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5.9 pm

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser). I acknowledge his considerable knowledge of Nigeria and his call for sanctions, but the general experience is that sanctions rarely work unless they are universal, and they often fail unless backed up by blockades. One of the worries about Nigeria is that it is another country, along with the Sudan, where the fault line bisects the Muslim world and the Christian world. When we consider, at some future date, the question of the extension of NATO and its southern flank, that is one aspect of international security policy that we should approach carefully.

I endorse what was said earlier about the death of Mr. Rabin, a man who first fought for peace, then lived for peace and finally died for peace. I agree with the shadow Foreign Secretary that there is a very good chance that Mr. Rabin's death will strengthen rather than harm the peace process in the middle east.

The debate has concentrated on foreign affairs. I would like to shift the emphasis to the related subject of defence. It is proper that, traditionally, the priority in the Gracious Speech has been the defence of the realm. I welcome the opening sentence, which confirms that

to the Government.

I wish to address a number of subjects mentioned in the Gracious Speech; the future of NATO; the Western European Union; reserve forces; peacekeeping operations; and transatlantic free trade. I will also take off my Select Committee on Defence hat for a moment to comment on defence procurement.

The future of NATO was the subject of the Defence Committee's 10th report in the previous Session, and we are currently studying the question of NATO's southern flank. We believe that NATO will enlarge gradually and cautiously, not only to the east, but to the north and the south, to embrace suitably qualified states as fully contributing members of the alliance, within the integrated military structure. That would permit the stationing and exercising of NATO forces in fulfilment of the terms of the preamble to the Washington treaty, subject to the willingness of existing member states to give the article 5 security guarantee. We would like more open discussion of approximate target dates for enlargement, assuming that it will probably start within the next decade.

The Committee welcomes the "Partnership for Peace" initiative, in particular, the participation of Russia. We have underlined the United Kingdom's continuing pivotal role in cementing the transatlantic alliance, not least by persuading our European partners of the importance of maintaining and strengthening that alliance, and of the dangers of embarking on fanciful chimeras that might weaken it beyond repair.

We wish to see progress on the plans for the combined joint task force.

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The Committee has only just commenced its inquiry into aspects of the Western European Union, so I cannot anticipate the outcome. However, two principles seem to be emerging which could have general support: first, the Western European Union should not be integrated into the European Union; and, secondly, nations should not become members of the WEU without first becoming full members of NATO, and by full members, I mean integrated into the military structure.

I hope that the time will come when France and Spain will join the integrated military structure--IMS. I was interested to see a newspaper report today that the Spanish Foreign Minister, Mr. Solana, might be a candidate for the vacant position of Secretary-General of NATO. We should applaud the fact that Spain is already involved jointly with NATO countries in the former Yugoslavia, where it has sent 1,500 troops who are committed to operations there.

The House will welcome the Government's proposal to introduce a Reserve Forces Bill following extensive and intensive consultation. Defence Ministers normally rejoice in the fact that they have little legislation to worry about, but during this Session we will consider two defence Bills, the Reserve Forces Bill and the quinquennial Armed Forces Bill.

The Select Committee on Defence published a report on the reserve forces, its 12th report, last Thursday. We gave broad support to the reorganisation of the Territorial Army, and its new role as the general reserve for the regular Army. We expressed our concern, however, at the high rate of turnover, which is 29 per cent. for the TA as a whole, and which particularly affects those serving under three years. We thought that the selection process could be improved. We also want to see a higher quality and quantity of training, particularly for those units taking on new roles and using new equipment.

We advocated the measurement and monitoring of basic fitness and shooting standards, and called for a stronger commitment to integrate TA units with their regular counterparts.

We noted the increase in the numbers of regular and non-regular support staff in the TA. We urged the Ministry of Defence to civilianise those posts with no genuine military content, make full use of the commercial contracts available to the regular Army and reduce current levels of administrative support where possible.

The Select Committee recommended that the Royal Naval Reserve should be given more worthwhile training and experience at sea. We suggested that it should perhaps be given new roles, such as fisheries protection and environmental monitoring, which could help towards improving recruitment.

