The Army

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:07 pm on 17th November 1983.

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Photo of Mr Don Concannon Mr Don Concannon , Mansfield 8:07 pm, 17th November 1983

When I entered the Chamber this afternoon, I did not imagine that I would be making what I would term my second maiden speech from the Back Benches. I made my maiden speech in an Army debate in 1966. I think that matters have turned full circle. I would have imagined that more of my hon. Friends would be present to support my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) who made a thoughtful speech and asked some searching questions, but who suffered from the same problem as myself in Northern Ireland. He will have to realise that it is quality, not quantity, that counts.

I wish to pay a special tribute to the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames). We first met in Harare—then Salisbury—in Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe. That shows how quickly the world has changed. I enjoyed the hon. Gentleman's maiden speech and I welcome him to the club, because during the time that I have attended debates on the Army and defence I have found that a better type of Tory attends. I understand older Tory Members better than the new ones who have entered the Chamber of late. I shall look forward to listening lo what the hon. Member for Crawley has to say in future debates.

On occasions hon. Members see the sons of famous fathers and grandfathers — I say this with all the friendliness in the world — entering the House as Members of Parliament and suffering a little because they try to live up to the family image. For what my advice is worth, they must be their own man. They must make their own name and not try to be a duplicate. I shall follow the career of the hon. Member for Crawley very closely indeed. I hope that my advice will be helpful.

The debate is a re-run of previous debates. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Brown) had little to say today that he did not say from the Front Bench four or five years ago. Conservative Back Benchers also made similar speeches in previous debates.

I apologise sincerely to the Minister for not being here for most of his speech. If I strike a few wrong notes, I am sure that he will correct me.

I had the pleasure of listening to the hon. and learned Member for Colchester, North (Sir A. Buck), today. It always brings tears to people's eyes to see their old abodes being pulled down. If he had let me know that the corrective establishment was being pulled down, I might have been allowed to drive the first bulldozer through it. It is always a pleasure to listen to Army debates. Nothing new has happened, and we could reiterate our old speeches.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North on his thoughtful speech. He put searching questions to the Minister and I shall look forward to listening to the answers. As my hon. Friend said, after the first flush of the Falklands has passed, we must ask why, what for, and for how long? We certainly cannot continue with the pretence of Fortress Falklands. Sooner or later international pressure will force us back to the negotiating table.

As I joined the debate I heard the Minister say what a grand opportunity the Falklands were for the Army because they provide a live training area. My immediate reaction was that we are paying one hell of a price for that training ground.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said, searching questions must be asked. Any hon. Member who has served in the House as long as I and my hon. Friend will know of his tenacity, which will win out in the end. We cannot carry on with Fortress Falklands. We must negotiate sooner or later. Britain cannot afford the millions of pounds that the Fortress Falklands policy is costing.

I do not need to say very much about our troops, the security forces and the people of Northern Ireland. Everyone knows how I feel about them and about the task being performed by the Army. I am glad that the policy of ending enrolment for formal tours and troops being put on a long-term footing is bearing fruit. There were many reasons for instigating that policy, including intelligence. It has been a long, hard ride for the troops in Northern Ireland. They have not been fully appreciated by the House or the country.

During the Falklands crisis I asked the House not to forget the fellows in Northern Ireland. The position there and their work might no longer hit the headlines, but the troops have a hard task. All of us have known constituents or members of their families who have been kfiled or maimed in Northern Ireland. I have nothing but praise for the way in which the troops have carried out the instructions of the House. No other army in the world could have carried out their task with such skill. It shows the sheer professionalism of the Army that it can handle the job in the Falklands, carry on with its work in Northern Ireland—which is a completely different task—and help in Beirut.

When I and the hon. Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn) were in Belize, it was the first time that a country gaining independence pleaded for us to leave the British troops. In my Army days I left every country backwards in what I stood up in—and no one ever asked me back again. However, I am sure that that was not meant personally.

