The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton): I have to report that Her Majesty, havinbeen waited upon, pursuant to the Order of 25 April, humbly to know Her Majesty's Pleasure when she will be attended by this House, has been pleased to appoint to be attended on Friday 5 May at Twelve noon in Westminster Hall.
For the county constituency of Perth and Kinross, in the room of the hon. Sir Nicholas Hardwick Fairbairn, QC, deceased.--[ Mr. Wood .]
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Roger Freeman): Data on Ministry of Defence equipment expenditure with companies in each of the standard economic planning regions of the United Kingdom are contained in "UK Defence Statistics 1994", a copy of which is in the Library of the House. We do not compile regional figures for other aspects of defence expenditure.
Mr. Griffiths: Is it not about time that the Ministry of Defence did so, because its spending figures highly in any debate on public expenditure in the United Kingdom? From information that is available, it is clear that nations such as Wales are very badly disadvantaged in public expenditure by the Department. Will he undertake a review to ensure that there is a better share of that spending throughout the United Kingdom?
Mr. Freeman: The Government believe that that is precisely the wrong way to allocate scarce defence resources. It must be done on the basis of value for money, and that means placing contracts with United Kingdom companies--which win 90 per cent. of all
Column 154competitions for our procurement--where it represents best value for money for the taxpayer, and not on the basis of some political fix.
Mr. Devlin: Would it not be best, from the points of view of value for money and the happiness of the troops and contractors who serve the Ministry of Defence, if more of them were moved out of the south-east of England and up to the north-east of England and Scotland, where the best recruiting areas are?
Mr. Freeman: There is a great deal of truth in what my hon. Friend says. He will know--indeed, the whole House will know--that we have moved out of the Ministry of Defence in London, to different locations around the country, the command headquarters for many aspects of service for the armed forces. That is good for employment and for representation around the country.
Mr. Martlew: I am sure that the Minister will agree that all areas of the country have suffered because of a reduction in defence expenditure, but does he further agree that the areas that have had Ministry of Defence bases have suffered more than most? Is it not a fact that local authorities in those areas are suffering because the MOD cannot respond quickly enough to ensure that the land is put back into efficient use for the community? Will he confirm that the only criterion being used by the MOD for the sale of land is that it should go to those who pay the highest price? Is that not what happened to RAF Bentwaters, where the base was sold to the Maharishi Foundation because it paid the highest fee, despite the fact that the local authority and community were against it?
Mr. Freeman: We believe that faster progress could be made on the disposal of Ministry of Defence land. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and I have given commitments to a number of local authorities that we will move faster and begin the process of disposal and co-operation with the local authority as soon as we know when a change has to be made. I think that local authorities will appreciate that. It is not always the case that the sale is made to the highest bidder. If the hon. Gentleman has anything to suggest that the Bentwaters sale was to the disadvantage of the taxpayer, the House would be interested to learn about it. As a general rule, the highest price should prevail, but not in every circumstance.
Mr. Salmond: As a point of fact in answer to the main question, will the Minister confirm that per capita spending on defence procurement in the north of England and in the nations of Scotland and Wales is far lower than expenditure in the south of England? Is the Minister aware that that single aspect of policy has far greater impact than the Government's total remaining regional policy?
Mr. Freeman: The job of the Ministry of Defence and of the armed forces is not only to defend the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom but to fulfil our other defence commitments. We must deploy our forces--the Army, the Navy and the Air Force--where that best suits our strategic interests. The Labour party's view on defence procurement is that it would wish to have a defence review within the first six months of any Parliament in which it happened to form a majority. That would be bad for defence expenditure because there would be confusion and, inevitably, the Labour party would reduce defence expenditure.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind): We remain concerned at the escalation in the level of fighting and call on all sides to show restraint, to co-operate fully with UNPROFOR and to participate in the search for a lasting political solution. British forces will remain in Bosnia for as long as UNPROFOR can continue to carry out its mandate at an acceptable level of risk.
