Defence

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 13th March 1978.

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Photo of Mr Bonner Pink Mr Bonner Pink , Portsmouth South 12:00 am, 13th March 1978

The hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Cronin) complained that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour) would not be specific in his proposals for increased expenditure without seeing the books. My right hon. Friend has every right to be cautious. Every time there is a Labour Government, there is a financial crisis. Every time we return to power, we find that the cupboard is bare. I see no reason to suppose that there will be any difference next time.

I am glad that the hon. Member is joining us in not being complacent about the White Paper. Certainly my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham and others have pointed out that there is an air of completely unwarranted complacency throughout the White Paper.

The Warsaw Pact countries are getting relatively stronger every year. We want to reverse that trend. The Minister asked what social services we would cut. He must realise that, unless we have the will and the ability to defend ourselves, all our social benefits and way of life are at risk. Yet he does little about it.

The White Paper describes recruiting and re-engagement as satisfactory. How much is due to the deplorable level of unemployment and the difficulties of finding jobs, especially for the older men? When things improve, will recruiting and re-engagement suffer?

The Minister must know, having heard this point made in almost every speech so far, that morale in the Services is dropping because of poor pay. I welcome his statement that the Forces will get a rise on 1st April. But the Minister is still hedging. He said that differentials would be restored, but he would not say when. It is just sometime.

Service pay continues to drop back compared with industry. Yet Service men are called upon not only to face danger in Ulster and elsewhere but to do all kinds of jobs which are not properly theirs.

There are many other small niggling factors which cause morale in the Services to fall. One small matter, which I have raised on a number of occasions, is the pre-1950 Service widows' pension. There are not many of these widows, they are elderly, but they feel very strongly about this matter. They compare their state with inflation-proofed Service pensions of later entrants and Civil Service pensions. They are making much anti-Service propaganda about this small matter. It would cost very little to put it right. I hope that the Minister will again consider it and this time agree to do something about it.

Another small matter which is causing a lot of ill-feeling in the neighbouring constituency of Gosport is the issue of Service voters. This applies especially to the wives of Service men. I hope that the reasons for the new system will be explained and made clear to them yet again and that Service men's wives will have the choice of being either Service or ordinary voters.

I turn now to ballistic missile submarines. We still have only four. According to the White Paper, one is being refitted, so we have only three in service. It is clear from that number that often we have only one on patrol. If we had only one more, making five, we could on many occasions have three instead of two on patrol. At least, we could have two on patrol all the time. I know that it would be expensive and that the Polaris missile is outdated, but there are replacements for that. I again stress the need to increase the fleet by one.

I am worried about convoy protection. This country lives by its imports by sea. In 1939 the Germans had about 50 effective submarines. Today the Russians have 195, of which 104 are nuclear. We have 54 frigates. How does the Minister propose to safeguard our convoys?

Another worry is the vulnerability of our offshore oil and gas installations. How are they to be defended effectively not only from enemy attack but from sabotage? We have five Island class vessels in service and two more are on order. They are small 19-knot ships—glorified trawlers. By extending our fishing zone to 200 miles, our patrol area has been enormously extended. Would it not be better to have the same number for preference, or even fewer but larger and faster ships capable of carrying helicopters? The range of such ships would be enormously extended. If the ships were large enough—I have in mind something similar to a modern version of a wartime hunt destroyer—they could carry a small contingent of Royal Marines which could be used for anti-sabotage duties on the oil rigs and as support troops in emergency.

We have heard a number of references to the cost of services not strictly for defence. The White Paper details the services for which the Services pay—education, medical services, inshore fisheries protection and so on. Such services are not properly defence commitments. Why do the Defence Estimates have to carry those items? Why cannot they be transferred to the appropriate Departments?

I am pleased that, from a constituency viewpoint, Portsmouth Dockyard has been allocated guided missile destroyers and larger ships for refitting. This matter has pleased people in Portsmouth. They felt that they had been neglected in the past. This decision certainly ensures continuity of employment in the city.

Finally, I must say that I am appalled at the air of complacency which exists in the White Paper, and I condemn the Government for it.