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6.35 pm

Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr): I start by apologising to my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary and to the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) because I hope that I shall not be here for the winding-up speeches. I hope to return to my constituency.

Like the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), I had the privilege of meeting Prime Minister Rabin about two and a half years ago. He told us of his vision of peace in the middle east. I respected Mr. Rabin, but I felt that his was a vision too far. However, it is now a reality and that speaks volumes for Prime Minister Rabin.

I welcome the Gracious Speech and the large amounts that are spent on defence. That is as it should be because for the Government defence has always been a priority. I welcome the maintenance of the United Kingdom's minimum nuclear deterrent commitment. Currently there are difficulties with the Polaris fleet. A Trident submarine is at sea and another is about to be commissioned. The Government showed great vision on that matter. There was a long period of opposition but now Opposition Members seem to have recognised the wisdom of moving along the Trident line. The Gracious Speech shows the Government's intention on the nuclear deterrent.

I welcome the commitment to encourage a co-operative relationship between NATO and Russia and the offer of further help to countries in central and eastern Europe. Just this week my constituency had visitors from the Ukraine. They were a sign of the Government's commitment to spreading the democratic message. The visitors were from the Rukh party in Ukraine and they came to learn about our democracy and the ways of political parties. No doubt people from such parts of Europe will visit the constituencies of Opposition Members, and that is how it should be. We should try to extend our democracy because it is precious.

I especially welcome the moves to create flexibility for the reserve forces. I recently welcomed the establishment of a new approach in Scotland--the Lowland brigade-- as well as the establishment of A squadron of the Scottish Yeomanry, which places on record the great service that the Ayrshire Yeomanry has given to this country over many years. Also based in my constituency is B company of the 3rd battalion of the Royal Highland Fusiliers. It has a long tradition. The Government's proposals will give those divisions and people who give their time to the Territorial Army much to value and much to do. They have much to give to the country in future.

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I welcome the Government's commitment to signing on to the prevention of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. I recognise the concerns in recent times over France's tests in the Pacific. I too registered some concerns, but the stance taken by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is commendable in many ways. It would have been easy for him to sign on to what would have been seen as a populist stance; he did not do so. He stood behind what he believed to be correct and that says a lot about him.

Perhaps my right hon. Friend was looking to the longer term. Perhaps it would not have been wise to isolate France on that issue. Perhaps there will be benefits. It will be of great value if the signing of a nuclear non-proliferation treaty in the south Pacific comes about because of this. If we end up with a wider test ban, my right hon. Friend's actions will be seen to have been full and ripe for commendation.

On the statement on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and Britain's intention to promote wider security interests by contributing to the maintenance of international peace and stability, it is right that Britain commits itself to and stays in Europe and that that commitment to wider security interests is followed. The words are full of merit, but there is a limitation that follows from the peace dividend that everyone in this country expects following the collapse of the Berlin wall.

We have had "Options for Change" and now we aim at "Front Line First". They put great constrictions on our military forces' capabilities to enter into spheres. We cannot become the policemen for the world: the British taxpayer would not allow it. We have commitments in Bosnia, the Falklands, Kurdistan, the middle east, Rwanda in relation to military medical aid, the Caribbean and Northern Ireland. Who can say what will happen in Northern Ireland? Sinn Fein and the IRA have not shown the commitment to the Downing street talks that we would like to believe they gave some years ago. When they start to lay down their arms, it will put us in a much more reliable position to consider Britain's commitment on the military front and may allow us to play a wider role in other regions, but the military is now under great pressure. I recognise that the Reserve Forces Bill may play a part in lessening the effects of reducing personnel in our armed services.

I am especially privileged to be part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I have spent almost 12 months with the Royal Air Force. Sadly, that is coming to an end, but it has been time especially well spent. I have made 16 visits to strike command stations and bases both in the United Kingdom and beyond. I have spent time at 13 logistics and personnel establishments throughout the UK. The time spent in the air has been exciting, instructional and awe inspiring. Those were tremendous experiences for someone who has just come into Parliament at a late stage in his life and who never believed that he would be flying in fast jets, but that has been opened up to hon. Members.

More important than that, however, is the fact that ordinary Members of Parliament have been able to get to grips with the armed forces' problems in today's world: the problems of equipment and of the capabilities that that equipment offers. It is just as important for hon. Members to get into contact with personnel at all ranks, and not just with the personnel who serve in the forces, but with their wives and families, an important part of the service ethos.