Mr. Arnold: My right hon. and learned Friend will be more than aware of the great pride felt by the House and the country in the humanitarian work of our forces in Bosnia. In light of the deteriorating situation, what does he think will be the point at which their humanitarian contribution will no longer be possible and the requirement for the safety of our service men will be such that we should withdraw them?
Mr. Rifkind: The contribution by British and other UNPROFOR forces has been humanitarian, but they have served to prevent an extension of the conflict outside Bosnia and Croatia to Macedonia, Kosovo and other parts of the Balkans which could have even more terrifying consequences. We shall continue to judge the British presence in Bosnia on the basis of whether the forces can carry out the mandate without unacceptable risk to their safety. One can never entirely avoid risk in a war zone, but they must be there on the basis that they are contributors to the United Nations mandate and not taking part in the war.
Mr. Winnick: What military action will be taken to ensure that the designated United Nations safe areas in Bosnia are safe from Serbian aggression? Is it not the case that, time and again, Serbian commanders have teased and threatened UN forces in Bosnia because they do not fear any sharp military response? That is basically the reason why Serbian aggression continues in Bosnia.
Mr. Rifkind: The proper response must be determined by the UN commanders on the ground, who must take into account both the need to demonstrate to the Serbs or whomsoever may threaten the safe areas the unacceptability of such behaviour and the paramount obligation to ensure the safety of their own forces. Only on the basis of both those criteria being met is it appropriate to contemplate the sort of action at which I think that the hon. Gentleman was hinting.
Lady Olga Maitland: Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we have a responsibility to not only the troops in Bosnia but the aid convoys which are organised by the Crown Agents from Sutton in my constituency? Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the aid convoy drivers would be determined to continue their vital work regardless of whether they have the escorts?
Column 156important tasks that have saved many lives. Clearly, it is for them as individuals to decide their continuing presence in Bosnia, but it is part of UNPROFOR's task to give them the protection to which they are entitled.
Mr. Menzies Campbell: Does the Secretary of State agree that the question of whether British forces can continue to fulfil their responsibilities without undue risk in former Yugoslavia will be one for the commanders on the ground? Does he further agree that any withdrawal will be so complicated and hazardous that it is inconceivable that UK forces will be withdrawn unilaterally?
Mr. Rifkind: The question of the continuing presence of UN forces must ultimately be a matter for the UN Security Council and for national Governments. Important political questions are involved and we cannot avoid the responsibility in that sphere, but the recommendation on any specific military action should be based on the professional advice of UN commanders on the ground. On the final part of the hon. and learned Gentleman's question, I do not envisage any unilateral action by the UK to withdraw from Bosnia. It is important that the UN should act as a single entity with regard to that matter.
Dr. David Clark: The House has repeatedly acknowledged the bravery and professionalism of British troops in Bosnia and it acknowledges the increasing dangers as the ceasefire is broken, but does the Secretary of State agree that having confidence in a plan to withdraw troops is the essential prerequisite to having the confidence to keep troops there? Will he assure the House that NATO has a well devised plan to extract troops if that proves necessary?
Mr. Rifkind: We have always recognised that it is possible that the UN force might have to be withdrawn, and NATO has already agreed to provide the cover that would be necessary in such a situation. It is an important part of any NATO plan that the Government of the United States of America have said that their forces would be available on the ground, along with other NATO forces, to help supervise such a plan. On that basis, one can say with confidence that there would be single command and control of any such arrangement, which would give the degree of confidence that is necessary to ensure its success, if withdrawal should prove necessary. I repeat that we hope that such a withdrawal would not be necessary, but that it is vital to have such a plan available in case it is required.
