Defence

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th December 1974.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr George Younger Mr George Younger , Ayr 12:00 am, 16th December 1974

I think that probably all hon. Members are sorry that circumstances have meant that we are not having the two-day debate for which we hoped. I make no criticism of the Government for that, because it was our choice, and it is right, that that should be the position. On the other hand, we have had an extension, thanks to some wise guidance from you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and Mr. Speaker, and many hon. Members have managed to take part.

One of the happiest occasions this evening has been a truly remarkable maiden speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson). I have heard a number of maiden speeches, but I cannot recall one with so much assurance and fluency. The whole House will look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend again in our debates. With a name like his, it is very appropriate that he should have started in a defence debate.

Secondly, I should like—I think with the support of the House—to repeat, in a defence debate, something which cannot be said too often. That is how much we all admire the astonishingly good reputation and skilful execution of tasks carried out by our Armed Services. They have always had a high reputation. It has probably never stood higher in the world generally than it stands today. This reflects the greatest credit on all concerned in the Armed Forces.

Thirdly, I should like to mention in passing a subject which has not been dealt with very much in the debate— Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) raised this subject. He has great knowledge and sincerity in these matters. I listened to him with great interest. I am sorry to say that I could not agree with his main thesis. But I would add this to what he said. There are many people who have strong views about what the next course of policy in Northern Ireland should be. But from the defence point of view it is very clear that the job of the defence forces is to serve the policy of the Government generally. Our forces are doing that extremely well in the most appalling circumstances, and with great pride, to some extent, in doing such a difficult job so very well. I am certain that the vast majority of our troops who have been in, and are in, Northern Ireland, although finding it a very difficult and in many ways a distasteful job, do manage to find a satisfaction, of some sort at any rate, in the skill with which they do their job.

I welcome the debate and the statement which preceded it as the deliberate intention of the Secretary of State to give us the opportunity of commenting on his proposals in time—I think that these were his words—to influence the course of events hereafter. Both sides of the House hope very much that he and his Ministers will think very carefully about many of the things which have been said today, because we should like to see some changes in what he has proposed. We hope also that the Secretary of State will pay very close attention to the views expressed in the consultations which he will be having with our friends and allies all over the world. He mentioned earlier in the debate the rather disappointed reaction of Mr. Schlesinger in the United States. The right hon. Gentleman may also have noted today the remarks of Dr. Luns, making it clear that he has a number of reservations about the right-ness of what the Government are proposing in this case.

I hope that these views will be taken into account. If these serious views should be the general reaction which the Government receive to this review, I hope that they will not be too proud at this stage to return in a month or so and say that they have made changes in the original proposals set out in the right hon. Gentleman's statement.

There were a number of things one could welcome in the statement. In particular, I welcome warmly the Government's decision, reiterated, to continue the Polaris submarines. This is an essential part of our deterrent. They know that it is. They are very wise to be maintaining it.

I am extremely glad that the MRCA is to carry on. Several hon. Members, on both sides of the House, have raised questions about more detail being required about the slowing down of the ordering programme. I hope that we shall have that detail before too long.

I was glad to hear that the through-deck cruiser programme is to continue. But we have not yet been told whether the programme is for two vessels or just the vessel which is being built. We should like more details.

I greatly welcome, as do many of my hon. Friends, the Secretary of State's strong words today about the need for the TAVR to be maintained and even strengthened if possible. He is right. There is great potential there for effective reserves which can stand us in good stead in unforeseen circumstances ahead.

I hope that the disappointment which I must express about the review will not come as too great a shock to the right hon. Gentleman. My disappointment arises from the approach he has adopted to his task. Time and time again in the past few months the right hon. Gentleman and his junior Ministers have said that this defence review would be quite different, that on this occasion they would look at our commitments all over the world, that they would consider what was necessary, and that at the end of it all they would come back and say, "These are our commitments. We must do this. We are providing the money with which to do it."

I am sure that Ministers started with that intention, but, unfortunately, it has not turned out that way. Overshadowing the whole review has been the loudly voiced and wholly impracticable resolution carried by the Labour Party conference and the watered down version of it which was put into the Labour Party manifesto.

