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5.48 pm

Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill): We have heard a fascinating speech by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). I thought the best part was his claim that the Opposition need Lord Gilbert. They need anyone who can make a better speech than the hon. Gentleman. If that is the extent of the criticism that the Opposition can make of the Government's defence policy, anyone could do better--perhaps even the Liberals.

It is often said that the problem with Defence Ministers and military commanders is that they are always fighting the last war: they base their decisions on the last war rather than the next. We heard the hon. Member for Salisbury refight the last election and, in many of his allusions, refight the 1979 general election. Looking to the past is not the way to establish a sensible defence policy for this country.

I have some sympathy with the hon. Member for Salisbury and his colleagues who said that we need to base our defence policy on foreign policy. The hon. Gentleman said that we need what he called foreign policy base lines. He is absolutely right about that, but he and his friends have not been listening. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has spelt out the basis of our defence policy--the Government's defence review--in several speeches. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Salisbury is interrupting from a sedentary position. I suggest that, instead of researching my right hon. Friend's election address, he would do better to research my right hon. Friend's speeches.

Mr. Key: I have read them.

Mr. Davis: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman needs not only to read but to reread them. He would then see that my right hon. Friend has spelt out several times the basic policy guidelines of our foreign policy in relation to our defence policy.

A surprising omission from the speeches made by Opposition Members today and yesterday has been any welcome for the Government's emphasis, which was spelt out clearly at the beginning of the Secretary of State's speech yesterday, on defence being cost-effective. That notion is welcomed by every Labour Member.

I entirely endorse what my right hon. Friend said, but I hope that I may presume to make one suggestion: perhaps he could ask one of his junior Ministers or a parliamentary private secretary to read the National Audit Office's reports and the Public Accounts Committee's reports of the past 10 years and to make a list of their recommendations and findings. On the basis of that list, my right hon. Friend could then ask what has happened as a result of those reports, because if there was one Government Department that wasted a colossal amount of money under the previous Government it was the Ministry of Defence. Every NAO report presented to the House contained a scandal in terms of the Ministry of Defence not getting value for money.

I commend that suggestion to the Secretary of State. We have all seen the Treasury minutes--the bland and banal assurances that action would be taken--but it would be worth looking back over published information to ascertain what is happening to ensure that the Ministry of Defence achieves value for money.

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Another aspect of getting value for money is the emphasis on the fact that this country's defence is now based on collective defence. We are in alliances; the days have gone when we could rely solely on our own resources and efforts and on the ability and professional skills of our armed forces to defend the United Kingdom. We are into collective defence, a change which has occurred over the past 50 or 60 years.

I found my right hon. Friend's references to working with our allies in NATO very encouraging. I was, however, a little disappointed that he made no reference at all to the importance of the Western European Union as the European hard core of NATO and the need to work closely with our allies in the rest of Europe through the WEU to ensure the defence of this country in the widest sense.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Robertson) indicated assent.

Mr. Davis: I see that my right hon. Friend is nodding, so I think that he has taken the point.

We congratulated the Prime Minister on his success at Amsterdam, where he achieved an objective that was common to the Government and the Conservative Opposition. When the positions were reversed, the Labour Opposition supported the Conservative Government in arguing that the WEU should not be integrated into the European Union but be kept as a separate entity. Only the Liberal party thought that it should be integrated.

What happened at Amsterdam, however, means that there is an obligation on the British Government to ensure that more is now done to sort out the working relationship between the European Union and the WEU. We cannot simply sit back and say that Amsterdam was successful; we have an obligation to ensure that that relationship, which is crucial to any European security and defence policy or identity, is sorted out. I see very little being done in that respect, but it is something which we should take into account in the next few months, and especially when the United Kingdom holds the presidency of the Council of Ministers.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State goes to Russia next week to meet his counterpart there, and it is significant that a delegation from the Russian Duma is coming in the opposite direction to meet representatives of the WEU Assembly so that we can discuss at parliamentary level the development of a common defence and the implications for Russia, Russia's neighbours and the WEU of common objectives and arrangements.

