who think that they are suffering from any illness to come forward for the most rigorous medical examination. Their expenses will be paid, and, if they need to travel, overnight accommodation will be provided for them. So far, only 240 potential claimants have registered their intention to come forward and 105 have been examined. To secure the confidence that the House should rightly have, an independent clinical audit of the work that has been undertaken will be passed to us by the Royal College of Physicians and we shall make it available to the House.
Dr. Goodson-Wickes: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his considered and well-balanced approach to a difficult issue. Does he agree that the only way forward is a proper medical and scientific assessment of the reported symptoms? Does he further agree that the Ministry of Defence is very well-motivated to get behind the understandable emotion and fulfil its long and well-deserved tradition of being a caring and excellent employer?
Column 829Defence as an extremely caring and sympathetic employer. The health and welfare of our service men and women is, and always will be, of prime importance to us. I assure my hon. Friend and the whole House that the matter will be approached with great care, great sympathy and an open mind.
Dr. David Clark: Do the Government still believe that the pattern and prevalence of illnesses suffered by Gulf war veterans is no different from that experienced among the 18 to 40 age group of the general population?
Mr. Soames: As the hon. Gentleman knows, some 45,000 troops were deployed in the Gulf and, sadly, it would not be surprising if a number of years thereafter a number of them were suffering from illness of one sort or another. A number of the people who have approached us are ill. They have been examined and, as I have said, to date we have found absolutely no medical or scientific evidence to support the allegation of a specific disease linked to service in the Gulf. Similar research is being conducted in the United Kingdom, France, the United States, Canada and Norway but no link has been found. As I said, we shall continue to approach the matter in an open and sympathetic manner, and we should be grateful if all those who feel that they have been made ill by service in the Gulf would come forward for a medical examination, which we would then subject to clinical audit.
Is my hon. Friend aware that I endured unpleasant vaccinations for anthrax and, I think, the plague and ate NAPS--nerve agent pre-treatment sets-- because I believed conditions meant that they were necessary? Will he confirm that Saddam Hussein in fact had the capability to launch chemical and bacteriological weapons against us? Does he agree that it is a great pity that some hon. Members seem determined for their own purposes to make political or publicity capital out of the issue?
Mr. Soames: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend who is another of the hon. Members who served in the Gulf conflict. He is correct to say that the assessment at the time was that there was such a threat and it would have been criminally negligent if our soldiers and service men and women had not been provided with proper protection against it. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing that to the House's attention.
Column 830Establishment at Porton Down has to conduct a study on the long-term health effects of its experiments on the people involved.
Mr. Freeman: There has been no evidence over the past 40 years to suggest that service volunteers who have participated in studies at the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment at Porton Down have suffered any harm to their health. Therefore, we have no plans to conduct a study on the long-term health effects on such volunteers.
Ms Squire: Is the Minister aware that a number of ex-service men, including my constituent, Mr. Harry Hogg, were subject to horrific experiments with biological and chemical substances at Porton Down during the second world war and subsequently? Will he agree personally to investigate Mr. Hogg's case as Porton Down is trying to deny that he was ever there? Will he further agree to demonstrate the caring nature of the Ministry of Defence, as alleged by the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes), by establishing an independent study into the long-term health effects and by considering means of compensating those affected?
Mr. Freeman: I shall certainly look at the particular case. I am not familiar with it but, if the hon. Lady will write to me, I shall examine it specifically. About 200 service men a year volunteer at Porton Down to take part in experiments to test not only equipment to be used in war but, as my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Armed Forces said, chemicals and medicines for use in the event of chemical and biological warfare.
Mr. Key: As the alternative motto of the CBDE is "safety first" and every procedure is subjected to ethical assessment, will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the hundreds of my constituents who work there, saving thousands of lives through their work?
Mr. Freeman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and certainly join him in thanking and congratulating his constituents. I also thank the service men and women who volunteer to take part in experiments at Porton Down. They have helped to ensure the safety of our armed forces.
Mr. Fatchett: Does the Minister realise that his response to this question is as disappointing and mean as that of his fellow Minister in relation to Gulf war syndrome? When there are reports that volunteers at Porton Down have suffered from skin and eye cancer, paralysis, disorders of the ears, nose, kidneys and bladder, is the Minister really saying that it is all chance and spontaneous? Do not the Government owe it to those volunteers to ensure that there is a proper independent medical inquiry into what has happened to them? Those people volunteered not for money but to help their country and their fellow service people. Would not the best answer from the Minister be to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) and set up that inquiry now?
Mr. Freeman: The hon. Gentleman is falling below his normal charitable standards. I specifically agreed to look at the case that the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) raised. There is no evidence [Interruption.] Perhaps it does not commend itself to Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government do pay attention to
Column 831the facts presented. There is no evidence that any of those volunteers has suffered long-term damage to their health in the past four decades.
Mr. Soames: There are no proposals to rationalise military hospitals further to the decision that I announced on 8 December last year to establish a single, tri-service core hospital with at least 375 beds in the United Kingdom at the current Royal Naval hospital at Haslar in Gosport. I expect to make an announcement shortly on the locations of the new Ministry of Defence hospital units.
