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Dr. Spink: What will the hon. Gentleman agree with next week?

Dr. Reid: Anything that the Conservatives say that makes sense. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to belong to a party that has a knee-jerk reaction of saying black every time someone says white, he is entitled to do so. I want to belong to a party that is capable of analysing the real world and of reaching rational conclusions and that is prepared to agree with anyone who has reached the same conclusions on the basis of the same analysis. I am not ashamed of that; we have operated in that way for some considerable time. We support "Partnership for Peace", the domestic joint service operation and the combined operations with our allies abroad, all of which should be the basis for common agreement.

There are, however, two major obstacles to the development in Britain of a consensual framework on defence. The first is the fact that the Government refuse to have a real review of the pattern of overstretch, which has placed an intolerable burden on ordinary service men and women. Not only is the situation not improving, despite constant promises, but it is getting much worse. Ministers speak as though the problem had been revealed to them suddenly from on high. I have only one simple point to make: if the demographic curve shows that the market for people joining the armed forces--people aged between 18 and 24--has plummeted, it may come as a surprise to the Government, but it was predictable about 18 to 24 years ago.

Anyone could have read the runes of the coming drop in demography. We warned six years ago from the Opposition Front Bench that there would be just such a shortage of recruits. As all hon. Members know, we are now 4,000 short of the establishment figures even for forces that would be overstretched had they attained those figures.

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Overstretch is not just a matter of a fall in the demographic curves. It reveals astonishing complacency and incompetence by successive Ministers. Recruitment has been constantly undermined by the closure and reopening of Army recruitment centres, the closure and reinstatement of regiments and the MOD's constant chopping about and incapacity for forward planning. Over the past 10 years, Ministers have introduced the concept of stop-go planning into the Ministry of Defence. That is the first problem we have in developing a consensus, and it is one of the reasons--not the only one--why we insist on a real strategic security review and why we will carry that out in government.

The Government have failed in a second crucial area: by imposing their ideology of privatisation and contractorisation as a dogma on the services, they have undermined organisations bound together by the ethos of collective cohesion. Group loyalty may mean nothing to the unfettered free marketeers; it means everything to those whose lives depend on it. It does not show up on a profit and loss account or feature in an accountant's log, but the ethos of the military group is still a vital, permeating, irreplaceable asset for the operational effectiveness of our forces.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames): May I clarify one point for the hon. Gentleman before he goes any further? We do not regard the Government as having any consensus with the Labour party on any single defence issue. Will he give one example of a reform of the type which he is talking about that has undermined the cohesion of the armed forces, bearing in mind that, in my view, the new management strategy, for example, has been the greatest single liberating measure ever achieved to allow the services to run their own affairs?

Dr. Reid: I will answer both points directly. The Minister rejects any attempt to make national security a matter of national consensus, above party politics. Most people in this country, including those in the armed services, are sick and tired of the yah-boo politics conducted in the House over national security. People are desperate for politicians of all parties to put aside their petty partisan differences when it comes to our national security and to put country above party. They will have noticed that any attempt by us--no matter how constructive--to build such a consensus, is rejected.

With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, he will not be in a position to offer consensus or otherwise; the governing party next year will offer that consensus, and that will be the Labour party.

Mr. Wilkinson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Reid: When I have answered the Minister's second question. The hon. Gentleman would not like me to be discourteous, and the answer will be of interest also to him.

The Minister asked me for an example of contractorisation undermining the cohesion and effectiveness of the armed forces. The contractorisation process for the maintenance of RAF aircraft is such an

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example. It was put out to tender and won by a private company--I spoke to RAF mechanics who were bitterly disappointed about that. The private company undercut the RAF, which was allowed to tender in that particular station, but was told that, even if it won, it would have to keep to the establishment numbers agreed in "Options for Change" and defence cuts studies--in other words, even if the RAF won the tender, it would still have to lose it.

The RAF can be undercut by a private company that can make a low tender because it does not have to train mechanics or pay them the wages of the RAF. It does not have to do that because it recruits RAF-trained service men who have been made redundant and are on a pension from the MOD, so the same people do the maintenance on Royal Air Force aeroplanes for a private company. Five years down the road, there will be no RAF-trained mechanics on the base, because the RAF lost the tender, but nor will there be trained mechanics in the private company, because it put in a low tender.

Mr. Soames: The hon. Gentleman does not know what he is talking about.

