The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton) : Standards of catering in the armed forces are kept under regular review. I have received no formal complaints on this subject, although I have had the opportunity to discuss catering and other matters relating to the pay and conditions of service personnel during the many visits that I have made to armed forces units in the United Kingdom and overseas.
Mr. Speller : May I inform my hon. Friend that it is most unlikely that he will receive any complaints? Is he aware that the standard of catering in the armed forces is now probably at its highest ever level and that it is certainly the equivalent of or better than that of our friends in NATO? I speak as an ex-catering officer who has lived entirely on that food.
Mr. Hamilton : The armed forces have benefited very much from the services of private catering contractors. I know of my hon. Friend's interest in this. The few complaints that we have received relate to instances where private firms have not met the manpower or the standards that were expected of them when the contracts were originally signed.
Mr. Tony Banks : Is the Minister aware that my uncle was in the catering corps? If people did not eat the salad, he had a habit of frying it, which produced a most peculiar dish to eat. Can the Minister give an undertaking that our troops no longer have to eat fried salad?
Column 712satisfactorily. Work on the first prototype has progressed well, the first full-scale development engine is expected to be run later this year, and more than two thirds of the equipment sub- contracts have now been agreed.
Mr. Cran : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there is no political impediment to the completion of the European fighter aircraft? I say that against the background of speculation about the attitude of the West German Government. Arising out of my right hon. Friend's dicussions on 21 January with his West German opposite number, Dr. Stoltenberg, is my right hon. Friend in a position to tell the House when he might announce the awarding of the final major contract for the radar system?
Mr. King : I can certainly conform that it is going ahead. I had a useful discussion with Dr. Stoltenberg at the end of January in which we agreed to issue a statement to the effect that we regard the EFA as the best solution to meet the requirements of our air forces in 1990 and beyond. I hope that it will be possible to make an announcement about the radar system shortly.
Mr. Rogers : In view of what is happening in central Europe, does the Minister accept that there may be a change in the initial number of planes ordered? Will he confirm that the project may not be viable if the number falls below 400?
Mr. King : The hon. Gentleman heard my answer. It is the considered view, stated by Dr. Stoltenberg and myself, that the EFA remains the best answer to our needs. The development phase is proceeding. The scale of the production order has yet to be finally determined and we shall take into account the circumstances at the time. We wish to make it absolutely clear, however, that we regard EFA's role in the air defences of this country as an important requirement.
Mr. Mans : Does my right hon. Friend agree that regardless of the political and military developments in Europe, the development of the European fighter aircraft is vital not only for this country's aviation and aerospace industries, but for the aerospace industries in Europe?
Mr. King : It is certainly a significant project in terms of the number of jobs involved, not only in British Aerospace, but in Rolls-Royce and, if the radar is successful, in GEC and Ferranti also. It is an important industrial project, but my first concern is whether it is needed in the defence role. Dr. Stoltenberg and I have agreed that we see a significant role for it as an agile fighter for our air defences in the 1990s.
Mr. Tom King : As I told the House last month, we are examining options for change as we take account of international developments and progress in arms control negotiations. This work is set against the background of our commitment to provide strong and assured defence of the United Kingdom, and to meet our NATO and out-of-area obligations.
Column 713Mr. Cartwright : Does the Secretary of State accept that the requirements of an arms control treaty, the implications of German reunification and the virtual collapse of the Warsaw pact all inevitably lead to the reduction of current levels of British forces stationed in Germany in the foreseeable future? Does not that underline the case for a thorough reassessment of Britain's defence needs in a changing world?
Mr. King : On reflection, the hon. Gentleman will find that most of what he said was contained in my answer. We are looking at options for change against precisely the background of international developments including, of course, the position in Europe and in Germany, developments in the Warsaw pact and what we hope will be the successful completion of the CFE negotiations this year.
Sir Antony Buck : Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important for us to keep a significant number of forces in Germany, especially as we must see it as encouragement to the Americans not to decouple, and to keep significant numbers of forces in Europe?