Mr. Coombs: I recognise the need to reduce the medical capacity of the services as a result of other changes that my hon. Friend and his colleagues have made in recent months, but I hope that he will take this opportunity to pay a warm tribute to the staff of Princess Alexandra hospital at Wroughton for their excellent work over many years not only in caring for RAF personnel but many of my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who is in his place. Will my hon. Friend assure me that he will bear in mind, when making his decision about the location of future MDHUs, that the presence of an MDHU in the Swindon area will make it that much easier for the Swindon and Marlborough health trust, which serves north-east Wiltshire, to continue to provide the same excellent service in the future?
Mr. Soames: I am happy to have the opportunity to confirm everything that my hon. Friend has said and to pay tribute to the robust and vigorous lobbying that was undertaken by him and my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) on behalf of the Princess Alexandra hospital at Wroughton. It is an outstanding hospital and has served our military personnel and the wider community very well indeed. As my hon. Friend rightly says, the changes are inevitable and are the result of slimming of the forces, and the requirement to deal with our medical requirements in an assessed operational way for the 1990s. I endorse his views about the Princess Margaret hospital in Swindon. I am not, I am afraid, yet in a position to give him a guarantee on that, but will let him know as soon as we come to a decision.
Mr. Cunningham: Is the Minister satisfied that, in a worst-case scenario--for example, a rapid withdrawal from Bosnia--medical resources would be available, bearing in mind the rapid cuts that have been made in medical services over the past three or four years?
Mr. Soames: The hon. Gentleman asks an important question, and I am pleased to be able to give him an absolute assurance that resources would be available. Indeed, none of the alterations and cuts to the services has been made to do anything other than support the front line in all assessed operational scenarios for the 1990s. I am
Column 832therefore happy to give him whatever undertaking he wishes in respect of a withdrawal from Bosnia should that be necessary.
Sir Michael Grylls: When my hon. Friend considers the siting of MDHUs, will he bear in mind the possibility of siting one at Frimley Park hospital, which is a real centre of medical excellence in Surrey and is ideally suited because it is surrounded by a large number of service establishments?
Mr. Soames: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley), who has been a doughty champion of Frimley hospital. I am afraid that we have not yet reached a conclusion. As soon as we do so--I note and am fully aware of the excellent facilities at Frimley Park hospital--we will report to the House.
Mr. Freeman: RAF St. Athan provides overhaul, repair and manufacturing facilities for fixed-wing aircraft of all three services, and many of their mechanical, structural and engine components. Currently, Tornado accounts for around 48 per cent. of RAF St. Athan's work.
Mr. Griffiths: Will the Minister confirm that work done at RAF St. Athan by the company Airwork has cost a minimum of £300 million so far in botched and damaged Tornados? Will the Ministry receive compensation from the Bricom group? Was anyone in the RAF or the Ministry directly responsible for seeing that the work was properly done, and will anyone lose his job or be admonished?
Mr. Freeman: The hon. Gentleman's estimate of the amount involved is wildly inaccurate. We have not yet costed the amount, and I would not be able to give the hon. Gentleman the figure if we had, because we intend to take legal proceedings against Bricom in connection with the work done by Airwork.
I am glad to say that the damage to the Tornado aircraft that has been identified is being rectified by British Aerospace, the cost being a mere fraction of the sum mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. I am glad to say also that RAF St. Athan won the competition for the fatigue index at No. 25--a quarter of the way through the fatigue life--to repair about 100 of the remaining Tornados. I congratulate the service men and women involved, some of whom are the hon. Gentleman's constituents.
Mr. Mans: In the context of the maintenance and updating of Tornado aircraft, when will the midlife update programme be complete? Will the Minister also tell me, either today or in writing, what plans the RAF has to give the Tornado aircraft a stand-off capability?
Mr. Freeman: The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) asked me about the F3 fighter aircraft, which are being repaired and maintained. My hon. Friend asks about the ground attack--the bomber version of the Tornado. I am happy to say that the midlife update programme is proceeding, is properly resourced and will extend the life of the aircraft for perhaps 15 or 20 years--
Column 833at the end of which time we shall have to consider a future offensive aircraft. I hope very much that we shall be able to collaborate in part with, perhaps, the United States in the design and development of the aircraft.
The hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett) laughs, but the procurement of new and very expensive aircraft will require us to collaborate not only with the French and Germans--and as we are doing on Eurofighter--but with the Americans.
Mr. Rifkind: Within prescribed limits, authority to approve expenditure on maintenance and new construction is delegated to budget holders to exercise in accordance with the letter of delegation issued to top level budget holders by the accounting officer.
Mr. Enright: Is not the Secretary of State slightly ashamed about the fact that he threw away £100,000 that could have cured the deficiencies in two housing estates in my constituency, paying KPMG Peat Marwick to produce a report that he subsequently repressed? Is that not a typical Ministry of Defence cover-up?
Mr. John Greenway: Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the estates at Imphal barracks in York and Strensall barracks in my constituency need no improvement other than a reprieve for Strensall, which faces possible closure, and more use of the accommodation at Imphal? Will he bear in mind the concern of many people throughout Yorkshire, who want us to maintain those facilities and continue the great relationship that York has had with the Army for many years?
Mr. Soames: Recruitment to the armed forces has continued throughout the force restructuring exercise, "Options for Change", in order to maintain a balanced age and rank structure and to meet shortages in certain branches and trades.
Mr. Spellar: I am not surprised that the Minister did not give the exact figure for the costs. In the last financial year, they amounted to £100 million for recruitment and £500 million for redundancy. Is it not ludicrous to have that imbalance? When will the Government stop this absurd waste of public money?