The Army

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:46 pm on 1st July 1991.

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Photo of Sir Archie Hamilton Sir Archie Hamilton The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence 4:46 pm, 1st July 1991

Last summer, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence set out proposals on "Options for Change" and the future structure of the armed forces. He spoke of the opportunities flowing from fundamental changes in Europe which would allow us to ensure our security with lower levels of armed forces and with a reduction in the share of gross domestic product taken by defence.

My right hon. Friend referred also to the risks for security that remain in Europe and farther afield. Today is the 75th anniversary of the first battle of the Somme, when so many Northern Ireland soldiers gave their lives in defence of our liberty, and it is fitting that we should debate the future arrangements for the Army and for ensuring that the terrible events of July 1916 are not repeated.

It is a paradox that in a post-cold war world the risks may be more diverse and less easy to predict than the threat posed in the past by the huge military forces of the Warsaw pact massed on the borders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation countries. Our forces need to be not only well-equipped and well-supported but characterised by flexibility and mobility, ready to be deployed at short notice to wherever in the world it is necessary to defend security.

The Gulf crisis, which broke less than two weeks after my right hon. Friend's statement, has served as an unpleasant reminder that we should not begin to look at the world through a haze of excess optimism or contemplate abandoning well-established foundations of our security. The approach which we outlined last summer has been vindicated, for in setting out our thinking on "Options for Change" we recognised the need to retain a capability to react to emergencies and recognised that our forces must remain our insurance against the unexpected.

As for the position in Europe, I know that there are those who have suggested that the future remains too uncertain, the Soviet Union too little versed in notions of liberal democracy, for the changes to the armed forces to be sensible. One can point to the severe economic and political difficulties still facing the Soviet Union and its former satellites as evidence of potential for instability.

The Government recognise those concerns: that is why we remain fully committed to the collective defence provided by NATO and to robust and capable armed forces. It is also why we attach the greatest importance to continuation of the reform programmes under way in the Soviet Union and central and eastern Europe.

However, it would be foolish to ignore the changes that have already taken place in Europe; and there is now a great mass of evidence that these changes are so far advanced that positive response must be right. We are confident of the peaceful and co-operative intentions of President Gorbachev. The Warsaw pact's military structure has been dismantled, to be followed by the political structures—events of fundamental significance which, in the new security environment, pass almost unmentioned in the press.

Perhaps most important of all, Soviet military withdrawals from the one-time Warsaw pact countries are now well under way. All Soviet forces have left Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Soviet forces are expected to have left Poland and eastern Germany by the end of 1993 and 1994 respectively. By 1995, we expect that Soviet force levels in the area from the Atlantic to the Urals will have fallen from the 138 divisions of 1989 to about 70 to 75 divisions. The net result is that, by the middle of the decade, NATO will be facing about 1 million fewer troops in Europe.

The Soviet Union will, of course, retain the capacity to reinforce these forces from outside the ATTU region if they should so choose, but by the mid-1990s we would expect the warning time of a full-scale Soviet offensive in Europe to be a matter of weeks rather than days. Moreover, the Soviet armed forces are now engaged in a major programme of relocation and reorganisation that appears genuinely to reflect the new professed doctrine of defence sufficiency.

Since 1988 procurement and production of equipment for the Soviet armed forces, particularly ground and air forces, has fallen sharply. Between 1988 and 1990, it is assessed that tank production fell by about 60 per cent., from about 3,500 tanks a year to about 1,400. During the same period production of light armoured fighting vehicles was cut by about 40 per cent. and fighter aircraft production by about a quarter, with significant reductions in bombers and combat helicopters. Further reductions in military procurement are expected in the next few years.

When the NATO and Warsaw pact countries signed the treaty on conventional forces in Europe last November, we believed that it would be a further buttress to greater security for all parties. Since then, of course, there have been some well-publicised problems over the interpretation by the Soviet Union of the treaty's spirit and letter. We are pleased that they have now been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.

We hope that the resolution of the difficulties over CFE will allow the treaty's ratification by the countries involved in the next few months. I suggest to the House that the series of events since last November proves the continued need for NATO countries to stand firm and united in our dealings with the Soviet Union. The eventual outcome demonstrates the benefits of that approach.

