Previous SectionIndexHome Page

9.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Michael Portillo): The hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) devoted much of his speech to the middle east and paid a generous tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary. The whole House joined together in paying further tributes to Yitzhak Rabin.

It is a cliche to say that for Yitzhak Rabin to make peace required more courage even than to make war, but it is a cliche that none the less I believe to be true. In doing so, he risked absurd slanders from his fellow countrymen--accusations of softness and even of treachery. A man who could bear the blows of his enemies with equanimity must have smarted under such lashes from his countrymen. Eventually, he paid the price of his peacemaking with his life.

There are not so many outstanding statesmen in the world today, and Yitzhak Rabin was characterised by his vision and leadership. Not only do I feel great sorrow at his loss, but I send to the people of Israel the wish that their wounds may be healed and that reconciliation may spread through their land. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]

The other topic that was mentioned very broadly during the debate was Nigeria. I cannot add much to what my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary said in his introductory speech. The hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) and the hon. Members for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes), for Streatham (Mr. Hill), for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) and for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) all spoke about Nigeria with considerable passion.

I simply emphasise what my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary said. The Commonwealth has made an impressive response. It has marked a new stage in the maturity of the Commonwealth. Prompt action has been taken on an arms embargo, and Britain is willing to engage in discussions with her allies, friends and partners regarding any other possible responses that may be appropriate.

The hon. Member for Ilford, South welcomed the Chemical Weapons Bill announced in the Queen's Speech. I shall refer briefly to the two other Bills of concern to me directly which we shall place before the House in the present Session.

First, there will be an Armed Forces Bill to continue in force the single-service Acts--the Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957-- that provide the framework for the system of discipline in the armed forces.

The Bill goes through a Select Committee process, and there will be a chance for the House to discuss homosexuality in the armed forces. We have long taken the view that homosexuality is incompatible with the special conditions of service life. The policy has now been examined by the High Court and by the Court of Appeal. I am pleased that both of them found our policy to be lawful. Our homosexual policy assessment team will continue to gather evidence which will be presented to the

16 Nov 1995 : Column 223

Select Committee examining the Armed Forces Bill, so that its members will have a clear and updated assessment before them.

We shall also introduce the Reserve Forces Bill that attracted the special commendation of my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie). It will introduce a power of call-out for humanitarian disaster relief and peacekeeping tasks, and it will create two new categories of reserves: high-readiness reserves and sponsored reserves. It will also provide an opportunity for reservists to volunteer to undertake productive tasks other than training, including periods of full-time service. Finally, the Bill includes important new safeguards for employers and reservists.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) made a remarkable speech of great breadth, in which he understood so well the diversity of British interests. Those interests start with the security of our national territory, of our dependencies and of our allies. But, as he pointed out, they go much wider than that. They include the promotion of free trade and investment around the globe. They include our interest in the spread of liberal, western-style democracies, partly for humanitarian reasons and partly because such democracies are more likely to be peaceful.

Our world still faces many threats. The prospect of global war has receded, but instead we face increased uncertainty. Regional problems that were for so long suppressed by the super-power stand-off are re-emerging in traditionally unstable areas such as the Balkans, the middle east and the Gulf. In north and sub-Saharan Africa, and even in Asia and the far east, we can see tensions between emerging major regional powers.

Instability brings in its wake challenges to our interests and our values. Those problems are certainly exacerbated by extremism, by the possession or potential proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and often by both. Such proliferation heightens regional tensions and may also intensify the scale and nature of future conflicts. We should not ignore the dangers of proliferation simply because it is going on well away from the shores of the United Kingdom. The Gulf conflict provided a vivid demonstration--we saw it on our television screens--of the threat to the armed forces of countries which, like Britain, take an active role in building international security. The proliferation of ballistic missile technology, especially if coupled with weapons of mass destruction, would pose a growing threat to our NATO allies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) paid particular attention to the importance of developing our intelligence capability. In such an uncertain world, to be able to predict where the crises will occur will be of enormous importance. If we find ourselves involved in conflict, the ability to manage the battlefield through superior intelligence will probably hold the key to victory. The fact that we know what is going on reinforces our deterrent capability.

For all those reasons, our important relationship with the United States is underlined. In some of the Opposition speeches this afternoon--I am thinking of the hon. Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) and for Ilford, South--I still heard a resonance of that old Labour anti-Americanism which can play no part in building up the security interests of the United Kingdom.

