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House of Lords

Friday, 12th May 2000.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of London.


The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean) rose to move, That this House takes note of the Defence White Paper, published in December 1999 (Cm 4446).

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, although we are to discuss the Defence White Paper and look ahead to the likely developments in our Armed Forces, first, with your Lordships' leave, I must say something about the current situation in Sierra Leone.

As a measure of how international crises can occur and how quickly we must be able to react, Sierra Leone is a textbook example. Only a week ago we were considering the possibility of having to deploy British forces to the region but by Monday over 1,000 British troops, four Chinook helicopters and eight C-130 aircraft were already on the ground in Sierra Leone. In addition, seven Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels, including HMS "Ocean", with 450 marines and eight helicopters on board, are en route and will be available in the area over the next few days.

The primary purpose behind our decision to intervene in this crisis is to protect and evacuate British citizens and others for whom we have consular responsibility from a dangerous, uncertain and unpredictable situation. The Government's advice remains that all British citizens and others for whom we have consular responsibility should leave Sierra Leone as soon as possible. However, we also believe that an effective UNAMSIL, organised and equipped to meet its mandate, coupled with renewed commitment by all parties to the Lome accord, offers the best hope for a lasting peace in Sierra Leone. British forces' control of Lungi airport for evacuation purposes will enable promised reinforcements for UNAMSIL to arrive safely.

As announced last night, we therefore intend that British forces will continue to secure Lungi airport while strong reinforcements are expected to arrive from countries including India, Bangladesh, and Jordan over the coming days and weeks to bolster the existing UNAMSIL force. We are confident that once those additional forces have arrived and UNAMSIL is fully up to strength it will be able to fulfil its mandate.

The arrival of HMS "Ocean", with her embarked marines, will increase the options available to us for this task and provide useful flexibility and back-up in what remains a fluid and potentially dangerous situation. We shall also continue to offer technical military advice to UNAMSIL and to the Government of Sierra Leone.

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General Sir Charles Guthrie, accompanied by a senior official from the Foreign Office, will visit west Africa this weekend. As well as meeting our forces and UNAMSIL staff in Sierra Leone, they will visit Senegal and Nigeria. The visit was planned some time ago, but it will be especially valuable because they will be able to discuss our support for UNAMSIL as part of the search for stability in Sierra Leone following the Prime Minister's statement last night.

I am sure that all Members of the House will want to join me in expressing our admiration of, and thanks for, the truly exemplary conduct of the British forces in theatre. The deployment has been a faultless demonstration of their technical capability and truly world-class quality.

However, it cannot, and will not, be an open-ended commitment. British troops will continue to evacuate entitled persons and to secure Lungi airport while the UN forces build. We do not intend that British troops will become involved in combat other than if they are attacked. Nevertheless, this is a limited but significant military contribution and should permit UNAMSIL to reach its full strength and effectively discharge its mandate. That is the best hope for Sierra Leone and for its long-suffering people.

When this Government came into office, we were acutely aware of the need to modernise our Armed Forces--

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, before the Minister continues, perhaps I can raise a question directly related to what she has said. Can she give the House a guarantee that British troops in the area at no time, whether now or in the future, will come under United Nations' control or command?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, in the situation that I have described to your Lordships, it is not wise for me, from this Dispatch Box, to give guarantees in relation to any of the operational issues that may need to be reviewed in the coming days. I believe that it is highly unlikely that the situation suggested by the noble Lord will occur. But to give a guarantee, at a time when we know that there is a potentially dangerous and fluid situation, is a step further than any Minister in my position ought sensibly to take. We shall carefully watch the situation. Fortuitously, the Chief of Defence Staff has a visit planned that will enable him to look at the situation on the ground. As matters progress, I am sure that we shall be able to be more helpful about our intentions. I hope that the House will bear with me for the moment.

I shall return to what I was saying. When the Government came into office, we were acutely aware of the need to modernise our Armed Forces in order to adapt to the changing circumstances of the defence and security environment. As noble Lords will be aware, a great deal has changed over the past decade and a half. The world has become increasingly multipolar, with new and shifting centres of power and alliances. Old certainties have collapsed while new conflicts have emerged and, sadly, conflicts that previously had been repressed have been re-ignited.