Mr. Bill Walker: Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that all the evidence is that warring factions seem to be determined to escalate the war, and that, as he has said, our first duty and responsibility is to ensure that the UN force can carry out its assigned task? It was never realistic to expect the UN force to be an invasion force or a force to prevent war. A withdrawal could and probably will be dangerous. It must be properly planned for and managed, which will not be easy. Those who were calling for UN intervention should remember that when we have to withdraw.
Mr. Rifkind: My hon. Friend makes a number of valid points. At this moment, the main concern is inevitably with the Croatian offensive against the Krajina Serbs, and with certain reports that we have received that fixed-wing aircraft may have been used by Bosnian Serbs against the
Column 157Bihac enclave. It is important that those incidents should cease forthwith if the overall position is not to deteriorate in a dangerous way.
3. Mr. Llew Smith: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what proposals to put existing British nuclear weapons into disarmament negotiations have been made at the United Nations conference on the non- proliferation treaty in New York. 
Mr. Rifkind: The UK has made significant reductions in its nuclear arsenal and maintains only the minimum deterrent required to guarantee our security. A world in which the nuclear forces of the United States of America and Russia were counted in hundreds rather than thousands of strategic nuclear warheads would be one in which we would respond further to the challenge of the global reduction of nuclear arms.
Mr. Smith: Can the Minister explain why the Government do not fulfil their obligations under article 6 of the non-proliferation treaty and put all British nuclear weapons, including Trident, into the nuclear disarmament negotiations?
Mr. Rifkind: First, that is not a commitment under the non- proliferation treaty and, secondly, it would be a remarkably foolish initiative, which would weaken our essential defence. The hon. Gentleman should be aware that, even if they fulfil all their obligations under the strategic arms reduction talks treaties, in 10 years' time Russia and the United States will each still have more than 3,000 strategic nuclear warheads. Trident will have a maximum of about 300. That is a suitable answer to his question.
Mr. Brazier: Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, besides the considerable dangers that he has outlined from the ex-Soviet states, there is also the problem of proliferation in the third world? At least three more states have become nuclear powers in the past 10 years and several other states, including North Korea and a number of the middle eastern countries which form the market for its arms, are close to doing so. Does he further agree that, for Britain to get rid of her remaining minimum nuclear deterrent in the face of potential threats from the third world as well as the possible resuscitation of the Russian threat would be extraordinarily foolish?
non-proliferation treaty, which came into force in the early 1970s, has been successful in influencing the level of nuclear weapons possession around the world. There have been relatively few suspected nuclear power states but the world remains a dangerous place. It is impossible to disinvent nuclear weapons technology and that is an important factor to bear in mind as we aspire to a safer world.
Mr. Fatchett: Is it not clear that, on this issue, the Government have not normally offered a positive agenda? They have talked in terms of yesterday's agenda and have mostly indulged in personal attacks on Opposition Members. It is encouraging on this occasion to see the Secretary of State taking a more positive approach. Is it not time for him to tell the country why the Government refuse to limit the number of warheads on Trident? Why
Column 158have they gone to the negotiations on the non-proliferation treaty in New York without a positive agenda and left the running on this issue, as on so many others, to other countries? Again, Britain has not had a voice. The only voice for Britain on this issue is that of the Labour party, which has put forward a positive programme for nuclear disarmament.
Mr. Rifkind: I note with relish the hon. Gentleman's sensitivity on the fact that when Labour Front-Bench spokesmen and the Leader of the Opposition are reminded of their Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament past they describe it as a personal attack. I should have thought that they would be proud of their past identity rather than so obviously ashamed of it. The hon. Gentleman accuses the Government of having an agenda from the past. It is significant that the Labour party is pronouncing its belief in "no first use" of nuclear weapons just at the time when the Russians have abandoned such a belief. The Labour party and the People's Republic of China are the only two arguing that philosophy.
Mr. Duncan Smith: Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the possession of nuclear weapons is in itself no guarantee of safety unless the Government concerned have the necessary ultimate will to use them should the occasion arise? Does he further agree that it is one thing for a party to say that it now agrees with possession and another for it to say that it would use them?