I hope that the Minister will explain a little more about the role of the 5th Brigade. My experience of reaction forces is that they were purely that—reaction forces. The back-up forces were needed to go in quickly behind them. If we have such a force, we must not use them in other guises in the ordinary infantry role. If they are to be specialists, let us treat them as such. I cannot envisage what role they would play because they need extensive back-up forces. Experience in the second world war with the paratroopers showed that they were left out on a limb. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North said that had we had such a force when Smith declared UDI in Rhodesia things might have been different. I am afraid that we would have needed a friendly country next to Rhodesia to send in the back-up forces for the paratroopers. We did not have the trained forces to do that.

Many of my constituents feel insecure because of events in the Middle East, the Caribbean and South America, the problems with disarmament talks and the placing of cruise missiles in Britain. The American forces in Britain have made a political gesture, as has the American President. But there is still unease because rumours are spreading rapidly that spares for cruise missiles will be stored on MOD land. This is not the time to debate cruise missiles, but I wish that the MOD would react more quickly to the rumours. There is an MOD depot at Chilwell in Nottinghamshire, and the front page of the local evening paper claims that it will become a storage area for spare parts for cruise missiles. I hope that that rumour will be denied quickly.

It is a strange sight for me—and one that I find hard to accept — to see British Army personnel and paratroopers parading inside wire fences while people are protesting outside. If there must be such a presence, I would like it to be fulfilled by civil authorities. Having British Army personnel and paratroopers fulfilling that role is the wrong image for Britain. The sooner we get away from it, the better. I do not complain about people demonstrating, because it is their right. We should defend that right as much as possible as long as the protesting remains within the law. Many hon. Members and people outside might not agree with the protesters and how they protest, but, as long as they act lawfully, we should do our utmost to protect their freedom to do so. We fought for that right, and I hope that we would all be prepared to fight for it again if it was threatened. We should keep the armed forces and paratroopers away from protesters and use civil authorities as much as possible.

On a more popular note, and as I have said before, I believe that money is well spent on the Territorial Army. It has been expanding recently. In that regard I should like to utter a word of caution. I get a little hot under the collar when I find that, suddenly out of the blue, the Ministry of Defence starts building in the centre of a town that I represent without writing to say what it is for. I asked the local authority, and it does not know. The building can hardly be a new TAVR training centre as there is still one by the new building. I do not know whether there is any significance in the fact that it is being built next to the Mansfield brewery. If a Department intends to do something in an hon. Member's constituency, it should at least drop him a note explaining what is going on and what the purpose of the building is—not least because local people tend to go to their local Member of Parliament as a source of information.

I should like to pay tribute to some sections that have not been mentioned. I am the president of the Mansfield branch of the Royal British Legion. I pay tribute to it. The War Graves Commission does a fantastic job all round the world. It is deeply appreciated by war widows and by those of us who left friends in far places. The commission commands respect throughout the world.

We have all recently been doing our Remembrance Sunday parades. This year, it struck me that the lads are getting older and weaker. They have been able to carry the injuries that they sustained in their youth for a long time, but they are now finding life more difficult. I have aches and pains all over. I should hardly be able to move were it not for soda baths. As the president of my local branch of the Royal British Legion, I come across an increasing number of people who drop through the social security net. They are now less mobile than they were. I am aware that they receive very fair treatment, but perhaps they could be treated more sympathetically. Perhaps a little blind eye could be employed to help some of my colleagues who have now carried the effects of wounds and diseases for a long time. They find such wounds and diseases more troublesome as they get older.

I said that I would not take long. I did not come prepared to make a speech, but there is a certain freedom in speaking from the Back Benches. I can now say one or two things that I could not say from the Front Bench. I hope that I am back in the defence club. It is nice to see so many of the old faces on the Conservative Benches. I mean that in the nicest possible way. They are the better bunch of the Tory party. I know that to be so, because I have known and worked with them in one capacity or another over the years.