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We felt that not enough had been done to ensure that our defence structures had changed sufficiently to meet that changing environment.

The analysis conducted during the Strategic Defence Review has fully confirmed this belief and events experienced since 1997 in Kosovo and now in Sierra Leone have reinforced those lessons. Perhaps some of this strife will prove to be transitional; the death throes of an old order. Perhaps the longer term will result in the emergence of stable, liberal democracies. I am sure we all hope that that will be the case.

But we cannot stand by in the hope of a better world appearing: there remain too many fundamental causes of conflict. Political or economic exclusion has been the root cause of many recent internal conflicts. Ineffective or corrupt governments increase the risk of instability. Taken together with various combinations of ethnic tensions and demographic pressure, all too evident in many regions of the world today, it is reasonable to expect a degree of increasing instability. Almost by definition, this is likely to be in the regions that are least able to help themselves.

Here we come to what I believe is the heart of the matter. Such crises may not place our immediate national interests at risk. There may be no immediate imperatives to intervene to protect the United Kingdom and its citizens. However, international relationships are more complex and often a great deal more subtle than that. We recognised this in the Strategic Defence Review. We recognised that in the wider interests of the United Kingdom and in order that those wider interests be protected our military capability would often be deployed in conflict prevention and peacekeeping as well as for direct national security. That is part of the changing picture of international relations--call it globalisation, call it the "world economy" or call it the international community. It is the reality of the position.

Moreover, we are a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a leading member of NATO, the EU and the Commonwealth. We are a relatively wealthy nation that depends on free trade which is permitted by peace and stability. We have these relationships and responsibilities. We need to exercise them with care in the wider interests of the United Kingdom. These interests will be better served in a peaceful and stable world.

We believe that we have a great deal to be proud of in Britain: a stable democracy; respect for the rule of law; civilian control of the military; and an inherent respect for basic human rights. We have a responsibility to those struggling to enjoy precisely those rights that we take for granted; a responsibility to help to secure peace, stability and the furtherance of human rights wherever we can.

But, of course, the discharge of such responsibilities is not a straightforward matter. Ideally, it is achieved through the channels of diplomacy, discussion and debate, as well as economic and developmental aid.

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But sometimes, as we know all too sadly, these methods fail and then we must be prepared to adopt the methods of last resort--military force.

To be able to employ military force in the modern world, either directly or in a role that seeks to defuse tension or deter conflict, requires forces that are flexible, genuinely deployable, capable and sustainable--in some circumstances over extended periods of time. The SDR recognised that this kind of function lies at the heart of the role of the British Armed Forces of the future.

The White Paper set out how far we have already come in implementing the review's recommendations. I wish to stress to noble Lords that I believe that it is by results delivered that our policies will be judged, and rightly so. Since the White Paper was published, we have made further progress in making real improvements. Indeed, a large proportion of the review's key decisions have now been implemented. Since April last year, we have established a pool of Joint Rapid Reaction Forces to provide more capable, deployable and better supported joint forces. We have established the Joint Helicopter Command, bringing together all battlefield helicopters. We have formed 16 Air Assault Brigade, the most powerful formation of its size in Europe and equipped with the Apache attack helicopter. The first of these helicopters for the Army was recently rolled out at the Westland factory in Yeovil.

We have the Joint Force Harrier, which brings together RAF and Royal Navy Harrier aircraft into a more flexible command as part of a new Maritime Air Group. As presaged in the review, we have taken the first steps to procure two new aircraft carriers and we are in the process of fitting all our attack submarines with the Tomahawk land attack missile, which was employed so successfully during the Kosovo crisis last year.

I am happy to say that Smart procurement is proceeding well. Attention is often drawn to successes in the big equipment projects and it is quite right that we should do so. But Smart procurement is about much more than that. It represents a truly radical shake-up in our whole procurement philosophy and culture. It touches on the way we pull in the expertise and strengths of the private sector, the way we maintain and support equipment through its entire lifespan and also the way we train and educate our Armed Forces. It is often the people working on the smaller projects and the less glamorous systems who are the most creative in this. When I visited the Defence Logistics Organisation in Andover last Friday, I was impressed by the innovative ideas such as lean support techniques that could deliver savings of as much as £3 billion over the next 10 years and by the introduction of a Defence Electronic Commerce Service to cut down on red tape. I have also been much encouraged by the genuine interest shown by our defence partners from abroad in what we are doing. It is rarely the case, when I go abroad, that an item on the agenda put forward by my counterparts in governments overseas is not one of Smart procurement in which they are all extremely interested.