It is sad that we are now facing in many ways the same hotchpotch of proposals as the right hon. Gentleman was trying to avoid. He has once more had to start from the point of saying, "How can I save the money which the Labour Party manifesto requires me to save?" As the right hon. Gentleman himself said, that is not the way to tackle the nation's affairs.

I therefore question the right hon. Gentleman on the results of the review, all of which stem from the fact that he had to approach matters from the wrong end. That is why, though he has been able to tell us in outline many things that he wants to do, astonishingly he has not been able to tell us how he proposes to do them. One thing that I thought we should get out of this nine-month long review was a pretty good idea of how the Government proposed to do these things. If the right hon. Gentleman does not know how he is to make these changes, how they will turn out on the ground, and what he will lose by making some of the changes, I reach the inevitable conclusion that he has merely set out to do an arithmetical calculation of how much money he can save and that he must now sit down to determine how it will all work out.

How can the right hon. Gentleman say that he is cutting the RAF transport capability by one half and the personnel in the RAF by 18,000 without being able to tell us how our forces are to be transported in the future? He does not appear to know. Is it to be by chartering civilian aircraft? If so, how is that to be achieved? Are there to be some new measures whereby civilian aircraft can be chartered without notice? What is to happen if something crops up like the recent crisis in Cyprus at the peak holiday period when every charter aircraft worth flying is flying people to holiday locations world-wide? Will extra Government powers be needed so that we can get extra aircraft without notice? This capability cannot be cut by half without something being provided in its place?

What about the reduction of 12,000 in the Army? It amazes me that we are apparently discussing such a large reduction in the number of personnel in the Army, yet in answer to Written Questions the Secretary of State has not so far been able to tell us who they are to be. He went a little further in his speech today and rather engagingly painted for us the picture that there was nothing very particular that he could tell us about the 12,000, that it was all to be worked out by his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Army, who would trot round various Army units picking out a cook here and a storeman there and eventually they would all add up to 12,000. We have had nothing more concrete than that.

We are assured that no major units are to go. We are assured that the cuts will not affect our contribution in Northern Ireland. We are assured that the cuts will not affect our contribution to NATO, except in relation to the specific contributions announced for the flanks. Where are the 12,000 soldiers to come from? We are entitled to know that, and I hope that the Minister of State will tell us all tonight.

Then there is the strange mystery of the Gurkha battalion. The Secretary of State has twice been questioned in the House on this subject, once the other day and once this afternoon. His customary fluency has deserted him on this occasion, and I ask his hon. Friend to come a little cleaner with us this evening. What is the answer to this mystery about the battalion of Gurkhas? So far as I know, the men are very happy in their work, and it costs this country nothing whatever to keep the battalion in Brunei. Why are they being removed from there if it is not saving us any money? The right hon. Gentleman could give no answer to that question except to say that he wanted to use the same battalion in Hong Kong. If it will not save money, what is the purpose of the cut?

We are not told very much about the maritime reconnaissance aircraft, the Nimrod. We are told that there is to be no reduction in the home-based Nimrods, but that there are to be some reductions overseas. What are those reductions, and why are they being made?

Then there is the question of the NATO flank force, the mobile commando force at present covering the NATO flanks. As I understand it, the right hon. Gentleman is proposing to reduce this force so that it will be able to deal with only one of the flanks instead of both. We have not been told whether this means that it will be interchangeable, or whether as it is proposed that this force should be trained for winter warfare, as the right hon. Gentleman said in his statement, it will be more or less assigned to the northern flank. However, I know that it is reported that today Dr. Luns made it clear that if it affected the Mediterranean flank, the southern flank, of NATO, this was the strangest of times to be weakening our contribution to the southern flank protection of NATO. Has the Secretary of State forgotten all the difficulties at present over Greece's membership of NATO and the recent troubles in Cyprus? What is the answer, and why is this cut produced at this time? It does not seem to make any sense at all.

We want to know a lot more about how this force is to be transported. Again, the right hon. Gentleman seems to be starting to think about that instead of having been working it out for the past nine months.

