Orders of the Day — Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd March 1971.

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Photo of Miss Joan Vickers Miss Joan Vickers , Plymouth, Devonport 12:00 am, 2nd March 1971

I am pleased to be able to follow the right hon. Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas); because I agree with so much of what he said. At the 1970 Conservation Europe Conference in Strasbourg we raised the question of N.A.T.O.'s considering the matter of pollution. The Conference took note of it and I hope that it will not be proceeded with.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on all the work he has done in N.A.T.O. and other good European projects. He has been an outstanding example of someone who can be completely impartial and non-political, particularly in his job as Chairman of the Council of Europe. We thank him for all that he has done to help to unite Europe.

I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman about Greece. I should like Greece to remain in N.A.T.O., because I think that it is necessary to protect the flank of Europe.

The right hon. Gentleman's idea as regards N.A.T.O. might be better met if W.E.U. were to be abolished, because W.E.U. is not now very active. If this suggestion were followed, many more countries would be brought in. As France returned to W.E.U., it might be possible that she would join in the suggestion in regard to N.A.T.O. It would be very helpful if she did, because we know her present views.

I always get very distressed when I attend defence debates. Year after year we discuss things, and it is rather like a game of snap: each side of the House trying to out do the other. It is so important that we have one policy on defence. If what the right hon. Gentleman has suggested were to come about, we would have to have one policy, because we could not attend his proposed organisation, as I presume we would, without an agreed policy in Britain. Events in the past month have shown that peace is a continuation of war by other means, and I do not think that we are facing up to this.

What disturbed me about yesterday's debate—and I read the article in The Times this morning by the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey)—and also from being a delegate to W.E.U. is that we have not got a policy which is common to both sides of the House.

I may be very unpopular for saying this, but I want there to be an all-party committee which could meet the chiefs of the Services and get down to deciding a common policy. Having listened to defence debates for 15 years, I believe that we are getting nowhere, and I do not believe that this is for the benefit of the British people. It also makes things very difficult in regard to recruiting for example. To give examples, we are agreed on the strength of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. We are agreed on the question of maintenance and improvement of our military contribution to N.A.T.O.; we are agreed that this should remain our first priority. We are agreed on the policy in Ulster and we are agreed about W.E.U.

In regard to the Far East, it is just a difference of emphasis. The Labour Government mounted a major exercise to prove that they could send troops out there. I have had some experience of working with the military in the Far East. It is far better to have a base there with troops on it, because they have to get acclimatised. In Christmas 1945 there were, regrettably, a great many men on a hospital ship suffering from complete nervous breakdowns arising from having been brought out there so quickly and having been plunged into—it was no longer fighting; in those days it was only trying to keep the peace, in Java. One nursing sister had an epileptic fit, she had gone through all her training, but going out to that complete change of climate brought on that unfortunate attack.

It would be a great help with recruiting if the Services knew that both parties were agreed. It is very disturbing for members of the Services not to know for sure from one year to another what the policy is to be. It is not just a question of the change of Government. They do not know from one year to another how the Service they are in will be affected. This affects civilians, too, because the Services employs many civilians.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen) will know how disturbing it is to dockyard towns not to know the policy of the Government from one year to the next. The White Paper says that Devonport has not signed the productivity agreement. It has now signed it, but it could not be blamed for being rather cautious about the productivity agreement in view of what happened in regard to H.M.S. "Ark Royal". In those days men went in and out day after day not knowing whether when they came out in the evening their jobs would have been terminated.

I hope that those hon. Members who have spoken about recruiting and the views of young people will back me up, because recruits are definitely worried about the changes. Young people fail completely to understand why there should be any difference between the parties about the protection of their lives and their country. It militates against their either taking much interest in defence or in joining the Services if people think that both sides are playing politics and are not serious on defence or even on disarmament.

I am as much interested in disarmament as I am in defence. This is not a contradiction in one who represents a Service area, because one will always need a force for keeping the peace, in the same way as we have the police.

I hope that all those who are interested in disarmament will realise that there is the European Security Conference. The Warsaw Pact countries have not shown any real desire, despite the repeated invitations by N.A.T.O. countries, to get round the conference table. I hope that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite will try to further this work of getting the two sides together.

We must be realistic. The expansion of the Russian Fleet, which is now the major maritime force, is a threat to our naval force and our seaborne trade in the West and in all the seas in the world. In 1939 the Germans had 73 submarines. Now Russia appears to have 400 of which one-quarter are said to be nuclear powered. We remember how very nearly we were beaten in the early days of the last war by the German fleet. This is the kind of point that worries me. I have a feeling that if we keep all our troops in the N.A.T.O. and do not protect our seas it could mean another "Maginot Line" and that they might get caught in Europe with submarines all round our shores—I believe this is a realistic attitude—and I am thinking of our shores, not the shores of South Africa. We could be in an extremely vulnerable position. Therefore, the policies of this country—and I must say that if we are asking for an all-party committee—should not change with Governments but should change only with changing military circumstances.