Dr. Reid: The Minister says that I do not know what I am talking about, but I am telling him what I was told by the people involved. We shall find out who is right when we have to pick up the pieces after the shambles created by the dogmatic imposition of free market values on a service that believes in collective loyalty and group cohesion. If Ministers do not understand the importance of that to the armed forces, they do not understand anything.

Mr. Wilkinson: The hon. Gentleman has been his engaging and entertaining self. He speaks about consensus and about group cohesion and refers to a prospective Government, whose members I presume he imagines lurk on the Opposition Benches, but what about the amendment that stands in the names of his hon. Friends who sit below the Gangway? That is, manifestly, totally distinct from his policy and that of his Front-Bench colleagues. If he cannot achieve consensus even within his own party on fundamental security issues, how does he hope do it in government?

Dr. Reid: On the last point, the hon. Gentleman, who is an intelligent man, is sufficiently semantically aware to know that there is a difference between consensus and unanimity. [Laughter.] The cynics laugh. I read somewhere that cynicism is the crutch that intellectual cripples sometimes have to lean on as a substitute for intelligence.

I do indeed seek consensus. Is that consensus to be built around the position proposed by a small number of my hon. Friends tonight? No. Do I reject their views? Yes. Have I anything in common with the main thrust of their views on defence as expressed in the amendment? No. Is their view in accord with the Labour party conference decision? No. It is totally in opposition to the views of the Labour party conference, the parliamentary Labour party and the party leadership. I cannot be any plainer.

On contractorisation, I merely say one thing, because I cannot put it better than Basil Liddell Hart put it some 50 years ago when he wrote:

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Basil Liddell Hart got it right. It would be to everyone's benefit if the Secretary of State for Defence paid a little more attention to Basil Liddell Hart than to Mr. David Hart when taking decisions inside the MOD.

Another obstacle to consensus is the Government's response to entreaties--[Interruption.] The Minister of State for the Armed Forces is shouting--I think he said "Insane!"--from a sedentary position. He will get his chance to put his case later, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but he has already made it plain: not only will he not seek agreement in the House on anything, but he will reject it outright from the beginning when it is offered.

It is relatively easy to identify the challenges that face the armed forces in this country. We know that the type of threat has changed. We know the problems that are occurring in the developments in Russia. We know about changes in the military architectural structure. All those things are talked about constantly. There are, however, one or more deep social changes that no one has yet faced up to, but future Governments will have to face up to them, because although they are not the most obvious changes, they are profound in terms of their effect on the armed forces of this country. They are changes in society. I shall outline three of them, because as far as I am aware they have not been mentioned.

The first is perhaps the most obvious: the general perception widely held by the public that the threat has gone. I agree entirely with what the Secretary of State said at length yesterday. The threats have not gone. In many ways, there are more threats now than before. War is not cost-free, despite the experience of Bosnia. Whatever we say in the House, the general perception among the public is that the threat has gone. One reason for the successive cuts in defence budgets over the past 10 years is the fact that, when the Cabinet has to decide how money will be allocated, it reflects what the public feel, and the general impression is that the public do not feel that defence should be a recipient of large amounts of money, because they do not perceive that there is a threat. Therefore, all of us who do perceive it have a duty to join together whenever we can to combat complacency among the public. That is the first great social change to which we must attend.

The second change is in the personal experience of most people in this country. I give one fact to the House. In the 20 years to 1964, 6.5 million British people had been through the armed forces. Some 30 years ago, 20 million families had personal experience of, links with or empathy with the armed forces. In the 20 years to 1994, the figure was only 500,000. In 20 years' time, it will be around 300,000. In other words, contrasting 30 years back and 30 years forward, for every 100 people who have experience or empathy with the armed forces, there will be only three. That is the second great change that we cannot ignore. If we do, we do so at our peril.

The third change is in cultural attitudes in society: the growth throughout the 1980s of unfettered individualism--Thatcherism at its worst. There has been some discussion of what benefits we may have gained from Thatcherism. We could discuss that all night. We certainly gained one huge social deficit as well: the idea that the individual should enrich him or herself irrespective of what happened in the rest of the population, the idea that the biblical merit of the good samaritan lay not in good deeds but in the fact that he was

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rich--a sort of biblical yuppie. There was the idea that one had no obligation to anyone else, because "society" did not exist.

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