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6.29 pm

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): It is a privilege to be able to take up the remarks of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell). Once again, he made an extremely good speech which contained some important points. I associate myself with his remarks about the remembrance services that will be taking place shortly. I associate myself also with the references to the sterling work that has been undertaken by our armed forces in the past year, and even since we last had a full defence debate.

The right hon. and learned Member talks a great deal of sense. It is sad that the Opposition, in an important debate on defence and the armed forces, produce a load of xenophobic claptrap. The hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) concentrated

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almost entirely on anti-Europeanism instead of dealing with some of the key defence issues that face the United Kingdom, especially given the many changes that have taken place in the past three years, and especially in the past year alone.

I was horrified to hear the aspersions cast on the former Secretary-General of NATO, Mr. Solana. It was a disgrace that he was referred to in the terms used by Conservative Members. He had an excellent record as Secretary-General. He had to deal with difficult situations in the Balkans and elsewhere, and I think that he did a first-class job.

A strange attitude is being adopted by the Conservative party, which is becoming increasingly isolationist. It is talking more and more to itself and to nobody else. It is so fixated with Europe that it cannot address the serious issues that arise in this debate.

Mr. Robathan: Usually, I do not presume to speak on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), who is sadly not in his place. If the hon. Gentleman studies the record, I think he will find that when Mr. Solana was a Minister in the Spanish Government, he campaigned for the withdrawal of Spain from NATO. Subsequently, he may have been an excellent Secretary-General of NATO. One of the objections raised by some was that he had campaigned to leave NATO in his early days. I am delighted that he changed his mind.

Mr. Smith: There is no question that Mr. Solana did a terrific job in bringing consensus within the 19 countries of NATO. He engaged in one of the most difficult actions that the organisation has ever faced. The references to him were outrageous. That demonstrates how much the Opposition are out of touch on defence. It was once a great party, which for many years claimed to be the party of defence. After this afternoon's performance, it can no longer claim that. It may be the party that is opposed to Europe.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made a ground-breaking speech at St. Malo. It has been fallaciously portrayed as a U-turn from his previous comments at Amsterdam, but it will stand the test of time. My right hon. Friend said that the defence of Europe will always be left to NATO, and it will. There is no question that under the European security and defence policy, article 5 missions will be carried out by NATO at any time. The defence and common security of Europe will always remain the role of NATO. That is what the Prime Minister has said.

Dr. Julian Lewis: I ask the hon. Gentleman to address the point more closely. Article 5 prescribes that an attack on one NATO country is an attack on all. I am sure that he is right in what he has said about that. Some of us are concerned that if there were to be a crisis that developed and was made subject to crisis management techniques under the European security and defence policy, it could escalate, with other countries being drawn in, in a way that could lead to a result which would not have been brought about if NATO had been involved at the outset.

Mr. Smith: I should like to move on and perhaps address some of the genuine concerns that have arisen in

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the debate. Before doing so, I shall return to the speech of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. He said that he would not support an unrealistic defence and security policy for Europe. Nothing that has happened and nothing said at St. Malo has had that effect. Crucially, however, the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green talks about the strategy that was inherited by the Government from the previous Government, which was that of building a European pillar of defence capability within NATO. The simple truth is that it was not working. NATO countries in Europe were not increasing their capability. Indeed, that capability was reducing, and that is still happening.

Under the previous Government, United Kingdom defence forces were not capable of committing assets to NATO to allow it to carry out its defence and security role. That is what Kosovo proved.

Mr. Menzies Campbell: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will cast his mind further back, when we had to put an armoured division into the desert during the Gulf war. It was commonly said that we were able to do that only by cannibalising the tanks of three divisions. It was said also that there was not a working tank left in Germany.

Mr. Smith: Absolutely. The absence of those resources along with those of heavy lift and logistical support in the field were inherited by the Government. However, the Opposition have tried to tell us that they had a strategy for building capability within NATO. I am privileged to have a role in the NATO parliamentary assembly, as have other Members in the Chamber, and it is my belief that there is no conflict between the goals of a European security and defence policy and a commitment to NATO as the first line of defence for Europe--that is as long as it is done properly and as long as the necessary capabilities are produced. That is the key.

We are not talking of duplicated defence capabilities. They are not even capabilities in most other European countries except the UK. They are not even capabilities that exist now. Anything that we can do to build defence capabilities in other European Union countries will enhance our contribution to NATO and will strengthen NATO. That was the lesson of Kosovo.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on his presentation. We have had a defence strategy and policy for three and a half years. Three weeks ago, I was in Copenhagen attending a Rose-Roth seminar of the NATO parliamentary assembly. I was delighted to hear the Minister of Defence of Denmark paying tribute to the British strategic defence review and our contribution to defence. It was a seminar on security in northern Europe and the contribution to defence in Europe. The Minister specifically paid tribute to the role of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the St. Malo accord. He recognised, as we all should, that it is inconceivable that there should be the development of a European security and defence policy without Britain taking a lead role.