"I am not saying that we will use Trident, I don't think we would. We just need it there as a standing reminder."
I do not think that that will terrify a potential nuclear enemy, but it certainly terrifies me.
Mr. Freeman: To date, we have found no convincing scientific or medical evidence from our investigations, or elsewhere, to suggest the existence of a Gulf war syndrome. However, despite the lack of evidence, my Department keeps an open mind and these investigations will continue.
Mr. Dalyell: From the admittedly circumstantial material that I sent to the Ministry of Defence a fortnight ago, is there any evidence that Gulf war syndrome could at least be related to precautionary medicine?
Mr. Freeman: No. I am aware of the work at Duke university and the Department of Defense in the United States, but at both places it is at a very preliminary stage and no conclusions may yet be drawn. It may be helpful to the hon. Gentleman and to the House if I put in the Library--I shall send a copy to the hon. Gentleman--a report recently issued by the US Department of Defense, dated April 1995. It reviews progress to date on clinical evaluation of--from memory--some 15,000 American service men who have been subject to investigation, compared with about 200 in the United Kingdom. The report says that there remains no clinical evidence for a single or unique agent causing a Gulf war syndrome.
Column 159Dr. David Clark: While veterans of the second world war are very much in our thoughts, should we not also consider veterans of more recent conflicts such as the Gulf war? Why do the Government treat the Gulf war veterans who are suffering from Gulf war syndrome so shabbily? Will the Minister confirm that Colonel Johnson has been withdrawn from the medical examinations of our veterans and that only one doctor is involved in examining the several hundred veterans who claim that they are suffering from that syndrome?
Mr. Freeman: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should accept, on behalf of the Labour party, the existence of Gulf war syndrome before he has seen the evidence and the facts. The plain fact is that some 500 service men and women from our forces who served in the Gulf have expressed a claim or concern as to their health to the Ministry of Defence. About 200 of them have had a medical examination by a wing commander who is a medical expert and consultant and we have ensured that a report has been put in the British Medical Journal to reflect the results of examinations so far. It is still far too early to tell, but there is no clinical or medical evidence to suggest the existence of the syndrome. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman and send him a copy of the British Medical Journal article.
5. Mr. Mackinlay: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he will next meet representatives of (a) the War Widows Association and (b) the Royal British Legion and other ex-service organisations to discuss the interests of ex-service people and their dependants. 
Mr. Mackinlay: Did the Minister see that, although the chairwoman of the War Widows Association of Great Britain, Mrs. Irene Bloor, last week welcomed the Government's decision to accept the Lords amendments, she expressed grave concern about the younger war and service widows? Is he aware of the continuing anomaly and disparity between local authorities over the disregard in relation to housing benefit and council tax as applied to war widows? Is it not time that, in conjunction with the War Widows Association and other ex-service organisations, the Minister called a conference with a view to presenting a Bill to remedy the anomalies relating to war widows and war pensions, so that the matter may be put to rest in this very important anniversary year?
Mr. Freeman: During an excellent debate, the hon. Gentleman spoke at length on a previous occasion about war widows. He will realise, however, that when one deals with an occupational pension scheme--I am referring not to the Department of Social Security's war pension scheme, but to the Ministry of Defence's own armed forces pension scheme--there will always be so-called anomalies. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but it is a fundamental tenet of any occupational pension scheme that advances are for those beneficiaries and their
Column 160successors. On the narrower point about housing benefit, I shall certainly reflect the concern to my fellow Minister and ensure that it is followed up.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that, in recent times, the best interests of war widows and ex-service men have been served by Back-Bench Members of Parliament? I refer of course to an amendment on war pensions moved by one of my noble Friends in the other place and to my own and other representations in this place in respect of pre-1973 war widows. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is about time that a single Minister dealt with such matters on behalf of war widows and ex-service personnel, to enable us to do our job better and to make it easier for those people?