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So when I read some of the comments the press regularly churn out about our defence equipment, I wish that reporters would at least occasionally check their facts and provide a balanced view. Modernising the Armed Forces means equipping them to perform the most demanding tasks. That represents a huge programme of investment in our forces. It is some £10 billion per year on equipment. Yet we are still accused of trying to get our defence on the cheap. That is nonsense. Yes, we want to be efficient; we want to make every pound count for defence. It would be unreasonable to expect us to take any other course. But if you asked a man or woman in the street about spending priorities, they would most likely put defence pretty low on the list. It is not that they consider defence to be of little importance, but rather that they expect any government to provide the resources necessary as a matter of course. Nonetheless, additional defence spending is not going to be a top priority with the public and we need to accept the realities of that.

The priorities of this Government lie with getting the maximum value from available resources that will always remain less than we might wish for. But we do not and will not compromise on the quality of equipment that we provide to our forces.

In past debates, many noble Lords expressed concern about our budget. It is a fact that in the period from when this Government came into office up to 2001-02, defence spending is due to fall by just 3 per cent in real terms. The defence budget does not decline by 3 per cent per year, as some noble Lords have suggested. Instead, the settlement agreed after the Strategic Defence Review included an assumption that 3 per cent efficiency savings would be found each year and that the bulk of those savings would be used to fund our SDR enhancements. That is an enormously important point. In addition, in 1998 we set an agreed level for the defence budget out to 2002. This financial stability replaces the old uncertainty of the old system of annual spending rounds and allows us to plan defence more sensibly.

I have already mentioned the TLAM programme. We will be further enhancing our stand-off precision-strike capability with Storm Shadow, an air-launched cruise missile. The roll-out of the first Apache attack helicopter for the Army was only a few weeks ago. In the longer term we have an ambitious range of new programmes including Eurofighter, the future carrier borne aircraft, the Astute Class submarine, the Type 45 destroyer, the future strategic transport aircraft and two new aircraft carriers. Those will significantly enhance our capabilities. The plans for their procurement are under way and the project teams are working on them.

But looking ahead must not distract us from the capability of our forces today. We are enhancing the capabilities of equipment already in service. Both the air defence and ground attack versions of the Tornado are being improved. The Army recently deployed Challenger 2 to Kosovo; that represents a significant leap in performance and reliability. The personal clothing of our deployed soldiers is better than it has

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ever been before. And despite what your Lordships might see reported in the media, 92 per cent of that clothing was made in the UK during the last six months for which we have records. That represents nearly £45 million of business placed with UK industry during this period.

Of course, there are problems. We acknowledge that. And where we can we are taking decisive early action to solve them. For example, the difficulties of the SA80 rifle have been well documented. We are taking action to address those difficulties. It is necessary to make two points here. First, these problems have not arisen on or since 1st May 1997. Secondly, they need to be kept in perspective. For example, stories appeared in the media recently about the Lynx rotor-head. Yes, this is a problem. Yes, it affected the availability of the aircraft. But it has not stopped our meeting key operational tasks in the Gulf, the south Atlantic, the Caribbean, Ulster and the Balkans. This Government would never settle for anything less.

Of course, equipment is one thing, but all of those programmes would be worthless if we did not have the right numbers of the right sort of personnel. I am sure that this House does not need reminding of the value of the work they do, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year--often in trying or dangerous circumstances. In the Balkans, the Gulf, in Ulster, people are risking their lives on our behalf. I am sure that the House will join me in expressing admiration for the tireless professional conduct of our Armed Forces and other personnel. The past year has seen numerous examples of their dedication and professional quality. I am sometimes appalled at the glibness with which armchair commentators deliver their verdicts on these issues while ignoring the very real dangers confronting our servicemen and women. The arrogance of those who downplayed the dangers facing pilots over Kosovo last year was quite breathtaking. We must never forget the risks faced every day by our Armed Forces during the Kosovo operations and those who are on operational service today.