Mr. King : There is general agreement and recognition of the importance and value of NATO and of stationed forces, which was re- emphasised by President Bush in his commitment to the American presence in Europe. We believe that it is important to play our part in that, too.
Mr. O'Neill : The Secretary of State has said that the two criteria are international developments and arms control advances. What further international developments does he require than the likely reunification of Germany, the last obstacle to which has been removed today by Chancellor Kohl's cabinet agreement on boundaries? On the CFE first stage agreement, what more does he require before he can talk seriously to NATO and make constructive suggestions about troop cuts in central Europe?
Mr. King : I was glad to hear the hon. Gentleman raise the latter point. I waited with great expectation as I understood that he was about to reaffirm Labour's commitment to a strategy for strong defence and produce an updated statement of Labour's defence policy. I have the statement here. It merely refers to discussions between the Netherlands, Belgium and Britain. I remind the hon. Gentleman that NATO, the United States of America and Germany have a crucial contribution to make to such discussions.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) rose --
Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith : I wish that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) would sit down. I have the Floor. While we all agree that we should look forward to a reduction in armed forces in Germany and elsewhere, does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that it would be foolish in the extreme to agree to withdraw them until proper verification procedures are in place to ensure that the other side carries out its promises?
Mr. King : The wisdom of what my hon. Friend said is becoming increasingly apparent. I have made it clear that we are looking for options for change, but we shall not rush headlong into anticipating changes before it is clear what the fundamental, irreversible changes may be. The benefits of NATO are manifest and clear. One could make
Column 714guesses about what is happening and what the consequences are likely to be, but we do not back guesses--we work on facts and certainties.
Mr. Buckley : As the disarmament talks in Geneva are leading to a treaty agreement, what significant plans does the Minister have for phasing down the Porton Down chemical establishment to save expenditure on the defence budget?
Mr. Neubert : I can understand that the hon. Gentleman may not be so well informed as he might be about the subject because he has been put up to ask the question. Perhaps I should first tell him that we are talking about the chemical defence establishment, the need for which is not removed by the developments in arms control negotiations which we fully support and in which we play a major part. The purpose of the establishment is to devise means of protecting our armed forces against chemical weapons. The recent use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq conflict in the Gulf demonstrates that that is not academic.
Mr. Key : Does my hon. Friend agree that the work of my constituents in the chemical defence establishment is of the highest importance, and that its development of the technology for detection of chemical warfare agents and its role in verification make the work of the establishment more important, not less?
Mr. Neubert : My hon. Friend keeps in close contact with Porton Down and is well placed to know the value and excellence of the work done there. He is right to say that any agreement on chemical weapons convention would entail a great need for verification techniques. A great deal of important work is being done by the CDE on those techniques.
Mr. Boyes : In view of the encouraging progress on chemical weapons disarmament at Geneva, the fact that the United States accepts that the strength of the Soviet chemical stocks is down to about 75,000 tonnes, and the likelihood of a war in Europe in which chemical weapons were used being nil, are not there much better ways of spending £20 million than on obscene, unacceptable weapons which the British public do not want?
Mr. Neubert : I am sorry that the ignorance is spreading to the Opposition Front Bench from the Back Benches. It was quite clear from my earlier answer that not only did the establishment have a modest budget, but its purpose was not in any way aggressive or hostile. The establishment is simply to protect our armed service men from attack against chemical weapons. Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman said, there is a recent example of chemical weapons being used in the Gulf. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not intend that in any future conflict our service men should go into combat unprotected against such weapons.
Column 715use? Should not we, therefore, all be urging Warsaw pact forces to reduce weapon stocks and allow inspection? It would then be possible for us to take steps to assist in those measures.
Mr. Neubert : My hon. Friend draws attention to the great stocks of chemical weapons still held by the Soviet Union. We can only welcome the recent developments between the Americans, in the persons of Mr. Baker and Mr. Bush, and the Russians, in the person of Mr. Shevardnadze, towards reducing those weapon stocks. Britain set the example about 30 years ago by renouncing chemical weapons. We have no stocks of such weapons, nor any plans to produce any.