It is inconceivable that the policy should be left to the French, the Germans or anyone else. It is right that we should play a leading role. We have the forces to contribute; we have the experience and professionalism;

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and most important of all we have a reputation throughout Europe and the whole of NATO for excellence in military matters and military service. It is right that a British Prime Minister should exploit that to the full. He has done that, and there will be a British stamp on any European security and defence policy.

I agree that we must get the policy right. We must provide a mechanism for decision making that does not exclude NATO members, especially the non-European countries. I understand that that is precisely the issue that is now being addressed. I believe that there is already a commitment to involve all NATO countries, whether members of the European Union or not, in the crucial early stages of any decision-making process. The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife talked about giving NATO first refusal. I believe that, given NATO command structures and the massive military technology gap between north America and Europe, it is inconceivable that NATO will not have the first option in any Petersberg-type missions.

I believe that the Government's defence policy has been excellent--although not perfect, because there are problems. The review addressed the real and changing security threats that we face in the world. The real challenge is not to come up with a first-class review, but to ensure that it is implemented in full.

Mr. Hancock: The hon. Gentleman asked my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) about the elections in Kosovo. I would be interested to know what the hon. Gentleman thinks about those election results, and whether he believes that they lessen or increase the tension in the area.

Mr. Smith: I am greatly encouraged by those elections. A conflict or a war invariably results in the complete breakdown of civil society and order. Those elections signal a return to normality and to moderate politics in that part of the world. I hope that I am proved right about that, although it is not an exact science.

The Government have an excellent record on defence policy. Even though the review was claimed to be policy-led, there was huge criticism and people asked where the foreign policy guidelines were. The reality is that we were the first NATO member country to anticipate the changing security role and security environment in the world, and we were the first to begin to reconfigure our forces in readiness for that changed role and for the greater emphasis being placed on out-of-area, non-article 5 activity and humanitarian and crisis missions.

This is the first defence debate since the announcement of the outcome of the comprehensive spending review. I am delighted that the Government have had the courage to stop the constant cuts in the defence budget and to recognise that the challenges we now face require more defence expenditure, not less. The threats are much less predictable than they were before, and our ability to respond flexibly and with speed needs to be much greater.

There is a good story to tell. The work of defence is changing and has changed dramatically in the past few years from the security of our domestic territory to a role policing human rights, providing humanitarian relief and avoiding conflict and war, not engaging in it or creating it. We should try to get that message across more often to engender greater public support for the superb role of our

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defence forces in the changing environment. We should do that throughout Europe in countries that are cutting their defence budgets even more than the previous UK Government--although that is hard to imagine. They cut it by 32 per cent. in real terms after the end of the cold war. That dangerous cut left us widely exposed. Thankfully, we are now starting to shore up those budgets again.

Anything that will help our European partners to persuade their respective populations that there is a good case for increasing their defence expenditure to meet their NATO capabilities first and their ESDP capabilities second must be a damn good thing, and I would support it. Anyone who has the true interests of the defence of this nation and peace in the rest of the world at heart must recognise that challenge. It is a great pity that members of the once great Conservative party are always bashing Europe.

I should like to draw the House's attention to a couple of matters of great concern that affect my constituents. One of the objectives of the strategic defence review was to provide much more jointery and tri-service provision to cut out waste and duplication, and to create smart procurement. An important part of that strategy was the creation of the Defence Aviation Repair Agency, which I am delighted to say has its headquarters in my constituency. It has about 4,800 civilian and military personnel. It used to be a 4:1 ratio of military to civilian personnel, but that has now been reversed: there are about 800 military staff and 4,000 civilian.

It has come to my notice in the past week that there is great concern among employees at DARA headquarters in RAF St. Athan that there could be a relocation of the aero-engine maintenance and repair facility at St. Athan to the south of England, to Fleetlands in Gosport. I draw that to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench. I do not know whether a decision has been taken: I can only express the concern of many DARA employees.

My concern is not so much about the numbers of jobs involved--although it could be as many as 200 highly skilled and, for the south Wales region, relatively highly paid jobs--but about the nature of the jobs that we may lose not just in my constituency but in the south Wales area. I recognise the role of the new agency, which will become a fundholder--I am not sure whether it is one yet--and will be a stand-alone body, based on the commercial imperative. However, it spends public money and should be publicly accountable.