I am pleased to say that recruitment is up for all three services over the past year. The Army has had its best intake since the beginning of the 1990s. But the real problem, as noble Lords know only too well, is retention. This is where our Policy for People is so important. We have to recognise that service personnel have families--wives, husbands, partners and children--all of whom deserve consideration too. As a result, we introduced a package of measures to improve the operational welfare of our deployed personnel. We increased their telephone allowance from three to 20 minutes per week so that service personnel can better keep in touch with those at home. We have trialled an "electronic bluey", an electronic version of the traditional forces aerogramme, with forces deployed to the Balkans and the Falkland Islands. We provide Internet facilities at units and family centres around the country and on naval vessels so that as many people as possible can have access to it.

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And we have introduced guaranteed periods of post-operational tour leave so that personnel can be assured that they will be able to spend time with their families when they return from operations.

It is, though, often the families of deployed personnel who are affected most by service life. We recognised this as a specific problem in the SDR and the resulting service families task force has been a particular success. It is continuing to address--and hopefully overcome--the problems faced by service families that fall outside the scope of the MoD alone. This is truly an example of joined-up government in action across Whitehall to resolve difficulties that have been significant disincentives to service life. In the 18 months of the task force's existence, it has achieved impressive results--from ensuring that the Code of Practice on Schools Admissions now specifically recognises, for the first time, service children to working with the DfEE and DSS to produce guidance that deals with the problems of service spouses, who are often moved around the country at short notice, seeking to claim jobseeker's allowance.

These measures, from new weapons systems to guidance on jobseeker's allowance, are all intended to produce one thing--world class armed forces capable of facing the tasks of today and tomorrow. A year ago, of course, our thoughts were dominated by events in the Balkans. The Kosovo campaign and the subsequent efforts to create a long-term peace in the region have validated the conclusions of the SDR on the need for rapidly deployable, highly flexible forces that we can sustain at a distance and for an extended period of time. That was borne out again in East Timor a few months later. And now, in Sierra Leone, we are seeing exactly the same requirement.

The Kosovo campaign was a remarkable success. It underlined the role that we, as a leading democracy, should be playing in the world along with our partners in NATO and elsewhere. Indeed, I am sure that the strength of collective international will was instrumental in the outcome of the crisis.

Of course there is a great deal to be done in the Balkans. There are no grounds for complacency, as we all know. But we should not understate what has been achieved thus far. We have returned hundreds of thousands of refugees to their homes and are involved in rebuilding an entire society. We never pretended that dealing with such deep-seated tensions was going to be easy, but those who predicted failure for our efforts from the start would do well to reflect on the continuing success of the international community in Bosnia.

Though the lessons of the Kosovo campaign still have to be learned, they do vindicate the SDR. The campaign has also served, I hope, in one important lesson: as a wake-up call to many nations by throwing into stark relief the failings of collective European military capability. Although European nations now contribute over 70 per cent of the forces in KFOR, proportionately their contribution to the air campaign this time last year was a great deal less impressive.

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The place that Europe occupies on the world stage should reflect the continent's political and economic weight. However, such an elevated position brings with it obligations and responsibilities. In terms of its military ability to meet those obligations in some crucial areas, Europe simply does not measure up.

Kosovo thus gave an added impetus to the debate on European defence initiated by the Prime Minister. European defence is about improving our collective military capability. It is not about institutions and it is definitely not about creating a "European Army". This has been made clear by the adoption of a challenging, practical target for collective capability--the "Headline Goal", which requires EU member states to be able by the year 2003 to deploy rapidly and to sustain up to 60,000 personnel capable of undertaking the most demanding tasks. Our discussions on this are already well under way. We hope to make further progress at the up-coming EU meetings in June at Brussels and at Feira in Portugal. But I must emphasis to the House again that NATO is, and will remain, the cornerstone and fundamental building block of our defence policy. Our current discussions take place within that framework.