I greatly welcome the openness with which my right hon. Friend has approached the strategic defence review. It is a genuine effort to involve as many people as possible, to take advice and suggestions and to listen to what is said in many quarters. On the other hand, we can perhaps consider whether the trend has gone far enough, in that, if we believe in collective defence and are basing our policy on an alliance or alliances, it would be sensible in the course of the review to take account of the views expressed and the contributions made by our allies. The extent to which the Government are doing that is not clear. It may be happening, but I would appreciate some

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clarification in the winding-up speech of the extent to which the review takes account of our allies' views and contributions.

The Secretary of State made another important point yesterday when he said that our enemy is instability. Members of all parties have paid tribute to the contribution of our armed forces in Bosnia, but there has been one outstanding example of instability in the past six months to which the United Kingdom has not offered assistance--Albania.

I appreciate that the problem in Albania erupted before the general election, so crucial decisions would have been taken before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State took office. However, the Government could have contributed to the efforts made in Albania by other WEU countries and, I think, some central European countries because there was a period after the election when it was still possible to do so. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary would clarify our reasons for not assisting our friend and allies. Perhaps we did not want to get involved, or perhaps we wanted to get involved but could not do so because we did not have the resources. In any event, we must be clear about the Government's rationale for not joining a number of countries, which played a major part in bringing stability to Albania at a very important time.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State also said that ethnic disputes were a major threat to this country's security. I am sure that he is right, but if we are to do something about instability and ethnic disputes in areas such as the Mediterranean, it is time to question the relevance of nuclear weapons in dealing with such a threat. If we have to make choices based on priorities, surely it is time to ask whether it would be better to spend money on aircraft and ships to get our armed forces to the Mediterranean to deal with disputes and bring peace to that troubled region rather than to spend it on nuclear weapons. It is quite reasonable to ask such questions about priorities within the constraints of a defence budget. Again, I should welcome some clarification from Ministers on that important point.

5.58 pm

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak. I warmly welcome the new Minister for the Armed Forces to the Dispatch Box for the first time. I am sure that he will enjoy the job every bit as much as I did--indeed, I am green with envy at the idea that he should hold that post. I am grateful for his kind words about me in the past. I also welcome the Secretary of State and congratulate him on an assured start at the Dispatch Box yesterday.

I pay a brief tribute to the previous Chief of the Defence Staff, Field-Marshal Sir Peter Inge, with whom I had the honour to serve and who left the Ministry of Defence in May. He was a very distinguished CDS at an extremely difficult time. I welcome the new Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Charles Guthrie, who has made a confident and assured start. I am sure that he will do a good job.

Since I stopped being the Minister for the Armed Forces--a job which I miss every day--I have been reflecting on why our armed forces command such tremendous respect and affection in this country. Indeed,

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their standing has increased during the summer. We all have our own theories about that. Undoubtedly, the past triumphs of the Falklands, Bosnia and the Gulf have a great deal to do with it, but I believe that the issue goes further than that. The public have come to see the British forces as highly professional, versatile, can-do organisations whose people are fiercely proud to be associated with them and are determined to give their best.

The services elicit profound admiration because of their strong emphasis on the importance of training, the priority that they place on the interests and welfare of individuals, their relentless pursuit of all that is truly excellent in life and their continual willingness--even appetite--to update, upgrade and modernise their methods of operation. There is no scope for a hideous, new Labour, modernising project.

There were some matters of great concern to me when I left the Ministry of Defence, which I should like to talk about briefly. I remain extremely anxious--as I know the Minister is--about the recruitment difficulties faced by the services in general, and the Army in particular. We are fishing in a pretty small pool for men and women of considerable courage, fortitude, determination and strength of character, with the versatility to turn their hands to anything. Such people are not easily found. When they are found, they must not be wasted.

My next great concern is the increasing difficulty that the services are having in doing their business as more and more restrictions and regulations on issues such as health and safety at work are forced down their throats. The consequences will soon show. With all those rules and regulations and the introduction of longer-range, more lethal and more mobile weaponry and equipment, it is becoming increasingly difficult to carry out realistic military training. We must overcome that, because only through the full rigour of military training and careful preparation for war will our services be able to undertake the tasks expected of them.

