first day's debate

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 8:07 pm on 12th June 1985.

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Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries 8:07 pm, 12th June 1985

The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) made an incredible and irresponsible speech about the nuclear deterrent and his wish for unilateral nuclear disarmament, which would leave us in a weak position.

I welcome and support the Government's policies set out in the Estimates, their strong attitude on the nuclear deterrent and the overall strategies, which are designed to maintain peace.

I have recently returned from a defence visit to Belize where I was reminded of how essential it is for us to have effective helicopters in support of our services. I was impressed by the commander of the British forces, his staff, the Army and RAF units and the resident battalion, the Duke of Wellington's Regiment.

We must come to a conclusion on our medium and long-term strategy towards Belize. We are there to help to defend it against Guatemala and we use the country as a first-class training area for our forces. I hope that we shall be there for a considerable period and, if we are, I hope that the Ministry of Defence will investigate the accommodation for soldiers and airmen in the airport camp. It is too cramped for a tropical climate and way below the standard that we require on a regular base.

The Estimates cover much sophisticated weaponry that involves high technology. We must never forget that the morale of the men and women who form our forces is most important, and that we want it to remain as high as possible — that is, extremely high. We must never become impersonal or remote from their aspirations. Issues such as pay, promotion, postings, and overseas allowances, matter greatly to them. Issues such as local overseas allowances must be presented better than they were this year. It was not only tough on the commanding officers who had to explain the matter to their units, but on the men. Whatever the practical reasons, which were brought out in the Select Committee's report, to find that the allowance in Germany had been substantially cut was tough. Allowances have been increased elsewhere, but when one has had an allowance for a long time, it comes as a surprise when it is removed at short notice.

Ministers must do all that they can to cultivate a personal touch with our forces. Too many skilled men and women are leaving the forces, a point which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence touched on. I take his point that as the economy may be picking up and as men in the forces are extremely skilled, it is understandable that they are attracted away. To prevent that we must provide good conditions of service, good pay and a promotion structure which enables them to see a long way ahead. After giving them an expensive training, we do not wish to lose them and, more important, their experience, because industry can offer them better conditions. To look after our men and women is a first priority, which has been highlighted in articles in The Daily Telegraph. They reinforced what I have been thinking for many months.

I compliment the Royal Air Force on the remarkably high standard of airmanship that it maintains year by year, supported by a host of ground services and control units. Airmanship of the Hercules, which have been going to the Falklands, and of the Red Arrows, of which I have seen two excellent displays during the past few weeks, is of the highest quality. We have made one decision and must make another, and both are crucially important. The first decision related to training aircraft. I hope that the Ministry of Defence will never again embark on a cheapest tender policy. It may have reduced the eventual price well below what was anticipated, but the Ministry's attitude must be to go for the best buy. It is necessary to take into account the quality, specification, performance and handling of an aircraft and balance that against costs. To go for the cheapest aircraft, even if its performance is acceptable, is not to buy the best aircraft for the Royal Air Force.

I wholly support my hon. Friends the Members for Wealden(Sir G. Johnson Smith) and for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) about the European fighter aircraft. It is essential in the medium and long term that we in the United Kingdom get the best aircraft that we can and the one that we want. I know that it is a complicated issue and that my right hon. Friend is doing his level best in discussions with our European partners. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden said, if we cannot reach an agreement in Europe about this type of issue, the future does not look too bright. The House will wholly support my right hon. Friend if the British aircraft industry is substantially involved in the EFA.

My right hon. Friend touched on the reserves. I am involved in the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. The seven regiment squadrons, the maritime headquarters unit and the handling squadrons have turned out to be a great success in terms of value for money for the Royal Air Force. The fact that the regiment squadrons are now in the line of battle shows that they are trained to the highest standard. They are part of the first-line defence of RAF aerodromes. To maintain the enthusiasm in the Auxiliary Air Force, Territorial Army and home defence force we must ensure that they have plenty of the best possible equipment. Reserve forces undoubtedly like to have good equipment with which to train at the weekend, and take great pleasure in using the highest quality equipment.

Bearing in mind all our operational and financial difficulties, we must continue as best we can to give the squadrons and Territorial Army the opportunity of going abroad every few years for their summer training. That is a great incentive and most important.

Overall, having listened to the debate and the discussion of the Select Committee's report, I am confident that the Government are firmly committed to the best possible defence forces. I welcome the fact that during the past seven years we have been able to increase expenditure in real terms year by year. That is a fine commitment, and one of which Conservative Members are proud. I hope that we shall be able to continue with that in future. Today the Secretary of State gave us a good report, which I warmly support. I look forward to another year of complete support for our forces.