Proper attention to enhancing our defence capabilities should not blind us to the role played by our British defence assets in peacetime to dispel hostility, to build and maintain trust and to assist in the development of democratically accountable armed forces. As part of the SDR, we made "defence diplomacy" a high priority in its own right. That is a wise investment. By supporting arms control, training, education and advice, we hope to spread an appreciation of our standards of democratic control. Like conventional diplomacy, its success is often only measurable in terms of the bad things that do not happen. But we are confident of a real difference being made.

I said at the beginning of my remarks that I did not want to be too retrospective and that I wanted to look forward. I hope that I have been able to achieve that aim. But it would be foolish to pretend that anyone can predict the future. I strongly believe that the Strategic Defence Review provided us with sound guidance for the future shape of defence. It was based on the first principles of a rigorous foreign policy analysis and was very much a policy-led undertaking. From Kosovo and the current debate on European defence to the success of Smart procurement and the crisis in Sierra Leone, experience is vindicating the validity of the SDR's conclusions.

Moved, That this House takes note of the Defence White Paper, published in December 1999 (Cm 4446).--(Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean.)

11.33 a.m.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, the whole House will be deeply grateful to the noble Baroness for what she has said. They will be particularly grateful for the sketch that she gave us at the beginning of her speech with regard to Sierra Leone. This is--to use a horrible phrase--an ongoing situation, and one which is

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developing all the time. If during the course of today's debate my noble friend Lord Attlee disappears from these Benches, it will be to go to find out before he speaks whether anything new has occurred which he ought to bring to the attention of your Lordships.

The whole of what the noble Baroness said--indeed, she wasted no time--lasted 27 minutes. It took her all that time to deliver it, and I emphasis that she "wasted no time". But the fact that she had to take 27 minutes to do so is an indication of the importance of the subject that we are discussing today and of the small opportunities that are being given to your Lordships to debate the matter. I have been pressing for a debate on defence for some considerable time. Thanks to the usual channels, we now have it--albeit, like other noble Lords who are unable to be here today, I have been complaining about it being held on a Friday. However, it turns out to be very appropriate to have the debate on this Friday because it has enabled the noble Baroness to keep your Lordships up to date.

I believe that we are all very worried about the situation in Sierra Leone. I should like to highlight one aspect of it because this is the theme that will run through everything that I shall say; namely, who will pay for it and where will the money come from? The Government have sent to Sierra Leone, along with ancillary forces, naval forces, HMS "Ocean" and those two closely bonded units, 3 Para and the Royal Marines. With an impressive task force, their duty has been to rescue British citizens in that sad country, and we are told that this is all that they will do--that it is evacuation and not conflict.

It must be very good news that the Chief of the Defence Staff should be there at this time because command will come from the top. But I hope that there will be no more than just evacuation. The noble Baroness said that there would be no combat unless British troops are attacked. But what are the paras to do if they find, for example, a Zambian unit being attacked by the rebels? Are they to stand back and let it go on? The danger of escalation must be enormous. No one can foresee where we shall end up. I remember the cover of the first issue of the Telegraph colour magazine in 1964 in which the caption read, "Vietnam--forgotten war". From Korea to Sierra Leone little conflicts that have involved British troops initially in a small way have ended in major confrontations and a massive expenditure of material and manpower.

However, throughout any discussion on the White Paper must come the question of money and the relationship between the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury. There seems little reason for the proposed partial privatisation of DERA, except that it puts an amount of money--a minimal amount-- in MoD's pocket. Why did the Secretary of State some months ago balk at the proposals that helicopters and other assistance should be sent to Mozambique? The answer was money. It is noticeable that the Government are pouring money into health and education and at the same time requiring yet more cuts from defence. The noble Baroness defended the situation and said that the ordinary British citizen will regard health and

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education, along with similar matters, as being of more importance. But that should not be at the expense of the defence of the realm.

The noble Baroness made a very spirited defence of all that the Government are doing. She denied that there are to be cuts of 3 per cent. Let us hope that there can be the savings to which she referred and that these will come back into the defence budget in some other manner. But if we are attempting to recruit another 5,000 servicemen, they will have to be paid and the unavoidable costs will inevitably rise and increase the defence budget to a very considerable extent.