My next concern is how the services are coping under the microscope of hysterical media attention. With the full range of the magic hypocrisy at their command, the press pretend to adore the services, but rejoice in every opportunity to shaft them, sometimes very seriously, when things go wrong. Things do go wrong, of course, but such events are only truly shocking in military life because they happen rarely.

My greatest anxiety is the challenge that we all face in convincing the general public of the need to devote substantial sums of money to defence. The Government have the important task of continually reminding the nation of the reasons why we need strong, highly trained and well-equipped forces. That is not an easy task for a Government who include many pacifists and past and present activists of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, who care nothing for defence and despise most of the qualities that make our armed forces unique.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) for his excellent speech. Ministers have already discovered, as we did, that the Treasury is wholly unconcerned with the capabilities of our armed forces. Ministers must learn that the Treasury is their enemy and must be fought accordingly for every inch of ground. The other major problem that they will have with the Treasury is its profound ignorance of defence matters and all that goes with them. It was always my considered

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opinion, when working at the Ministry of Defence, that those at the Treasury worked for the Russians. Nothing has since persuaded me that I am wrong.

There is little scope for a substantial reordering of priorities in a strategic defence review, or any other major reduction in our core commitment. I very much hope that it will be a serious and, above all, credible exercise. If new thinking emerges, we shall need to study it carefully.

Past and present commitments were never the result of a honey-eyed view of Britain's role in the world. The unmistakeable truth is that we are one of the world's greatest trading nations. Our exports account for approximately a quarter of our gross domestic product. Of all the European Union members, Britain is by far the biggest investor overseas. We have a vital interest in ensuring a stable environment in which to trade and do business. I hope that the strategic defence review will point the way to greater flexibility in the way in which we deploy our defence assets and, possibly, greater realism about the scope of our capabilities. If it is a genuine review, it will make the military more open and honest about where the problems lie and what is achievable. Operational audit must continue to play a big part in such assessments. If it enables us to get away from the self-defeating trickery of double, and sometimes even triple, hatting, it will serve a good purpose and I shall support it. Clearing away some of the smoke and mirrors is not a bad ambition and we should support it.

I wholly agree with the point made by the Secretary of State yesterday about the use of the military in furthering British foreign policy objectives. I hope that the Foreign Office is making a positive contribution to the strategic defence review, but I must warn the Minister that there will continue to be problems with the Foreign Office over military matters. Those in the generation who served in the Army through national service or as regular soldiers are coming to the end of their careers. The instinctive understanding of matters military between the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence is waning. I hope that the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence will get together to ensure that there is a constant exchange of officials at all levels between the two Departments, so that clear understandings remain. I always wanted more Foreign Office officials on the commitments staff, and the Foreign Office could clearly benefit from having more service men and women on attachment to it.

If the Foreign Office has done its stuff, it will acknowledge that the armed forces are a glittering, golden asset for the promotion of our interests abroad. We need to make sure that we have the full array of places at all the military colleges. I did all that I could to encourage the staff college, in particular, to make more places available. That will be difficult as the joint services college comes on stream. The ties thus created are of profound value to foreign students and to us. I hope that the wider use of military training overseas will be addressed in the review as a critical issue.

When I was Minister for the Armed Forces, it was my great pleasure to travel extensively in the middle east and Europe. I was always greatly struck by the extraordinary regard and respect for the services that those countries had. Bahrain is a good case in point. The crown prince of Bahrain and I did our officer cadet training together and jointly shared the horrors of Mons officer cadet school 30 years ago. Many other Bahrain service men have done

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a great deal of training in our country. The military ties that bind us are strong. The Minister for Defence Procurement will chair joint defence talks with Bahrain in November. I hope that we shall do all that we can to further our overseas links, because they make our life much easier abroad and they are an important and impressive way of promoting British foreign policy.

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