I hope that full consideration will be given to the decision and its possible impact, particularly on the aviation industry in south Wales, which hon. Members may be surprised to hear is a very large and successful industry. Once gone, highly specialised aviation jobs are gone for ever. The cost of recruiting and training such numbers is so great that it is impossible to get those jobs back. We have not only a thriving defence aviation industry in south Wales, but a thriving commercial aviation industry, of which repair and maintenance of engines is a major part.

There has been a link--a synergy--between the private and the public sector in the aviation industry, in respect of not just engines, but airframes as well. I am fearful of the impact that the decision will have on the commercial jobs in the area could result in the disappearance of the

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critical mass of skills necessary to maintain a successful industry. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will have an opportunity to look into that and perhaps comment on it at the end of the debate. I fear that the impact on the entire industry in south Wales could be devastating, and I should like my fears removed, if possible.

I want an assessment to be undertaken into the possible impact of such a decision, if indeed such a decision is to be taken. I also seek an assurance about the future of RAF St. Athan and the area as the headquarters of DARA and the providers of excellent services in airframe maintenance and repair. I hope that that will expand as DARA develops and possibly starts to attract military tri-service aviation work not just for UK plc, but for countries abroad. I seek assurances on the future of DARA in my constituency.

Finally, and regrettably, I must return to a topic that I first raised in the House on 13 April, in the previous defence debate. An aspect of service personnel welfare about which I am deeply worried is the provision of married quarters and the role of the Defence Housing Executive and Annington Homes. My local experience tells me that we have not got it right.

It saddens me to have to raise the matter again. In the previous debate, I mentioned the case of Mrs. Colette Howard, from my constituency, whose husband Corporal Howard has served 19 years in the Royal Air Force and is coming up to retirement. I drew the attention of the House to the fact that that poor family, on a single posting at the RAF station, had not been moved the usual once, but three times. For most of us, moving house is a traumatic experience, but service personnel must learn to live with it. They often have to move lock, stock and barrel on every company posting, and we all know how stressful that can be.

I reported to the House that Mr. and Mrs. Howard had been asked to move three times on a single posting, and I am pleased that following the intervention of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, they received a letter of apology from the DHE and were eventually offered accommodation that was far more suitable than the accommodation originally presented to them.

Believe it or not, since that intervention the Howards have been asked to move again. Even worse and even more harrowing is the fact that in the meantime, Corporal Howard has suffered a heart condition, which is almost certainly related to the stress to which he has been subjected as a result of the activities of the Defence Housing Executive.

This is not an isolated incident. A number of service wives have come to me about the housing situation at RAF St. Athan, as they usually bear the brunt of it and have to put up with it. Judging from our local experience, I suspect that the problem is widespread throughout the country.

Unprecedentedly, senior officers of the camp have approached me. That has never been known before. They expressed to me their concern that the camaraderie among the officer cadre is being undermined because of the way in which officers below the rank of wing commander are being treated with regard to accommodation for their wives and families. Their experience reads like a horror story. They have been moved repeatedly during a two-year tour and served with eviction notices while they were away on holiday with their families. All that is creating a great problem of morale in the camp.

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I am an ex-service man. I met and married my wife in the services, and I am aware of the pressures that can be placed on families in service life. There is a great myth that those in the uniformed disciplined services have no right of redress, and that when some injustice is done to them or their families, they cannot get anything done about it. Of course, anyone who has had service experience knows that nothing could be further from the truth.

If I had a problem when I was a service man, I could go to my station warrant officer and explain that it was creating hardship. I could go to the commanding officer, or indeed to the old personnel flight, which I think is still in existence, and good luck to it. They would all intervene and assist in matters such as housing, schooling, pressures on the family and postings. However, with regard to married quarters, that option no longer exists.

The problem must be addressed quickly by the Ministry of Defence. There is no redress or recourse for service personnel being dealt with in such a despicable way. They can go to their personnel flight or their commanding officer, as they have all done, and the commanding officer can go to the Defence Housing Executive, but the commanding officer has no authority over the DHE, which is dependent on the leasing policy of Annington Homes. The situation is a mish-mash.

All those who have spoken in the debate have paid tribute to our service personnel for the fine work that they are doing throughout the world and at home. It is unacceptable that their families should be treated in that way. I do not pretend to know the answer, but I offer a suggestion. Officers and other ranks living in married quarters and trying to raise their families, with enough pressure coming from service life anyway, have no recourse and no redress, as they should have. We should consider creating as soon as possible some sort of organisation. I am reluctant to use the term tenants association, but we should set up a military equivalent because nobody is listening or taking action, and I am not prepared to sit back and watch my constituents forced into ill health for serving their country. I hope that my hon. Friends will consider the matter.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in the debate. In conclusion, I pay tribute to the excellent work of the service men and women of this country.


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