Mr. Tom King : We strongly support the Federal German Government's expressed wish that a unified Germany should be a member of the NATO Alliance. Consultations on the security implications of unification will continue within NATO and between the four powers and the two Germanys.
"The Labour leadership is anxious to avoid supporters being stampeded into demands for deep cuts in defence".
That is the policy of the Labour spokesmen--they have decided that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and other Conservative Members are right. We shall move forward, carefully analysing the options that exist and then decide sensibly, in the light of a more certain forecast, what the opportunities should be.
Mr. Wilson : Is it a matter of satisfaction or of concern to the Government that when the people of East Germany go to the polls in democratic elections in 12 days' time they will do so with short-range nuclear weapons from the West still pointing at them? Is not there a case now for some imagination and leadership in the Government's approach, instead of their being seen, led only by the Prime Minister, as the people who are clinging desperately to the last vestiges of the cold war?
Mr. King : The NATO defensive strategy of flexible response and of forward defence has been a key element in assuring the strength of the West and it will probably see the total collapse of the Warsaw pact. The worst thing that we could do would be to dismantle our defences and strategies at the very moment when the future is unclear.
Column 716Germany, the one thing that our armed forces will require in the future is versatility? Is that versatility better provided by the helicopter or the tank?
Mr. King : The other thing that our armed forces need is consistency of support, and on that issue no one could suggest that my hon. Friend has been guilty of any deviation from a clear policy of support for a proper provision of helicopters.
Sir John Stokes : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the economic implications of the unification of Germany are rather more important than the defence ones? Should not British business men be more worried than British generals?
Mr. King : That question goes a little wider than my immediate subject here today, but the implications are substantial. We welcome the unification of Germany--self-determination is a fundamental principle of NATO, for which it has stood for 40 years--but it obviously raises issues that must be addressed. Unification is more likely to be successful and harmonious if we have addressed those issues properly and sensibly.
Mr. Menzies Campbell : Does the Secretary of State accept that a unified Germany and membership of NATO is much more likely to bring stability to central Europe than if a unified Germany adopted a position of neutralism? Having regard to the implications for British forces in Germany, will the right hon. Gentleman undertake that any review such as that which is under consideration will take account of the relationship not only of forces in Europe but of United Kingdom forces generally? In particular, will he have regard to the possibilities of specialisation and the enhanced role that the Royal Navy might be able to play in a settlement in a few years' time?
Mr. King : I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman said in the opening part of his question. There are few supporters anywhere for the idea of a neutral Germany. Whether in the East or the West, people perceive the real danger that that could produce. We stand strongly for Germany being in NATO. The location of troops in East Germany is obviously an issue, but the location of Germany in NATO is important. Germany is a crucial country to the NATO Alliance and that is why its presence there is important. The hon. and learned Gentleman will forgive me if I do not go into individual service aspects of our review of options for change.
Sir Peter Emery : In view of my right hon. Friend's answer to the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) on question No. 3, and the relationship that Germany must have to that, in the review that is being carried forward will he press the Americans to set a level for the troop requirements in Europe in conjunction with General Galvin and ourselves, as it is essential that we should be able to give a lead to the rest of NATO on what we believe is necessary for the proper defence of Europe even after the conventional force reduction treaties?
Mr. King : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is exactly right. Consultation in NATO is vital and General Galvin, with his military responsibilities, clearly has an important part to play in that. We must consider any changes in clear
Column 717consultation with all the members of NATO to ensure that effective security is maintained, and the Americans are an extremely important partner in that.
Mr. O'Neill : What aspects of flexible response does the Secretary of State consider are still applicable in central Europe, and in which countries does he propose to extend a programme of forward defence, given that after Sunday of next week Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland will have some semblance of democratic government? Does he anticipate having blitzkriegs in those countries and using short-range and medium-range nuclear weapons on them?