Mr. Freeman: For the record, I am pleased to say that war widows receive about £7,000 a year tax free from the Department of Social Security. In addition, some may qualify for the armed forces pension scheme. That is a creditable record in comparison with that of many other countries. As for the narrower question about a single sub-department to deal with veterans, I have never known the hon. Gentleman to be abashed at having to deal with more than one Minister at a time. The plain facts are that a sub-department would be bureaucratic, and that the present system works well. The hon. Gentleman suggests a new organisation, but that would cost money and remove resources from the very people whom we want to help.
Mr. Jamieson: At a time when we are celebrating the gallantry and selfless bravery of our armed services, what measures does the Minister intend to take to compensate sailors who were exposed to the known risk of asbestos while serving in His and Her Majesties' ships in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and who are now dying in pain and poverty?
Mr. Freeman: Obviously any illness or death that, regrettably, is due to an incident connected with service will be reflected in the appropriate payments made by the Ministry of Defence. As for the merchant marine, if a condition can be classified as an industrial injury, the appropriate measures--
Mr. Freeman: I have already said that if a condition is directly connected with service in the Royal Navy, the appropriate measures will apply. I am not aware of individual details, but if the hon. Gentleman writes to me I shall certainly pursue the matter.
Mr. Rifkind: In current and foreseeable international circumstances we believe that the United Kingdom will continue to require a minimum nuclear deterrent throughout the next decade. I am confident that the Trident system, within its ceiling of 96 warheads per boat, will provide the necessary force level after the WE177 free-fall bomb is withdrawn from service.
Mr. Corbyn: Can the Secretary of State tell us for what possible purpose this country is developing and maintaining nuclear weapons, and against whom they are directed? Does he agree that the holding of nuclear weapons is expensive, immoral and unjustifiable, and that, in the year in which the non-proliferation treaty is up for renegotiation, Britain could look the rest of the world in the eye only if we had a programme of removing all nuclear weapons and bases from this country and taking all nuclear weapons out of service, as our contribution to a peaceful nuclear- free world?
Mr. Rifkind: I am interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's views, which I know carefully reflect those that the Leader of the Opposition held 15 years ago. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to have a conversation with the Leader of the Opposition to find out to what extent he and his right hon. Friend share those views, and to ask why the occupants of the Opposition Front Bench now seek to dissociate themselves from them.
Mr. Wilkinson : Can my right hon. and learned Friend reassure the House by telling us that the sub-strategic version of Trident will come into service as soon as the free-fall WE177 is phased out in the Royal Air Force? The French maintain a proper graduated deterrence, with air-launched systems. If we cannot do that, can we at least make sure that there is no hiatus, or deterrent gap, in the British armed forces?
Mr. Rifkind: We have concluded that it is desirable to maintain a sub-strategic capability, which can be achieved through Trident at virtually no additional cost. That makes it an infinitely less expensive way of meeting the need than developing a new air-launched capability. I can assure my hon. Friend that there will be no gap in the existence of the capability.
Mr. Rifkind: We intend to maintain a major contribution to UNPROFOR in Bosnia so long as our forces can continue to carry out the UN mandate at an acceptable level of risk. The size of our contribution is kept under close review.
Mr. Gapes: Will the Secretary of State go beyond simply urging restraint on the parties in the conflict, and condemn the Croatian Government for the attack on the Serb-populated Krajina area? Will he also condemn the Serbs for taking UN Nepalese forces hostage? Will he make it clear that as soon as the military commanders on the ground recommend it, we will make immediate preparations for a withdrawal to stop loss of life among our troops?
Column 162beyond the immediate objective of controlling a road and may threaten the position of the whole enclave. Any question of a total withdrawal of UNPROFOR from Bosnia would not just be a matter on which the UN commanders express a view--important though that would be--and would clearly have far wider implications which would have to be addressed by the Security Council.
