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House of Lords

Thursday, 25th June 1998.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Leicester.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Strategic Defence Review

Lord Bramall asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When they propose to announce the outcome of the Strategic Defence Review.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, a package of proposals has been submitted to the Cabinet. Once decisions have been taken, the review's conclusions will be published in a White Paper as quickly as possible thereafter.

Lord Bramall: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that disappointingly cautious reply. Does he agree that the longer by every day that the announcement is delayed, the greater the danger that the uncertainty which has beset the Armed Forces for so many years will persist, seriously affecting morale and retention in particular with the rumours and leaks flying around? Secondly, does he agree that, despite the Government's efforts to make the review foreign policy and commitment led, it will end up like many others in the past on the Treasury cutting room floor?

Finally, if, with the indispensable support of the Prime Minister, an announcement can be made fairly shortly, as the noble Lord predicts, will the noble Lord assure the House that it will not be on the last day before the Summer Recess when there is no time to discuss the matter either here or in another place?

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, perhaps the noble and gallant Lord knows something about the date of the Recess that I and noble Lords on the Front Bench do not. I am sure many noble Lords would like to hear from him.

I know that the noble and gallant Lord will agree that it has been a root and branch examination of our defence and security priorities. We are reviewing the needs of the Armed Forces into the 21st century.

Perhaps I may confirm that the review has been foreign policy led throughout; and that is our aim. However, I say again to the noble and gallant Lord that we expect to be able to publish the White Paper on the outcome of the review shortly.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that "root and branch" was an unfortunate phrase? We are worried that everything will be pulled up by the roots.

There is serious cause for concern not only on the major issue of morale--a point raised by the noble and gallant Lord--but also as regards contracts which are being held up. They will cost a great deal more when

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they are finally agreed. That will come out of the MoD's budget. Another serious issue is that many major, costly plans have been in suspense for many months.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, we appreciate the comments of the noble Baroness. It is not a case of pulling everything up by its roots, but rather of being constructive in looking at the needs of our defence forces and our needs as regards peace-keeping throughout the world. I appreciate what the noble Baroness says about the delay and possible consequences. However, I am sure she will agree that it is essential that we get it right.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, the Minister reiterated that it is to be a foreign policy led Strategic Defence Review. Can the noble Lord tell us when the Government intend to publish the foreign policy principles which will lead it?

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, I believe that the Government have already done so. The Foreign Secretary clearly laid out the aims. The defence review will be based upon those.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, will the defence review tell us what steps the Government propose to take to bring about the elimination of nuclear weapons?

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, my noble friend will appreciate that it was a manifesto commitment to retain Trident. That received the overwhelming support of the electorate. Along with the European fighter, that is one of the policy principles on which the review is founded. However, the review has examined all aspects of a deterrence posture to ensure that it reflects changing circumstances.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, in the past decade the number of uniformed personnel in the Armed Forces has been halved. Yet we still seem incapable of recruiting and retaining sufficient to meet the reduced numbers. To what extent will the Government take into account the availability of manpower in order to avoid the persistent and difficult problems of overstretch which have beset us for so many years and which have led to poor recruiting and retention?

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, the issue of overstretch and under-manning is one of the primary aspects being examined. We are determined that restoration of the manning balance is given the highest priority for our forces, in particular the Army.

Lord Renton: My Lords, will the Minister ensure that the Cabinet is told that we could not have won the Battle of Britain or the First World War without having strong Territorial and Volunteer Reserve Forces? They have also played a valuable part in recent wars such as the Gulf War. To reduce their present modest size would be crazy.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, of course we recognise the valuable role played by the Reserves. We aim to keep

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substantial Reserves in the future. But we believe that those Reserves must be structured for the tasks that are relevant to the new strategic setting. They must also be an integrated part of our forces; and must be usable in support of our foreign policy aims.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, does my noble friend recall the irritation felt in another place in the previous Parliament when the Government repeatedly blocked a debate, for example, on the Royal Air Force? In view of the irritation that that caused, will my noble friend ensure that a sympathetic view is taken of the arrangements for the debate of the SDR when it is published?

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, I shall take on board my noble friend's comments.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, is the Minister aware that uncertainty breeds discontent; and that hope deferred makes the heart sick?

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, I am aware of what the noble Baroness says. I agree that we must end the uncertainty as soon as possible. I repeat that we hope to be able to make our views, and the SDR, available very shortly.

Vehicle Excise Duty: Budget Proposal

3.10 p.m.

Lord Blyth asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why the tax concession for vehicles over 25 years old was withdrawn in the recent Budget.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, in his Budget speech, the Chancellor announced his intention of introducing a new, fairer and more environmentally sensitive system of vehicle excise duty. In the meantime, the level of vehicle excise duty has been frozen for all vehicles and the rolling forward of the exemption for vehicles over 25 years old has been stopped so that only vehicles manufactured before 1st January 1973 will be eligible for the exemption. A consultation document setting out the options for reform will be published soon.

Lord Blyth: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer, which seems useful. I have in front of me a document entitled Budget 98, HM Treasury 16, which gives environmental reasons for the decision. Can the Minister comment on the fact that when a Boeing 747/436 takes off for a United States west coast destination in the first three minutes it uses fuel at the rate of more than 19 gallons a second which makes the Deputy Prime Minister's Jaguar look like a fuel miser?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am grateful for the aeronautical information which the noble Lord gives me in his supplementary question. The fact

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that other people use a lot of fuel does not reduce in any sense the obligation on us to ensure that our cars are as environmentally sensitive as possible.

Lord Strathcarron: My Lords, does the Minister agree that as vehicles over 25 years old are normally in the hands of collectors and probably travel only 1,000 miles a year, perhaps a little more, it is unjust to expect the owners to pay for the full licence?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, if such cars are off the road for a large part of the year it is always open to the keepers of the vehicles to apply for the vehicle excise licence to be suspended and to be given a refund for the period of the suspension. Therefore, there is no discrimination against those who use their cars for a short time.

House of Lords Reform

3.12 p.m.

Lord Denham asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they had been prepared to discuss without preconditions fully comprehensive single stage Lords reform before talks with Her Majesty's Opposition were broken off.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Richard): My Lords, yes, on the basis of our manifesto.

Lord Denham: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that he would be far more likely to be able to reach the best agreement among all parties in both Houses over a single package than by first removing the hereditary element and only then starting to argue about what to put in its place?

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