Mr. King : That is a pretty savage attack by an hon. Member on the NATO defence strategy to which I understood that he and his colleagues were supposed to subscribe. It is NATO defence policy to support flexible response and forward defence, and any changes that we make in that policy will be made only after consultation with all our allies in NATO. If the document that I have here is the sum total of the new Labour defence strategy--there is only one paragraph that is not a criticism of the Government and contains a new policy--it is wrong anyway because it talks about consultations with the Netherlands, Belgium and Britain, but there are many more countries in NATO, and if the Labour party proposes not to consult them it will be changing its policy once again.
Mr. Thurnham : Should not British contractors look more towards Europe? Why should not we sell Sea Harriers to the French? The French navy has apparently had no inquiries from any British defence contractor in relation to any British equipment.
Mr. Clark : I cannot answer for the purchasing policy of the French navy, but my hon. Friend is incorrect. British businesses have sold a lot of equipment to the French navy. Racal recently sold it a communications system. We have recently endorsed our confidence in the Sea Harrier and I am glad to announce that within the past few days we have placed an order for a further 10 Sea Harrier FRS2 aircraft to replace those likely to be lost through attrition and sustain the Sea Harrier capability.
Mr. Duffy : Will the Minister confirm that the opening up of the defence market for defence procurement, as confirmed at Gleneagles last month, will offer the prospect of a more cost-effective level of defence spending, to the relief of the British taxpayer, and will open up the prospect of more jobs for members of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, the Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union and the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union, which is the prime objective of all those trade unions?
Column 718would be to his party's policy statement, with its undercurrent of drastic reductions. Certainly at the Gleneagles meeting, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, there was a mutual exchange of contract bulletins which means that industries in all the countries attending will have access to one another's defence procurement contracts.
Mr. Trotter : Does my hon. Friend accept that whatever the changes taking place in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, large-scale manufacture of modern tanks continues in the Soviet Union? Does he accept that there is a continued need to replace the British tank fleet and to go ahead with the development of Challenger by Vickers?
Mr. Foulkes : With all those complaints, is the Minister aware of the increasing, deep and widespread concern in my constituency and other tactical training areas at the dangers and environmental problems created by the increased amount of low flying? In view of the major changes now taking place in eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union, will the Minister tell the House what is the strategic justification for continuing and increasing this intolerable nuisance?
Mr. Neubert : We welcome the developments in eastern Europe and elsewhere, but that is no argument for not having strong, effective and highly trained forces to support NATO's defence strategy. Low flying remains potentially the most successful way of penetrating sophisticated ground and air defences. Our pilots must be trained to do that. However, we understand its impact on people, in their homes and outside. That is why we have devised a scheme whereby low flying is spread widely.
According to the most recent report of the Comptroller and Auditor General, although Scotland comprises 30 per cent. of Great Britain's land mass, it is used for only 10 per cent. of low-flying training. Although I recognise that the training is spread unevenly throughout Scotland, I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman is justified in making complaints in those terms.
Mr. Dickens : Is my hon. Friend aware that the Royal Air Force, in which I served, is the finest in the world? But the aircraft that fly low across the Saddleworth and Littleborough moors in my constituency do not keep to the moors. They frighten and terrorise the people who live in the foothills and villages. They also terrorise farm animals and domestic pets. Will he instruct the Ministry of Defence to keep away from the villages in my constituency?
Column 719to the ranks of those who support the Royal Air Force in this place. I confirm that the RAF has an excellent safety record. Last year there were only 15 major RAF accidents, which is a rate of 0.31 major accidents per 10,000 hours of flying. We make every effort to minimise the impact of low-flying training, in whatever part of the country it takes place. However, we must ensure that our pilots can practise this very necessary skill.
Mr. Archie Hamilton : At 1 April 1989, the latest date for which statistics are readily available, the Ministry of Defence held 241, 300 hectares of freehold and leasehold land and foreshore throughout the United Kingdom. From time to time it is necessary to acquire land to meet specific requirements, although we are determined that the defence estate should be no larger than necessary for the requirements of the armed forces.