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There is great trepidation in the RAF. There has been a major reduction in the number of blue suiters, as they call themselves. In 1989, there were 89,000 blue suiters in the RAF. By 1994, that was reduced to about 75,000. By 1999, it will be down to 52,200. That is a tremendous challenge for the individuals who serve in the RAF. It is a major change. Change always creates anxiety in whatever walk of life it affects and it is certainly doing so for service men and service women.

Across the board, however, those individuals recognise that there must be limitations on budgets and the need for reduction. They want better high-cost equipment and they recognise that one way of attaining it is to have a correlation with manpower reductions. They feel, however, that, rather than hit what appears to be a relatively inflexible service manpower target, financial targets could be better suited to the current position and that perhaps there should be some change in current dependency on fixed manpower figures for the future. I recognise that the Reserve Forces Bill will do something to deal with those problems, but they will not respond in all aspects.

I do not have time to discuss in detail every aspect of my findings in the scheme, but I shall list the key matters of concern that have been expressed to me and to my colleague and partner from the Opposition, the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Keen). On the negative side, there is disappointment and resentment among people who have served for some 10 years, who have not had any promotions and who inevitably will be out on their ear in a year or two. Many of those individuals may not have been suited to the promotional structure, but they are highly skilled technicians and it will be a loss.

Difficulties will also accrue with the secondary duties that every service man must undertake. It will be almost impossible to maintain those and there are particular concerns with respect to voluntary aspects such as the role of the mountain rescue teams. There may have to be changes in relation to the involvement of civilians who will fulfil the blue suiter role to an extent, coming in to pick up on voluntary duties.

Sports activities are often a major feature of the services. Many stations cannot release personnel to fulfil their weekly football and rugby commitments. That is unfortunate. On a more serious side, more and more frequently, as service men pick up on the amount of detachments that come up, there is an adverse affect on families and pressure on marriages. At the same time, among the junior ranks, the number of service marriage breakdowns is reaching crisis point.

Earlier I referred to changes; this is another feature that we should rethink. There are pressures on the medical provision for service families and pressures in relation to housing. Perhaps there is too much change at this time, when we are asking service men to pick up ever-increasing numbers of detachments. A review would be justified in this sector, and I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to consider that.

Without doubt, there is an overall loss of flexibility and, believe it or not, at a time when we are looking at redundancies, a fall-off in the recruitment that is needed for expertise in the future. Perhaps that could be attributed to the loss of town centre recruitment facilities which has

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come about because of budgetary pressures. The employment agencies now fill that role, but I suspect that that is not quite the same as the old recruitment facilities.

I believe that young people entering the RAF now have a lot to gain for the future. They will gain from the excellent training that they will receive and from the service ethos that still exists. I would encourage young people to consider the RAF and the other military organisations as a positive way of developing their careers.

I must mention some of the positive things that we have found as we have visited the stations. There is a recognition of the need for change. There is also great pride in the skills that have been achieved within the military. Individuals recognise that they have a valuable role to play in civvy street and valuable skills to take to that role. I hope that one result of the Government's Reserve Forces Bill will be that many of those who leave the services in the next few years will come back in as reservists.

A determination to succeed still remains within the RAF and will ensure its excellent reputation in the years to come. The new recruits like the detachments. They recognise that they are not looking at the same length of service contracts as those who went before. Some of the current difficulties and the loss of morale may dissipate when the new entrants come to terms with the RAF as it is today rather than as it was before the collapse of the Berlin wall.

There is stability within the service. "Front Line First" said that we should go so far and no further and I believe that the Government have given a commitment on that. I am slightly worried by the words of Opposition Members when they talk about a defence review. In my experience, whenever we have a defence review, we inevitably end up with downward financial pressures. We should not inflict that upon the military. It is far better to concentrate on the "Front Line First" options. I believe that a daily analysis is made of the pressures and the requirements, and that is how it should be.

We should review the civilianisation programme within the services, perhaps looking at the financial targets rather than the stringent and inflexible manpower targets. I believe that we should be looking at detachments and at the pressures on family welfare within the services, particularly with respect to health and housing. We should look at establishing precisely our ceiling on commitments for those who serve in the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. Extending the services beyond their capabilities will do nothing for this country or for those outside it.

I repeat my welcome for the Gracious Speech and I welcome the Government's commitment now, as in the past, to the defence of the realm.


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