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House of Commons

Monday 16 June 1997

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


Staffordshire Regiment

1. Mr. Fabricant: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has for the future role of the Staffordshire regiment; and if he will make astatement.[2040]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Dr. John Reid): The Staffordshire regiment is currently a light infantry battalion employed in the national defence role. The strategic defence review, launched on 28 May, will decide how our armed forces should be structured, equipped and deployed to meet our nation's interests and commitments. It would be premature to assess the likely outcome of the review before the process is complete.

Mr. Fabricant: I welcome the Minister and, indeed, the Secretary of State to their posts.

The Minister will recall that in 1991 there were contingency plans to merge the Staffordshire regiment with the Cheshires. As the Staffordshire regiment is one

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of only two county regiments in the British Army, and the morale of soldiers in the Staffordshire regiment will not be helped by the strategic defence review, will the Minister give some added assurance that the regiment, which was founded in Lichfield in 1705 and has an illustrious 300-year history, will have some future under a Labour Government?

Dr. Reid: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm words. I recall the proposals that the Conservative Government made regarding the Staffordshire regiment, which were then reversed after a campaign by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I am happy to acknowledge the regiment's long and proud history of service to the Crown which, as the hon. Gentleman said, dates back to 1705. I fully appreciate the sense of regimental identity and the close links that regiments may enjoy with the local community, but the hon. Gentleman--and hon. Members who may ask similar questions in respect of other regiments--will appreciate, as the regiment does, that it would be quite wrong to announce decisions about the outcome of the wide-ranging review before it has even started.

Mr. Maginnis: In support of what the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) suggested, I pay tribute to the Staffordshire regiment, which has served for five of the last 20 years in Northern Ireland with considerable distinction. It lost a man in south Armagh in 1984, and it served again in my constituency more recently. May I suggest to the Minister that it is wrong to keep our security services generally in a state of limbo and that six years after "Options for Change" it is time for consolidation? I implore him to move towards reassuring the men and women who serve in the armed forces.

Dr. Reid: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and to his backing for the Staffordshire regiment, which has served not only in Northern Ireland but in the Gulf war.

The ultimate purpose of the strategic defence review is to give the clarity of direction and the coherence to our strategy in foreign affairs and defence matters that have

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been singularly lacking throughout the past six or seven years, during which we have had one mini-review after another, regiments have been merged and chopped only to be reinstated and millions have been paid out in redundancy payments only to find that we are now short of soldiers. After a period of chaos and instability, the armed forces are entitled to ask that a new Government give some coherence and clarity, as we shall do with the strategic defence review.

Trident Missile System

2. Mr. Corbyn: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will estimate the total cost of the Trident missile system over its remaining operational life.[2041]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Spellar): Remaining acquisition costs for the Trident system, as at September 1996, stood at just under £1.5 billion. Operating costs will average £200 million per annum over a 30-year in-service life.

Mr. Corbyn: Will the Minister confirm that that cost is astronomical and that the money could be much better used on the much needed social infrastructure of this country--health, education and housing--and that nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons capability will be included in the defence review? Will the Department give a serious answer to the International Court of Justice decision regarding the legality and morality of any state in the world holding nuclear weapons?

Mr. Spellar: I confirm that the figures that I have given constitute 1 per cent. of the defence budget over the next 30 years. I should also point out that both my hon. Friend and I stood at the last election on a manifesto in which we said very firmly that we would retain Trident.

Mr. Wilkinson: Will the Minister clarify his answer? Does it mean that the Labour Government will keep four boats in service throughout the period in question--throughout the operational life of the Trident missile system--and that one boat will be kept permanently on station, so that the full deterrent effectiveness can be maintained?

Mr. Spellar: The answer is quite straightforward. The fourth boat has already been ordered, and will be delivered. We shall be looking at retaining the minimal deterrent that is necessary to fulfil our obligations.

Former Yugoslavia

3. Mr. Crausby: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he last visited the former Yugoslavia to discuss the British contribution to IFOR.[2042]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Robertson): I visited the former Yugoslavia from 19 to 20 May and had very useful discussions with the multinational stabilisation force and with United Kingdom commanders and troops. I also had meetings with members of the Bosnian presidency and the entity Defence Ministers.