Deterrence was relatively straightforward when there was a super-power conflict. The essence of deterrence is that any potential adversary should believe that one would

16 Nov 1995 : Column 224

be willing, in extremis, to use one's power and that one would be able to strike with overwhelming force. The current diffuse threats make deterrence much more complicated. It spans a range of capability from special forces, to rapid reaction forces and cruise missiles, up to and including nuclear deterrents.

I believe that nuclear weapons will remain a vital underpinning of our defence policy. Our strategic deterrent provides the ultimate guarantee of our national security. It makes a significant contribution to preserving peace and security in Europe. Our nuclear weapons are a deterrent: their role is to prevent war, not to fight it. The theology of deterrence will need to evolve in order to reflect the changing world, but its fundamental principle remains valid.

It is premature to think that we can move to complete nuclear disarmament. Of course, with the welcome end of the cold war, we have been able to make sensible reductions in our nuclear arsenal. The flexibility of the Trident missile system also allows us to move to a single nuclear weapon delivery system. However, complete nuclear disarmament remains a distant prospect at best. Nuclear weapons technology cannot be uninvented. In a nuclear-free world, there would always be the risk of a new confrontation generating a profoundly destabilising nuclear arms race. The potential for proliferation would always be present. No one has yet found robust solutions to those problems.

As a nuclear weapons state, the United Kingdom bears special responsibilities. I did not see any evidence in today's debate to suggest that Labour has begun to understand the nature of those special responsibilities.

Mr. Gapes: Will the Secretary of State tell us under what circumstances he would press the nuclear button?

Mr. Portillo: It is extremely important to understand that this country would be prepared to use nuclear weapons. I have said that nuclear weapons exist because we wish to deter war, not to fight it. However, it is extremely important for any adversary to understand that Britain would, in extremis, be ready to use nuclear weapons. That is the essence of the deterrence doctrine.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire, (Sir P. Cormack) and the hon. Member for West Derby among others, referred to the Bosnian question. All eyes are currently on Dayton, Ohio. We hope that the latest chance for peace will be grasped by all the parties and that hopes will not be dashed, as has occurred so often in the past. We hope that hostilities will not recur and that the long-suffering people of Bosnia will not endure further misery.

In parallel with the Dayton talks, planning is continuing within NATO for a peace implementation force. Good progress has been made, although clearly a number of key issues can be resolved only once a clearer picture emerges from Dayton. I assure the House that the force will deploy only if there is a clear and satisfactory peace agreement to which the parties subscribe fully.

The force's role will be to implement a peace agreement and it will operate with the consent of the parties who have signed the agreement. The force's principal task will be to oversee the separation of the factions and to provide the stability necessary for an agreement to succeed. The force will be remarkably multinational. The headquarters of the Allied Command

16 Nov 1995 : Column 225

Europe rapid reaction corps--the ARRC--will play a key role. The United Kingdom has framework nation responsibility for the ARRC headquarters, for which we provide the commander and some 60 per cent. of the staff. Its deployment will provide an important test of its capabilities. I am sure that General Sir Michael Walker and his team will rise to the challenge.

As the House would expect, the Government are planning to make a significant contribution to the peace implementation force commensurate with our status and responsibilities within the Atlantic alliance. The final size of our contribution, and the force as a whole, will depend on the nature of the peace settlement, if any. It will also depend on the level of contributions from other NATO and non-NATO nations.

I agree entirely with the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) that it has been an important breakthrough to include Russian troops in the arrangements, and we hope for other troop contributions from beyond NATO, including in particular Muslim countries. I confirm that a substantial United States deployment on the ground will be essential. I undertake that we shall report to the House with further details as and when our plans are crystallised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) paid particular attention to European defence. There are some clear lessons that we can draw from operations in former Yugoslavia for the defence arrangements that we should put in place for the future. They relate to the value of practical military co-operation, the fundamental importance of NATO and not letting theology or rhetoric get ahead of reality.

The Anglo-French summit last month marked a development in our defence relationship with France. Britain and France have similar perspectives. The summit recognised the global partnership that exists between us, built on the major contribution that both countries make to security in Europe and wider afield.

Much of the reason for that improved bilateral relationship lies in our military co-operation in Bosnia. That has brought our two armed forces closer together than at any time since the second world war. Our troops have found their French colleagues whom they have been fighting alongside on the slopes of Mount Igman to be of the highest quality and they have shared a good deal of comradeship in those operations.

