Defence

Part of Ballot for Notices of Motions – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th February 1967.

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Photo of Mr Denis Healey Mr Denis Healey , Leeds East 12:00 am, 27th February 1967

I suggest that that would be a question better discussed at length when the Navy Estimates are debated next week. Although I shall be very ready to give way to right hon. and hon. Gentlemen during my speech since this is a two-day debate, I hope that interventions may be confined to major questions of policy and that hon. Members will be able to make their contributions in the normal way in speeches either during the next few days or during the four days on the Service Estimates which follow.

Thanks in part—I readily admit this—to decisions taken by the last Conservative Administration, the British Army is one of the best equipped in the world. Chieftain production is now rolling ahead, and we have now almost doubled the number of helicopters planned to be in service by 1970 compared with the number in service in 1964.

The reorganisation of our reserve forces is also going smoothly. All sections of the Territorial and Army Volunteer Reserve are building up well towards the requirements, and, if I may be permitted almost a constituency remark, I had the pleasure a few weeks ago of going with some of my hon. Friends to the annual celebration of the Leeds Rifles, the Territorial unit being converted into a T. & A.V.R. III unit, and we were all immensely impressed by the spirit and enthusiasm of the members of the unit, nearly all of whom are re-engaging to serve in the T. & A.V.R. III.

The decisions that I have mentioned account for about three-quarters of the saving that we planned in the Defence Review, and they involve no loss in our military capability in relation to necessary tasks. In fact, in some cases these decisions represent a big increase. We shall have an increase in airlift for the Army and in ground support for the Army three or four years earlier than would have been possible under the programme of the previous Government.

Turning now to the progress made during the last 12 months with the redeployment of our forces, we have made very much greater progress than we expected or indeed planned 12 months ago, although the problems involved in redeploying forces in many respect are very much more daunting than those involved even in launching equipment programmes. Many of the problems involved in redeploying forces are beyond the control of Her Majesty's Government. They concern the actions and policies of other Governments. Above all—I ask hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House to recognise this—when we are talking about the redeployment of forces we are talking about flesh and blood, about moving not inanimate objects or statistical abstracts, but troops and their families who are human beings and who require barracks or housing in their new location. We are also talking about those among whom they were previously working and fighting and spending money overseas. Those are human beings, too, deeply affected in many respects, politically, economically and sometimes militarily, by the withdrawal of our forces.

To redeploy our forces at all we involve ourselves in a tremendous task of organisation in the physical movement of forces, in their rehousing and in arranging their training in completely new circumstances. My hon. Friend the Minister of Defence (Administration) will be dealing with some of these problems when he speaks later tonight. Of course, we are also concerned in trying to ensure that the movement of our forces does not involve unacceptable consequences for the local peoples they leave behind. I will say no more in detail on that question in the light of the fact that the Prime Minister of Malta is at this moment meeting Her Majesty's Government to discuss some of those problems in London at the present time.

The urgency of redeploying our forces, as the House knows, enormously increased last July during the foreign exchange crisis. Confrontation in the Far East formally ended in August. Malaysia and Indonesia reached agreement to live together in peace in the future-and that, I would remind my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew), in spite of the fact that there were still British troops in Singapore. I would not deny that the Government had good fortune in that there were changes developing in the internal political situation in Indonesia over the months before the Bangkok Agreement was reached; but I ask the House to recognise this—and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East will appreciate the point that I am about to make: without the skill and patience shown by Commonwealth forces during this critical period, and particularly the restraint shown by their commanders, these changes inside Indonesia might not have come about at all. Certainly, they would not have developed so rapidly, and almost certainly they could not have led to the end of confrontation. I will spend a moment or two developing that point later in my speech.

In any case, confrontation did end last August and, as a result, we have been able already to make firm plans, which are stated in the Defence White Paper, for the withdrawal of at least 10,000 men back from the Far East within a few months' time. I am glad to tell the House that this total of men covered by firm plans has already risen to 11,000. More than 5,000 were already home by the beginning of the new year. Nearly 10,000 will be home by Easter, and the remaining number will come home during the few months following.

In addition to this withdrawal, which is based on firm plans, we have already decided on a reduction of 5,000 in the number of Gurkhas in the British Army. As the House will recognise, the Gurkhas played an absolutely indispensable rôle in helping to bring confrontation to an end, and I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House would wish to express their gratitude for all that the Gurkhas have done not only in that campaign, but in many similar campaigns over the previous century. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] We felt it right, when confrontation came to an end, to carry out the plans made by the previous Conservative Government before confrontation developed and to reduce the Gurkha ceiling to 10,000 men. Of the 5,000 men thus leaving the Gurkha forces over the next three years, 2,000 will leave in the next 12 months; so that we have a reduction already of 13,000 men in the Far East over the next 12 months firmly planned. On top of that, we are now tackling the problem—a very much more complicated problem—of reductions in our base facilities in Singapore.

So far, I have been talking exclusively about reductions in teeth units, and almost entirely teeth units who were taken out to the Far East when confrontation developed. They are now being taken back. But we also envisage some reduction in the base facilities in Singapore which will bring proportionately very much greater foreign exchange savings because they will involve not only the movement of British forces, but some redundancies among locally employed personnel. For that very reason they will raise very much bigger economic and political problems than those raised by the withdrawal of teeth arms which we have already planned. As a result of moves in all these directions, I hope by the end of next year to have reduced British forces in the Far East as a whole by a further 5,000 to 10,000 men on top of the 13,000 men to whom I have already referred, so that the total reduction should be something between 18,000 and 23,000.

In the Middle East redeployment is proceeding according to plan. Our families will all be out of Aden by the end of July. The removal of heavy equipment and other stores has begun, and redundancy payments to the locally employed personnel are proceeding satisfactorily. I should say that our troops in Aden and in South Arabia generally are displaying exceptional courage and efficiency in the discharge of their duties and are showing great frobearance under extreme provocation [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] They have not been helped or encouraged in this difficult task by charges of torture and massacre which have not stood up to investigation.

In this connection, I was sorry to see over the weekend that, according to Press reports, the founder of Amnesty International alleged that Aden censorship had prevented the British public from knowing of the killing of 50 Arabs by British soldiers in demonstrations a week ago. This was not true. From 10th February until noon on 12th February there were 53 terrorist attacks. The figures of those killed during the demonstration that accompanied the general strike called for llth–12th February were fully reported at the time.

They were not censored; and there were nine deaths altogether, including the deaths of two men who had been throwing grenades. There have been no other more recent demonstrations. There was no censorship of casualty figures, nor of news of the demonstrations. Hon. Members may remember the Shamshir allegations last month, to which Amnesty International also gave currency. After investigation by the High Commissioner these proved to be totally unfounded, and this new allegation about 50 deaths is also completely unfounded.

As the House will recognise, our withdrawal from Aden involves us in many difficult problems indeed. We are giving the Federal authorities substantial additional aid to strengthen and expand their own armed forces. We are giving them up to £5½ million towards the capital cost of those forces, plus an additional grant of up to £10¼ million for recurrent expenditure for three years after independence, unless meanwhile there is a material change in the political situation. Civil aid will continue.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will deal with some of the political aspects of our withdrawal from Southern Arabia. I will confine myself simply to saying that I am delighted to know—and I am sure that the House as a whole will be delighted—that the United Nations is now to play a rôle during our withdrawal from Southern Arabia. A special mission has been appointed, and we hope that it will soon start work. I believe that nothing could do more to stabilise the situation in Southern Arabia than a lively interest and concern in the acceptance of some responsibility by the United Nations for the way in which events develop over the coming months and years.