Foreign Affairs and Defence

Part of Orders of the Day — Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 9:23 pm on 8th November 1990.

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Photo of Mr Martin O'Neill Mr Martin O'Neill Shadow Secretary of State 9:23 pm, 8th November 1990

Today's debate has focused primarily on Europe and the Gulf. It has had a topical nature few recent Gracious Speech foreign affairs and defence debates have had. The fact that it is in what might be regarded as prime time rather than tucked away on a Friday is evidence of the significance that the House attaches to the subject this year. However, in some respects it is unfortunate that we did not have the debate tomorrow because, as the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) said, it is the anniversary of an event that has transformed so much of our thinking in the past 12 months.

In some respects European issues have been diminished by our understandable preoccupation with the Gulf. Speaker after speaker this evening divided their remarks into two sections—first Europe and secondly the Gulf. Certainly there is a fair degree of consensus on the Gulf crisis, although there are some areas of division. Some hon. Members foresee the need to use arms earlier than others. Some would argue that we should delay, perhaps indefinitely, and others among us take the view that military action will come and that when it does we will have to use the force of arms with care but with some regret because we sought a peaceful solution.

When the crisis emerged the Labour party called for an economic embargo and applauded its creation. We advocated naval and military deployment and we shall continue to support it. If additional deployment is deemed appropriate to sustain that presence the Labour party will look sympathetically at what forces commanders deem necessary. We have all marvelled at the vigour and strength of the United Nations in responding to the threat to peace in the Gulf.

The Opposition believe that there is still time for sanctions to work and that the liberation of Kuwait and the freeing of hostages may be achieved by means other than the force of arms. Indeed, it is ironic that several Conservative Members said that they did not want to sustain sanctions because they might work and inflict the damage that everyone recognises was the case for introducing them in the first place. If those hon. Members believe that the suffering of folk in Iraq is less appropriate than the carnage that would ensue from force of arms, they should stop and think about the troops being massed on both sides of the border and the damage that could be inflicted not just to the buildings and infrastructure of Iraq and, indeed, that which remains in Kuwait. We must bear in mind the nature of what war in the raw will create. The hon. Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill), who graphically related his experiences as a war correspondent, demonstrated that danger. We still have time.

We have heard imaginative speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House this evening. In particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) gave an interesting prescription. The House will want to read his speech in Hansard tomorrow because it was detailed. It showed that people are giving thought to diplomatic options. But all the signs are that there is little likelihood of the Iraqi authorities expressing any interest in a negotiated settlement.

It is fair to say that if we realise our objectives by peaceful means but do not at the same time secure either the dismantling by treaty or the destruction by force of arms of Iraq's nuclear and chemical capabilities, any solution that we achieve will be a pyrrhic one. The long-term security of not only the Gulf but the middle east will be guaranteed only if a degree of legitimacy is afforded to the settlement. That meets the point that we must carry the other Arab and Muslim states with us. If we cannot achieve that consensus, what is the chance of our being able to require Israel to look at its nuclear capability? We cannot require some countries to give up their capabilities if others in the region will not. I am not arguing for linkage. This will be a staged resolution. It will not happen simultaneously. It will not be achieved by a process of diplomatic mirrors. There will be a lengthy, tortuous period of negotiation after what may be an overlong period of war.

We must remember that we need to sustain the consensus. It has been a unique feature of the past nine weeks. The American presence and the Soviet acquiescence are not necessarily inseparable, but without one, the other is meaningless and, if not meaningless, it is profoundly dangerous.

Tonight's debate has focused largely on the Gulf. We have not given as much attention to "Options for Change" as we perhaps should have done. Operation Granby, as the Ministry of Defence calls it, is preoccupying many people. I hope that at a later stage we can consider the MOD response to the Defence Select Committee's report on recent events in Europe. There is much of it that many of us would like to consider.

The references in the Gracious Speech to further negotiations in Europe should enable all of Europe to obtain greater cuts in the form of verifiable measures. If we delay following on the success of the first round of CFE negotiations, we could end up with reciprocal unilateralism—the tit-for-tat disarmament which, although welcome, falls way short of agreements that can be subject to guarantees of inspection and verification. Those security problems are both in Europe and out of area.

Some argue for a European out-of-area role. The prospect of fulfilling such a role without United States participation is hard to imagine. The constructive role played by the Soviet Union in recent months shows its willingness to be involved. Europe cannot afford to alienate either of those great powers because the consequence of isolation from either one or the other is all too evident to and easily understood by those who have read our recent history.

Some say that we do not need to worry ourselves about that and that we need only build up talks on the security dimension for the European Community. We in the Labour party approach that with great caution. Existing NATO members, such as France, have only a semi-detached relationship with NATO's military structure. Germany is prohibited by its constitution from participating outside the NATO area and any prospects of change in the constitution will be confined to United Nations matters, assuming that those constitutional changes can be made.

Within the European Community, Ireland has maintained its neutrality throughout its period of membership. The Austrian and Swedish applications could be jeopardised if we challenged their long-established view on security. If Sweden and Austria were to be frightened off, the participation of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland would be long delayed. We must recognise that the idea of a European answer to the world's security problems creates problems for traditionally neutral countries and the Soviet Union.