Mr. Crausby: When my right hon. Friend next meets his American counterpart, will he stress the importance of

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United States participation in European security, and also stress that our common policy on Bosnia should be "in together, out together"?

Mr. Robertson: When I met the American Secretary of Defence last week, I made it clear that the success of SFOR--the stabilisation force--is down not just to NATO and the NATO countries whose forces are serving in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but to the other nations involved there, and to Ukraine and Russia, which are partners in this regard. That is part of the considerable success that we have achieved in the area, providing a unique opportunity for previously warring factions to rebuild civic institutions there.

I have reminded the Americans, and will continue to remind them, that the Dayton peace accords were a substantial triumph for western and, perhaps especially, American diplomacy. We should not rashly throw away the rewards that have been achieved. The main point at present, however, is that the burden of responsibility lies with the Bosnian leadership, which has not done enough. The international community will not be taken for granted. We went in together, we stay in together, we have succeeded together, and if nothing happens on the ground we shall clearly have to leave together as well.

Mr. Brazier: I welcome the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends to their posts, to which I am sure that they will bring considerable energy and imagination. May I none the less urge the right hon. Gentleman, in the light of the answer that he has just given and the answer given earlier by his hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces about the defence review, to remember that the primary purpose of Britain's armed forces is the defence of this country and its vital interests in a very dangerous world? Peacekeeping is an activity, not the principal purpose.

Mr. Robertson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the warm and appropriate welcome that he gave the new Ministers. I know that the point has been well taken on the Opposition Front Bench, however temporary that may be.

The hon. Gentleman is right: the primary role of our armed forces is the defence of Britain and Britain's interests. However, we also have a wider international responsibility. When I met our troops serving in Bosnia-Herzegovina a few weeks ago, I was proud of them and I was impressed by the job that they are doing on behalf of the international community, along with representatives of that community, in maintaining peace in a part of the world that has scarred Europe for many generations. Together, as an international community, we have provided a rare moment of opportunity for people to dig themselves out of the situation and build a permanent peace.

Mr. Dalyell: Could the difficult old question of local allowances for our service men in the British Army of the Rhine, who have had to leave their families behind in Fallingbostel or elsewhere, be reconsidered? When they go to Bosnia, they lose the allowances that they had in Germany. Can my right hon. Friend imagine the wry smiles of the men of B squadron of the Scots Dragoon Guards when they learn that the Canadians, with whom

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they are doing manoeuvres, get free telephone calls for as long as they like to Canada, whereas the Scots' telephone calls are financially restricted?

Mr. Robertson: I know of my hon. Friend's distinguished record of service with that regiment and I was extremely pleased to meet it in Baraci just before he arrived on the scene. His point was made to me there, too. However, the matter is not as uncomplicated as he suggests. Some of the troops from the 34 nations serving in Bosnia-Herzegovina have different allowances and benefit from different regimes, but the allowances paid in Germany are for specific circumstances which are not deemed to relate to service in Bosnia. I listened with great care to the points that were made politely and sensibly by our forces in that part of the world. We shall keep these issues under permanent review.

Mr. Martin Bell: Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that as a result of necessary and valuable service in Bosnia, men in some units, such as the Queen's Royal Hussars, have spent two and a half of the past five years away from their families? How does he intend to address the problem of overstretch?

Mr. Robertson: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I am aware of the stresses and strains which face those who serve in Bosnia, Northern Ireland and other parts of the world where British forces are committed, never mind those who serve in the homeland. The problem of overstretch will be seriously addressed in our strategic defence review because it is fundamental to how well and how professionally our forces discharge the roles that we ask them to perform in the world today.

The strategic defence review is not some ploy by an incoming Government: it is a determined attempt to provide clarity and vision for the future of this country and to ensure that when our troops discharge the obligations that the people want us to place on them they are not hindered by the problems of overstretch that many of them face today.

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