I come briefly to the industrial effects of the defence review. My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) touched on this subject. I should like to know a lot more about how it is proposed to employ the four naval dockyards. I am delighted that the Government are not closing any of them, because I should not like to see any of them closed, but how is the right hon. Gentleman to keep them working with such large reductions in the fleet without creating redundancies among civilian workers elsewhere? Large amounts of repair work and so on cannot be transferred to the naval dockyards from civilian shipyards without putting those shipyards and, what is more, civilian shipyard workers out of work in the process.

It has been suggested by some Labour Members that the dockyards could quote for the construction of oil rigs and so on, as if that were something that could easily be done by a naval dockyard without thinking about it. But what about the oil rig construction companies, Cam-mell Laird and others, losing the work that the dockyards get? How many people will be put out of work if the Royal Naval Dockyards take on this work?

The Government cannot avoid the consequences of their own defence review. If they are not putting out of work the 30,000 people in the dockyards, there will be a serious effect on employment in other parts of the industrial sector.

If the dockyards tender for outside work, on what basis will they do so? Will they be competitive? Will their costs be fairly assessed against those of possible competitors? How are we to know that the tenders they put out are fair as against other contractors trying for the same work? These questions have not been tackled, and it is time that the right hon. Gentleman or one of his Ministers answered or, dare I suggest—I shall probably regret this very much—is this a case when the Secretary of State for Industry will have to come in and tell us how he will control the use of the dockyards in this way?

In spite of the eight and a half months of gestation for this defence review, at this stage there is very little more information than could have been worked out on the back of an envelope by the right hon. Gentleman before the last General Election. The main burden of what the Minister has announced today must have been known very well indeed to him and to the Government long before the last election. The whole of this review was deliberately held back until after the election because the Government knew perfectly well that it was electorally unpopular.

The cat is now out of the bag. The Government, in consultation with many of our friends and allies who are mystified by what they are doing, will have to work out what it all actually amounts to. The whole picture suggests that this much-vaunted and most extensive and thorough review of our system of defence ever undertaken, which the right hon. Gentleman is so proud of, is in grave danger—if he does not take a grip on it from now on—of becoming a botched-up defence review.

The Government inherited from the Labour Party conference an impossible commitment to reduce defence expenditure without recognising the real needs of Britain. This Government have discovered that they cannot do this without either fatally weakening NATO or reducing our ability to carry out essential British tasks such as that involved in Northern Ireland, or both.

To their credit the Government have shrunk from either course as a whole but have opted instead for drastic cuts behind the scenes which, while they do not hit the headlines today, will within five years have fatally weakened our ability to carry out three essential actions: first, to carry out our commitment to reinforce the flanks of NATO; secondly, to move our forces swiftly by air or sea to any area where our interests are threatened; and, thirdly, to provide a reserve of strength to meet the unexpected, which was a point very well made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Fraser).

It is the duty of this House to alert the British people to the danger of what is being proposed in their name. We should remember that decisions concerning defence cannot easily or quickly be reversed once they are taken. On the contrary, decisions taken now will have their most telling effect five years or so from now. We do not, we cannot, know what threats we may face then. A sound defence policy, whoever is in charge of it, in any country at any time, must always provide some margin to allow for the unexpected.

The history of warfare and conflict is littered with examples of people who prepared for the wrong war at the wrong time. The Government, in this defence review, are fatally weakening their one insurance against being caught out the next time, which is the provision of an adequate reserve for contingencies capable of being switched around, capable of being moved to the point of conflict, able to deal with problems, difficulties and crises, of which the right hon. Gentleman cannot now know and of which he cannot be expected to know now.

The main damage being done by this defence review lies in the reduction of our ability to deal with the unexpected. That is the first thing that can be said of many a defence review. When the British people find that a crisis blows up in five years or so, and there is an immediate need—whether it is for rescuing people, for intervening in some difficult situation at the request of our allies or perhaps even of the United Nations, when it is required for the British forces to do so—the right hon. Gentleman must, if he is wise, hope that he will not be obliged to say, "I am sorry but the British forces cannot go on the relief expedition" or whatever it is "because we do not have the troops, the resources or the transport to convey them there." The decisions taken now will render those consequences the inevitable result in four or five years' time. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not be in office, experiencing the consequences of his own actions.

This defence review will decimate our future ability to deploy adequate forces to meet any situation which may occur. For that reason we shall divide the House tonight.