Mr. Haynes : Is the Minister aware that in the wild west of America during the 1890s there were many people around who were known as land- grabbers? The Ministry of Defence is a land-grabber ; it grabs as much land as it can get hold of. Why does not the Ministry keep its grubby hands off it? The Ministry should leave the land alone so that it can be made available to people for leisure activities such as fishing and walking. It has enough land.
Mr. Hamilton : The Ministry of Defence makes its land available to people who want to enjoy the countryside, and in many areas we have preserved the fauna and flora. I must put the hon. Gentleman right on his facts. Since 1979, the Ministry of Defence has got rid of 10,000 hectares.
Mr. Brazier : Does my hon. Friend agree that training land is essential if our armed forces are to have adequate space in which to practise their professional skills and that the space available to them is becoming increasingly cramped? We want our armed forces to maintain their very high standards. Does my hon. Friend agree that the pressures may increase if members of the armed forces have to be brought back from Germany? Therefore, is not the Ministry of Defence right to be reluctant about selling too much land?
Mr. Battle : In the light of international developments, and in particular, reductions in defence, will the Minister reaffirm the statement of the Foreign Secretary that it is Government policy to turn tanks into tractors? What
Column 720long-term prospects does he hold out for workers in factories such as Vickers Barnbow in Leeds who are awaiting a Government decision on whether to order the tanks that they make? Or is he effectively telling them that their prospects are increased war work or no work?
Mr. Clark : That is complete nonsense. The Labour party is very hot on generating this smokescreen to conceal the probable results of the implementation of its plans. I suggest that the hon. Member has a quiet word with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) on the attitude of unions to this subject.
Mr. Batiste : Does my hon. Friend agree that, however optimistic a forecast one makes of future defence force reductions, British forces will need the latest, most modern and most effective equipment and that there will be considerable export opportunities? Will my hon. Friend therefore take this opportunity to repudiate the call by the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) for the immediate abandonment of the programme for the development of the Challenger 2 tank at Vickers?
Mr. Rees : If there are to be changes in central Europe, is not it likely that tanks will not be required in the same number? We are all concerned about those who work at Barnbow, and the answers that we have had from Ministers so far do not enable us to talk with the work force there on any firm basis. Is there any chance of the Government talking to Vickers about transforming tanks into tractors, or something like that?
Mr. Clark : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said that all options are under consideration. Plainly, I cannot give an assurance at the present time that any item of equipment will be issued in a particular volume.
Dr. Hampson : Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that there is far greater opportunity for the work force at Vickers in Leeds since we sold the royal ordnance factory to Vickers and it built the new factory, which is an enormous investment? Can he offer us a time scale in which he thinks he will come to a decision on the number of tanks and accept that the development programme is working well, because there is much uncertainty and anxiety in the city?
Mr. Clark : I entirely appreciate that concern, but, as I say, we cannot come to a decision on Challenger 2 until the evaluation programme is complete, and that will not be until the end of September this year.
Mr. Archie Hamilton : We are currently studying options for the replacement of our WE177 free-fall nuclear bomb. Both French and American systems are being looked at, but as yet no decisions have been taken. It is not our practice to comment on the individual systems under consideration.
Mr. Flynn : Will the Minister confirm that as cruise missiles depart from Britain they will be replaced by a deadlier and more numerous short- range attack missile--SRAM-T? Is not this a deceit of disarmament and in reality massive rearmament by stealth, and rearmament which is wasteful and futile? When will the Ministry of Defence follow the fine example of the United States and our European partners and answer a changing world situation with a flexible response?
Mr. Hamilton : I am glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned flexible response. That is and remains a key element of NATO strategy and there is no question of a breach of the INF treaty, which is for land-based missile systems.
Mr. Bill Walker : Does my hon. Friend agree that in the real world if a pilot is to deliver a free-fall bomb against sophisticated air defences he must fly low and fast and that he must be capable of getting back? That is why it is necessary to have a stand-off capability so that pilots--and very expensive pilots they are--are not exposed to this kind of risk.