So the time is right for change; not for headlong rush towards disarmament and defencelessness as successive Labour party conferences have proposed with their suggestions that there should be cuts down to the average of the NATO allies but for measured change which maintains adequate defences to ensure our security.

Our attention today focuses on the Army, which played such an important part in the campaign to liberate Kuwait. I will return to its role in the coalition's success in a few moments, but first I would like to say something about a matter which I know is of great concern to the House: the case of the three guardsmen Hicks, Povey and Corporal Ray who so tragically lost their legs when digging a trench on the British Army Training Unit, Suffield range in 1988.

I have been criticised in the press, which reported that I had said that they should get sedentary jobs for which they did not need their legs. Those reports were prompted by a press release promoting a "This Week" programme on the whole subject of compensation for injured service men. This shoddy and biased publicity material implied, quite wrongly, that I was unsympathetic to the guardsmen and cared nothing for their terrible injuries. In fact, my comments were made in the context of the tremendous efforts that they have made to come to terms with their injuries. What I actually said in a reply to Richard Linley, the programme's presenter, was—and here I quote from the transcript— they won't be able to do jobs like on construction sites and jobs where they have to be on their feet all the time, but it will be open to them to do a number of jobs in offices and so forth sedentary jobs that people like me have where in practice they don't actually need their legs for that job. I made those remarks in the knowledge that former guardsman Hicks was looking for a job. I hope that he succeeds. I for one am certainly not prepared to condemn him to a life of unemployment. Mr. Hicks has made a remarkable recovery from his appalling injuries and is making excellent progress with his artificial limbs. The House must judge whether my remarks were fair and reasonable because they were not quoted in full in the press release issued by the "This Week" programme.

Guardsman Povey and Coporal Ray are, of course, still in the Army, but if they too are discharged I am confident that they will wish to forge new careers for themselves. Of course, their opportunities will be restricted by their injuries, but I hope that the spirit and determination that they have shown so far will continue to stand them in good stead. Whether or not they are ultimately successful, they will continue to receive pensions and other benefits.

In cases where a service man is invalided out of the services as a result of injury which is attributable to his service, he will receive a pension from the Department of Social Security—a so-called war pension—which takes account of the degree of disability involved. In addition, his Ministry of Defence pension will be uprated to reflect the attributability of his injury. These awards are tax free and index linked, and provide a continuing basis of financial support for the rest of his life. Clearly, money cannot really make up for the loss of limbs but society, rightly, seeks to provide through the state for those with such disabilities, so an injured service man will also receive certain allowances and benefits. Mr. Hicks, who has left the Army, is receiving £260 per week; this is the equivalent of about £350 before tax. It is instructive to compare that with a civilian injured in an industrial accident who will receive about £190 in the absence of a private pension.

In addition, since the repeal of section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act in 1987, service men have been able to sue the Crown for damages if their injuries stem from negligence on the Ministry of Defence's part. It is this last point which is at the nub of the concern felt by so many hon. Members as to whether it is fair and reasonable that the injured, who have served their country well, should be required to prove negligence; and whether the Ministry, in dealing with such cases, is forthcoming and helpful, or seeks to hide behind a wall of secrecy.

On the first point, the Government fully understand —and share—the real sympathy which Members feel for these young men. On the other hand, despite the sympathy one feels, we have to see this sad case in the context of other cases which have occurred and which will no doubt arise in the future. We have concluded that the only equitable approach in these cases is to base the question of compensation—over and above appropriate pensions and allowances—on the test of legal liability. Ultimately, that will be for the courts to decide in an impartial way on the evidence of the case.

Secondly, there is the question of the Ministry's approach in cases such as these. We do not approach them in a narrow, commercial way, striving at all costs to avoid the payment of fair compensation where the facts justify that. We aim instead—as is right and proper for a public body which seeks to serve the community—to assist in establishing the facts on which a judgment of liability may be made. Our normal practice in claims cases is to do our best to answer questions and to provide advice on points of fact to a claimant's solicitors to assist in this process. Moreover, if our legal advice is that on the balance of the evidence there is a case against the Ministry, we would normally then expect to reach a settlement out of court, so saving the claimant the expense and trauma of a court process.