Sir Jim Spicer: I do not suppose that my right hon. and learned Friend had time yesterday to listen to the Jimmy Young show. Had he done so, he would have heard the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), assert that when he last went to Bosnia, he was determined that British forces would withdraw unilaterally but-- thank goodness--he was overruled by the military commanders on the ground. In the light of my right hon. and learned Friend's answer to an earlier question, will he deny that that is possible?
Mr. Rifkind: The leader of the Liberal Democrats may wish to explain to the House his regular contortions of policy. I can only express our satisfaction that, on this occasion, he accepted the advice of the UN commanders whom he met.
Dr. Reid: The Secretary of State will know that the Opposition supported the Government's decision to send British troops into Bosnia for the limited and specific purpose of humanitarian aid and with clear rules of engagement which provided no undue risk to our troops. Can I assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that--in keeping the position under review, both with our commanders on the spot and with our allies--were the Government to decide that the tasks for which the troops had been sent out could no longer be accomplished or that the risk to their lives had become an undue risk, the Opposition would not treat that in any partisan or narrow fashion?
Mr. Rifkind: I accept the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman asks his question. When British troops are carrying out a difficult task in any part of the world, anything that is required for their safety and their safe return to this country should have the support of the whole House.
Mr. Garnier: My right hon. and learned Friend will know that elements of the Royal Anglian regiment have recently served in former Yugoslavia. Following the presentation of new colours to the Royal Anglian regiment last Saturday by Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret, can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the Government will continue to maintain the front-line capability of that proud and ancient regiment?
10. Mr. Foulkes: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what discussions he has had concerning the potential dangers of ordnance, chemicals and other materials dumped in the sea between south-west Scotland and Northern Ireland. 
Mr. Freeman: The licensing procedure for the dump site between south -west Scotland and Northern Ireland involved the Department of Transport, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Scottish Office. My Department keeps closely in touch with other Government Departments on these issues.
Mr. Foulkes: Will the Minister confirm the information obtained by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) that the MOD has dumped 1 million tonnes of munitions, plus bombs and chemical weapons-- including arsenic and nerve gas--in sites at sea including the Clyde and the North channel? Will he announce a monitoring scheme to ensure the safety of fishing boats, submarines and those of us who live around the coast in that area from harm from those highly dangerous substances?
Mr. Freeman: The hon. Gentleman is right about the North channel. After the war, in 1945 and 1946, rockets with phosgene were dumped in the channel, as has been publicly disclosed for many years. As part of their routine monitoring of coastal waters, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Scottish Office marine laboratory will be conducting standard water sampling tests in the North channel.
Mr. Luff: My right hon. Friend will understand that it is not simply because my brother-in-law is an officer in the hydrographic service that I attach such importance to its role in protecting this country's vital national interests. What reassurance can my right hon Friend give me that the service will have adequate ships to enable it to continue to defend those vital national interests into its third century?
Mr. Freeman: I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that we have ordered a new ocean survey vessel, which is to be named HMS Scott, after Scott of the Antarctic. The ship will fly the white ensign, have a royal naval crew and be of great help to the hydrographic service.
Column 164action. A further four service men died following road traffic accidents while serving with United Nations forces in Bosnia.
Sir Michael Neubert: Is not it instructive to contrast those figures with the number of women who qualified as war widows during the calendar year 1994--more than 1,600--and to recognise, at this time when we are celebrating and commemorating the 50th anniversary of victory in Europe, that so-called war widows are not solely by any means the widows of men killed in action during the second world war?
Mr. Freeman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is useful to remember that 48,500 war widows have recently benefited from the decision to ensure that their war widows pension is restored on the death or loss of a second husband, that the numbers are being added to at the rate of 1,600 per annum and that the death of husbands who have died recently can be traced back to service in the British armed forces. About 66,000 widows receive benefit from the armed forces parliamentary pension scheme since the loss of their husbands was due to natural causes, not to service.