I wish to stress this for two particular reasons. If we are to carry out our commitments it is essential to have more recruits. How is that possible when there is so much uncertainty about the future? It has to be remembered that the Communist-led unofficial dock strike in 1967 which led, unfortunately, to the financial crisis of 1968 resulted in the Cabinet being pressed by Left-wing members, because of cuts in the social services, to increase the pace of withdrawal from east of Suez. I do not want this type of pressure to be put on any Government in future.

We have also to realise the amount of money being spent by Warsaw Pact countries which has been going up by about 5 per cent. a year for the past five years, while the expenditure of N.A.T.O. has declined by 4 per cent. since 1964. I believe that owing to the horror of nuclear war it is the country or countries which have the greater conventional forces which will win; Cuba is an example of this. I believe, therefore, that we must strengthen the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Whatever happens, we have our fishery protection and peaceful activities like the Hydrographic Service, and we still have, regrettably, commitments such as Ulster. I would like to pay a tribute to the troops there and, having been there, to put in a plea that if troops are to go there for six-month periods they should have better accommodation.

Having been recently to the Far East, I feel that no praise can be high enough for the rescue work done in East Pakistan and Malaysia.

I want to mention one very controversial point, the question of the Beira Control. Personally, I believe that we are completely wasting our manpower and ships in this operation which is costing nearly £2 million a year. Why should we continue to do this any more than we should continue being a major Power in N.A.T.O. without other countries taking part, when we know perfectly well that everything Rhodesia needs is getting in by the back door? We are being very hypocritical about this. I would like to see money saved in this way and used for more serviceable purposes.

With regard to recruiting, we want 1·2 per cent. of the labour farce to join the services, but until 1976 we shall need 1·6 per cent. Therefore, we must give young people more confidence in a career in the future. I believe there is a need for Royal Navy recruiting officers at the universities. Those are very good places for interesting students. There is also the University Scholarship scheme and this could be improved; and we have to prove to students going into the services that they will have adequate equipment.

We must encourage the fleet chief petty officers—a new designation, the equivalent of the regimental sergeant major—to prolong their service after nine years. From the diagram at the end of the White Paper we see that only 35 per cent. of Royal Navy men and 32 per cent. of Royal Marines re-engage at nine years, as opposed to 50 per cent. in the Army and 59 per cent. in the R.A.F.

The major reason for men leaving the services is their wives. People are marrying younger and women today are not prepared as were their grandmothers to have long periods of separation. Housing, particularly for the Royal Navy, is still very short. I hope we shall not have the segregation "in cantonments" of Service wives in the future. I have suggested that local authorities in Service towns should be given an amount of money to enable them to allocate a number of houses in housing estates so that wives can be integrated into the normal life of the city, because as a whole young Service wives do not like senior Service wives, however charming they are at organising clubs. Young wives prefer to lead their own lives and to be near the shops rather than the NAAFI; they want to join in the life of the town.

In olden times the young naval wife was better off when she lived near her mother and was able to join the local activities.

Furthermore, when wives are to go overseas they should be given some idea of the type of life they are to lead. Quite a number of them have never been even to London but they are sent to places with completely different customs and languages and so are not very happy. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Royal Navy is setting up a special enquiry into the problems of these young people and I hope you will include this subject.

One hon. Gentleman yesterday spoke of sailors, soldiers and airmen working as clerks, typists, telephone operators and computer operators. I agree with him that these men could perfectly well be replaced by women. Experience in Israel has shown that where women work with men morale is better. Also, are we not demanding too much of recruits? In the nursing service we have the example of the State Registered Nurse and the State Enrolled Nurse. Are we not demanding far too high a standard? Could there not be two types as in nursing?

I must mention the dockyards because people in the dockyard towns are still worried about these being hived off. Secondly, regrettably dockyard workers come within the cut in the number of civil servants. I would suggest as I have done previously that non-industrial and industrial civil servants in this type of organisation should not be added to the total number of civil servants. I believe that since this Government have been in power the number of civil servants has gone up by 4,000 and so the Government are very anxious to cut down the number, but in places like he dockyards this would be to defeat their object because, for example, there are not enough draftsmen. People working in dockyards should come under a different category and should not be counted in with the general run of the Civil Service. I believe this practice will be found to be delaying essential work. I would add to the plea made by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Pink) previously, that we should have another ship in the near future, if possible, to be built in the dockyard. On 20th March, R.D.V. "Crystal" will be launched and after that we shall be happy to have another ship. Though I realise that dockyards are, for the most part, repair yards, it is hoped that they may again build ships, which they have proved they can do adequately, and it is rather boring for dockyard workers if they have only to do repair work.

I hope, too, that the hon. Gentleman who winds up will encourage men to come from places like Malaysia and Nigeria to train with the Royal Navy, so that we can help to build up their navies. More encouragement to immigrants to join our Services is needed.

If only the United Nations were more effective it would be possible to stop the selling of arms and reach settlements without wars, but since 1945 all countries have had to spend and waste a large amount of their G.N.P. on defending their nations against possible attack. The waste of manpower and money has been fantastic.

If the world is to achieve an advanced civilisation we must consider ways of avoiding wars. That is why I want an all-party Committee, so that we can have some agreement in this country; we shall, perhaps, then be able to overcome the difficulty of having the Secretary of State in another place, because he would be able to join us. If we could have a common defence policy in this country it would prove worthwhile and help peace in the future.