It is these facts and this money problem which have led to the current short-termism in defence in spite of all that is being done, as the noble Baroness pointed out. I refer, for instance, to the decision to build two ro-ro ferries abroad. If the order does not go to a British yard, thousands of skilled shipbuilding workers will be laid off and there will be nothing for them to do until the orders for Type 45 destroyers come through. It is matters of this kind that have led the Government to be accused of "dumb procurement". This may be unfair but it certainly seems that they are mortgaging the long-term future for immediate savings.

The noble Baroness listed the successful projects but there is another large list of projects which face considerable problems. I mention only Clansman, heavy lift and the sale of perfectly good naval frigates. The noble Baroness also mentioned the problem with the Lynx helicopter. I have taken advice from someone who has intimate knowledge of the problem with the helicopter rotors. However, he lost me after about a minute and a half. I understand that this is, in part, a normal problem to which all kinds of equipment are subject and that we can get over it.

In spite of what has been said I feel that Smart procurement as set out in the SDR has, to a large extent, disappeared. Surely Smart procurement means taking a careful look at the threats that the country faces and what is needed to counter those threats. Costs and requirements must be balanced. It is difficult to see that this is being done when money is being spent in the most extraordinary way. It is probably the civil servants who are to blame, but is this the moment to spend £1.6 billion over 10 years on a new Ministry of Defence building? I am sure it is desirable but a cannon for the Typhoon should have a higher priority than a new open plan office. Part of the Treasury's objection to Ministry of Defence projects lies in a feeling that MoD and its civil servants waste money. This kind of announcement does nothing to kill that feeling.

On the question of the Typhoon, the reason given for putting a block of lead where the cannon should be is that the Typhoon was designed for cold war conflict and cannon are no longer necessary. In fact, the situation is the opposite. The Americans have cannon in their Stealth F22s, although they have to have a method of covering up the hole to make the Stealth characteristics effective. All British pilots, I think without exception, want cannon. Cannon will give

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greater flexibility, will enable aircraft to put shots across the bows of possible intruders, to assist in strafing, and to fire at helicopters which are going too slowly for their air-to-air missiles. Yet it appears that they are being abandoned for a handful of gold.

Noble Lords have debated the proposed public private partnership of DERA and I shall not go over it again. Such a sale will endanger the smooth running of development and research in co-operation with the United States. But it will put £250 million into the ministry's coffers. This peanut is considered necessary to balance the books. I must emphasise that I am not putting the blame on the Ministry of Defence, but on the Treasury. Those, if any, who control the Treasury have to make up their minds what they want from the Armed Forces. There can be no doubt that, while the plans for the future set out in the SDR were acceptable in the terms of July 1998, they totally ignored the possibilities for what was then the future. No account was taken of the possible expansion of crisis in the Balkans, now in Sierra Leone, and possibly in Zimbabwe.

We are told by the National Audit Office that logistically we only just scraped through in Kosovo. We did scrape through but I hope that the right lessons have been learnt with regard to the amount of back-up and supplies which are required even for a minor conflict.

Apart from procurement, overstretch is a constant problem. Particularly in the light of stories coming out over the past 48 hours, it would be unwise to rely on a reduction of the involvement of troops in Northern Ireland. From these Benches we warn of the dangers of overstretch. Therefore it may be illogical to ask the Minister to comment on what we read in the Belfast Catholic paper, the Irish News. This states that the British Army base in that haven of peace, Cookstown, is to be demolished and the Fort George base in Londonderry is to be abandoned, as are observation posts in Broadway and Belfast, possibly even in Crossmaglen. What is the reason for this? Is it a belief that the crisis is over, or is it purely to save money?

If we have to save money, one way we can do that is to drop all thought of a European army. Noble Lords have been told categorically that this is not a goer. Nevertheless it seems to be creeping in by a side door. The Government have moved the European Security and Defence Identity down a path which must lead to the creation of such an army. That will do nothing to enhance military capacity and will serve only to fan the flames of anti-Americanism in France, which were lit at the St Malo summit.

The project has been denied but the Government have supported moves for the European Union to create an independent rapid deployment force of 60,000, deployable for a year. To service this would require a force of 180,000 as troops need to be relieved. Where will they come from and who will pay for them?

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Slightly apart from these arguments, but related thereto, is the question of the Territorial Army. For reasons I do not understand at all relationships between--

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