Our objective must be the establishment of a common security system from Vancouver to Vladivostock. Its initial tasks will be to oversee and arbitrate on the inspection and verification procedures established by disarmament treaties, to establish means of resolving territorial and ethnic-based disputes, to seek agreement on future levels of armaments between states and to explore ways of securing joint procurement so that we have a means whereby we can defend ourselves at far lower levels of expenditure than at present. Such work will not be completed in the next 12 months, but it must be started. We all wish our representatives well when they meet in Paris next week. The search for a new security framework for Europe, the United States and the Soviet Union must go on.

Today's debate, which some have called the alphabet soup debate, has almost become a creature of those who remember the meanings of the acronyms. The devotees of an institution tend to argue that it is the one with the answers. I believe that our ambitions should be far more modest. Instead of talking about a new architecture for Europe or thinking in terms of reinforced concrete structures, we should seek what I prefer to think of as a scaffolding that can be assembled, changed and taken down as and when it is appropriate to do so and not become wedded to a simplistic idea.

The Labour party has advocated the mutual dissolution of the Warsaw pact and NATO, but the pact has disintegrated. When Soviet military might stopped backing eastern bloc regimes, the whole thing fell apart. The new Governments have for the most part turned their backs on the old military alliance. It is ironic that they have not shown any marked apprehension about the continued presence of NATO forces in Germany. The size of such forces will be reduced drastically, but there is still a job of organisation and co-ordination for NATO forces on the southern flank, in the North sea and in the Atlantic. The work involved in achieving arms reductions in those areas and the organisation of central Europe gives the lie to those who say that NATO no longer has a function.

NATO uniquely is equipped to participate in the work of the conference on security and co-operation in Europe—not to dominate it or to alienate, but to help fill the gap in the CSCE process by way of bureaucracy. One of the great mistakes that people make is to attribute to the CSCE process properties that it does not have. The fact that it does not have a telephone number is evidence of the absence of any bureaucracy. There are obvious gaps in the chancellories of eastern Europe and the new democracies, and the bulk of the responsibility to find a new structure may fall on NATO members and some neutral states in Scandinavia and elsewhere.

This may be the last Queen's Speech before the next general election. As a result, the legislative programme will not be too heavy. I am told that we are to have 15 Bills this year. Last year we had about 45. There is one major item of legislation from the Ministry of Defence—facilitation of contractor operation of the atomic weapons establishments. There are four establishments—Aldermaston, Burghfield, Cardiff and Foulness—and there have been problems with the management of the operation for a long time. There is difficulty about construction of the A90 facilities.

There have been terrible problems with recruitment and retention in the Aldermaston and Burghfield area. Those plants are in an area of low unemployment where there is a high demand for skilled labour and it is difficult for the Ministry of Defence, with its present salary structure, to attract and retain workers. The Government have tried to meet some of the problems. Management consultants have been introduced to assist with management of the plant—to stop it bleeding to death, as someone said—and to prepare for the contractorisation programme.

As I understand it, the work is being given to a group of managers from Hunting-BRAE Ltd. They have to assist in the short-term management of the plant, and to prepare for contractorisation, which will be going out to tender, so there will be some competition. It seems rather strange that the management consultants who will be preparing the brief will be potential contenders for the contract.

The work force has expressed a number of anxieties, and I know that the Secretary of State was good enough to see them before the announcement of the intention to legislate.

The Opposition which will emerge to contractorisation will be different from the campaigns waged over the dockyards and the royal ordnance factories. The Rosyth dockyard makes the argument for contractorisation, whereas the Devonport dockyard experience makes the argument against.

The unions have expressed a number of concerns, which we shall raise with the Minister on Second Reading. But there have been clear indications from the work force that they do not want to indulge in the trench warfare which was the hallmark of the previous contractorisation of defence establishments. There is a willingness to work on an agency arrangement and to search for compromise, but there is a desire to stay within the civil service. There is also a desire to afford managers the opportunity to try our new forms of operation and to establish a new pay structure, which could operate within an agency arrangement.

I make that point because this establishment is radically different from the dockyards. It is a unique facility and there is no prospect of diversification into other activities. There is a sole client and customer—the Government. The materials used are extremely dangerous and it is feared that profit may not be compatible with safety. Privatisation of this type of activity in the United States has brought about terrible environmental problems and safety difficulties.

As I said earlier, the light legislative load this year may give us opportunities to debate foreign affairs and security matters. We must recognise that the Government have so far failed to respond to the Defence Select Committee's challenges on the failure of forward defence as it is now organised, and its relevance to the alliance, and have failed to identify how we can have a flexible response, without flexibility in the form of the renewal of different weapons systems.

Every hon. Member has referred to the prospect of further fighting in the Gulf—a war which may prove easier to start than to finish. Nevertheless, the Labour party in opposition recognises its responsibilities and will continue to support our troops, the allies and the Government, so long as they are seeking to secure the liberation of Kuwait and of the hostages, and the establishment of a security system in the middle east. We hope that we shall not have to return to this matter in a future debate on the Queen's Speech because we hope that it will be resolved, but if it is not, we know where our sympathies lie. We believe that the Government and the Opposition are largely of one mind on this issue. However, we repeat that our support, although fulsome of our men and of our needs, is not a blank cheque. As the Opposition, we reserve the right to question, to query and to challenge where appropriate. That should not be seen as anything less than backing for our men, who are ready to do an unpleasant job under some of the most difficult and trying conditions in the world.