For a long time, France has excluded herself from some of NATO's military activities. I believe that that exclusion by France has been a loss to NATO and to France. I welcome the fact that France is showing a new willingness to participate in the work of the alliance.

Again it is important to separate theology from practice. Many of the theological questions surrounding France's involvement and integration in NATO remain to be resolved, but it is just as important that, in putting together a practical operation for peacekeeping in former Yugoslavia, France has been willing to rise above those theological questions and co-operate in putting together what I believe will be an effective force. I particularly welcome that. I also welcome France's recent recognition that NATO has a crucial role in meeting the serious security challenges that we may face in future.

16 Nov 1995 : Column 226

We intend, with France, to draw lessons as we work together over the coming months to build credible European defence arrangements. My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary touched earlier on the agenda for our presidency of the WEU which, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough said, starts at the beginning of next year.

The Government's approach to European defence is a practical one. It is about building defence structures that work. We address the key question: what is the gap in European defence capability that we are trying to plug? I have warned before of the dangers of concentrating on institutional issues and thereby losing sight of our main goal: building militarily credible and effective capabilities. Some talk of a political deficit while others suggest that intergovernmentalism is outdated. I believe that intergovernmentalism works. It has done so for 50 years in NATO. It recognises that defence is a sovereign nation's first responsibility. We shall not meet the challenge of tomorrow by institutional tinkering. Certainly we shall not meet that challenge by submerging our sovereignty and our armed forces into supranational constructions.

All the talk of political deficit misses the point, for it is not the problem. What matters is Europe's patent operational deficit. The WEU's operational development will be the first priority of our presidency of the WEU. We shall take that approach, however, in a way that complements NATO, not in a way that could weaken it. We have in NATO arrangements and procedures that have been developed in the best possible way, through consensus and practical military co-operation. These arrangements have been built up over nearly 50 years, and they work. We should not try to reinvent the wheel by developing new, separate and wholly European capabilities. That would be unnecessary, unaffordable and undesirable.

Instead, we shall reinforce the WEU's links with the alliance. The WEU needs access to NATO's assets, capabilities and expertise if it is to be able to mount operations on the scale that we want. Events in Bosnia have proved that point eloquently. We need to be able to demonstrate to the Americans that Europeans are able to do their bit. We need to convince others that even in situations where Americans may not be involved in Europe on the ground, Europeans will none the less have the necessary capabilities.

We shall carry forward work to establish a WEU situation centre that is capable of monitoring future operations. That is an essential part of the nerve system of any viable defence organisation. We want the centre to be well on the way to being operational by the end of our presidency of the WEU.

As the structures and procedures that I have described would be mere paper tigers unless exercised, we shall make proposals for a more coherent and progressive exercise policy within the WEU. For the reasons explained by my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary, the WEU, rather than the European Union, is the appropriate body for building up the defence capability of Europe. That was the central theme of one section of my speech in Blackpool. The hon. Member for South Shields accepted that argument and offered the Government his support, which I am pleased to accept.

16 Nov 1995 : Column 227

There were references, especially by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East and my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside to our procurement policy. Our equipment procurement policy must provide our armed forces with the right equipment on time and at the best value for money. Competition, therefore, remains at the heart of our approach. The Government believe that it would not be doing the United Kingdom industry any favours if through our procurement policy we were to protect it from international competition. Competition brings benefits to us and to industry. It promotes keen prices and encourages the most efficient use of industrial resources. It has had demonstrable effects on reducing prices. In some cases it has reduced costs by over 30 per cent.

Our procurement policies have contributed to making the United Kingdom defence industry healthy and internationally competitive. Last year, United Kingdom defence companies won export orders worth some £5 billion, representing about 16 per cent. of the world market. That was no flash in the pan. Over the past five years, the United Kingdom has been the second largest exporter after the United States. With the strength of a competitive defence industry, we have everything to gain from a genuinely open defence equipment market. We shall continue to strive for open markets, through NATO and through the European defence forums.

Best value for money does not always mean picking the cheapest solution. We aim for value for money in the longer term. That involves taking account of a range of factors, including industrial issues. We recognise the importance of a healthy supply base in Britain and in the rest of Europe. We wish to maintain our ability to run competitions for future requirements. The defence industry has had to take painful decisions to reduce its capacity in recent years. It is not our business to maintain industrial capacity for its own sake, but we do need to ensure that we do not through our actions lose industrial capabilities that are important either militarily or in the interests of future competition or collaboration.

Next Section

IndexHome Page