The Select Committee welcomed the fact that the RAF reservists are given trials in flying Wessex helicopters and Hercules aircraft. We also welcomed the concept of an active flying reserve.

Our report also considered the role of the regular reserves. We regretted the absence of any current training liability, and we would like the MOD to initiate training for those with specialist functions most likely to be required in operational services. We expressed our broad support for the principles set out in the draft Reserve Forces Bill, and the new categories of reserve--the sponsored and high-readiness reserves. There is no doubt that an increasing reliance on, and willingness to use,

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reserve forces must be accompanied by an increased commitment to preserve their strength and improve their quality. Our reserve forces must be seen to be not just smaller but demonstrably better.

As for the peace implementation forces planned for Bosnia, I believe that out of a total force of between 50,000 and 60,000, the United Kingdom's contribution is assumed to be around 15,000. That would increase the proportion of our Army engaged in operational missions to more than half. In terms of overstretch, that will make it even harder for the Army to meet its stated objective of 24 months between deployments. It will also have a significant effect on training for high-intensity conflict. I would be interested to know what means of deployment we will use. Will troops go over land to Hungary or will they travel by air or sea? Will it be necessary this time to hitch a ride from the United States? With the welcome involvement of Russia in the operation, perhaps we can expect the Russians to provide heavy-lift air transport.

I presume that 24 Air Mobile Brigade will be part of that force, because although most of the troops are now back in the United Kingdom, their equipment remains in theatre. In the Minister's reply to the debate, perhaps we may be told whether the Army chiefs' advice to send a division-sized unit with tanks and artillery is accepted, and whether the MOD budget or the contingency reserve will bear the cost of that operation.

I read that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces has called for 350 volunteers from the Territorial Army to act as linguists, weathermen, intelligence officers and public relations officers for the peace implementation force. Our recent report on the reserve forces welcomed wider use of the TA and I very much hope that, even before the Reserve Forces Bill is enacted, employers will be sympathetic to the release of people who wish to volunteer for duty in Bosnia.

I have received a letter on the Board this afternoon from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, in which he tells me that the Reserve Forces Bill started its passage through Parliament in the other place this afternoon. He says in his letter:

That is very welcome.

I should like to hear a Defence Minister's forecast of the limits of that mission. I was under the impression that the PIF would be deployed for between nine and 10 months. I acknowledge that there is a danger of what is called mission creep into a larger engagement, but I believe that that would be extremely serious.

The Gracious Speech also said that Her Majesty's Government would

The Defence Select Committee is studying, jointly with the Trade and Industry Select Committee, aspects of defence procurement. I cannot anticipate the outcome of that inquiry; I hope that the report will be published quite soon. However, I am aware that access to the United States defence market might be a good deal freer. There has been shrinkage in the defence industrial base of the

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United States and the United Kingdom as a direct result of the so-called peace dividend. Less is now spent on defence, to such an extent that the viability of the UK defence industrial base is in question; that was the principal reason for that joint inquiry.

We have witnessed jobs in our defence industry shrink from about 200,000 to only 100,000 in the past 15 years. The collapse of the iron curtain and the economic difficulties of the former Soviet Union now mean that there is an increasing sale of high-quality military equipment on world markets to earn foreign currency.

We have also witnessed the growth of indigenous defence industries in developing countries such as Taiwan, South Korea, India and South Africa, where labour costs are a good deal less than they are in the United Kingdom.

Falls in turnover, in the volume of sales--especially exports--and in profits mean that less money is now spent on research and development. In that respect, a good case might be made for closer collaboration, both transatlantic and with our European partners, especially within the Western European Union, on research and development to preserve our technological lead and our competitiveness.

I shall comment on two procurement issues. I am aware that the Government are currently comparing the relative merits of leasing or buying American F16s with those of upgrading the Tornado F3s. There has been much public comment about that, but I feel that that proposal has much more to do with destabilising the Eurofighter than anything else.

I hope, therefore, that the Minister who replies to the debate will take the opportunity to describe as complete nonsense the Observer story on Sunday 12 November that Britain might consider the purchase of American F22s instead of proceeding with the Euro 2000 programme, which is now well into its flight development stage. Apart from anything else, the F22 is twice as expensive as Eurofighter, with little additional performance.

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