Defence in Scotland

[back to previous text]

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): Would Slobodan Milosevic be facing trial at The Hague today had the British Government paid heed to the advice from the then leader of the SNP not to intervene in Kosovo, but to sit on our hands and watch from the sidelines?

Mr. Joyce: I thank my hon. Friend for asking that important question. I feel confident that it will be answered by SNP Members when they get round to making speeches this morning.

Mr. Salmond: As I recall, Slobodan Milosevic was ousted by the Serbian people in a Serbian election. Would the hon. Gentleman like to give some credit to the Serbian people for the removal of Slobodan Milosevic?

Mr. Joyce: I shall find a moment at the end of my speech to say a few words about the Scottish National party, but the simple answer to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris) is no. Milosevic would still be there, swaggering around, and would never have been captured.

I should like to move on. Following the terrorising of the population by local rebels in Sierra Leone, British forces helped to bring about the return of democracy and law and order. As my hon. Friends will recall, the terrorising included amputations and other horrors. In Bosnia, British forces have been at the forefront of the arrest of those suspected of war crimes. In Iraq, the RAF has policed the low-fly zones to protect the Iraqi Kurds in the north and the marsh Arabs in the south. In Afghanistan, a British-led force is making Kabul safer and freer than it has been for so many years.

In each of those campaigns, men and women recruited in Scotland have—as throughout history—made a huge contribution. Scotland typically contributes about 13 per cent. of the armed forces' strength. In talking about Scotland's contribution to the armed services, people often refer to Scottish regiments, but Scotland's contribution goes much wider. Scottish regiments may be a little under-used on overseas deployments. Capable regiments such as the Parachute Regiment are rightly deployed, but I would like to see line regiments deployed rather more.

Mr. Roy: In September and October last year, the 1st and 2nd Parachute Regiments took part in the NATO-led exercise, Operation Essential Harvest, in the former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia. By recovering more than 4,500 weapons from ethnic Albanian villages, they made that area much safer. I was fortunate enough to visit those regiments, which included many Scots, at the time. What role would

Column Number: 020

such people have if they were members of a tartan army that had withdrawn from NATO?

Mr. Joyce: I am really not sure. The hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife spoke earlier about the need for real armed services to take part in different types of conflict, ranging from peacekeeping and peace-enforcing to total war. Under the sort of organisation that we may hear advocated by the SNP, forces would simply not have that capability. The answer to my hon. Friend's question is that they would have no role in such operations. [Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. I ask the Committee to maintain order.

Mr. Joyce: Thank you, Mr. Hood.

The people of Scotland—historically and presently—have much to be proud of in their contribution to British armed services. Defence planning and preparation, which prevents poor performance, is shored up by personnel policy, about which it is important to say a few words. It is not the sexy end of defence, but since 1997 the Government have had some huge successes, although these have not always been trumpeted very loudly.

When the Labour Government first came to power in 1997, women were deployed in only a limited range of tasks; in particular, in only 30 per cent. of Army tasks. In the first couple of years, that extended to about 70 per cent. Gender-free and gender-fair testing was applied and I understand that the Army is presently considering the remaining 30 per cent. of tasks.

The issue of women in the front line is greatly discussed. To some extent it is a judgment for society to make. I believe that women should be allowed in the front line, but it is a difficult issue. Successive Conservative Administrations, of course, chose not to tackle it. Great credit is due to the Labour Government for not being afraid to deal with it.

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East): My hon. Friend makes an important point about the contribution to our defence of the personnel side of the armed forces. Does he agree that one of the major strengths of the British forces is the Government's encouragement of skills and expertise; for example, in defence colleges throughout the UK, which ensure that the training of soldiers is of such a standard that British peacekeeping forces here and abroad can meet the demands that they increasingly face? Does my hon. Friend also agree that, given our contribution to the armed forces, it would be good to have a defence college in Scotland to cater for the specific needs of Scottish forces?

Mr. Joyce: I agree with much of what my hon. Friend says. I am not sure about the configuration of training in Scotland—that decision would be for my right hon. Friend the Minister—but education and training are certainly at the heart of the UK armed forces' personnel policies. A huge amount of effort and money goes into education and training.

Until 1997–98 or thereabouts, it was not widely officially recognised that the Army and the armed services across the board had a problem with race. That was swiftly recognised after the Labour

Column Number: 021

Government came to office, and there have been a number of fairly successful initiatives to attract more members of ethnic minority communities to the services.

I have been a little disappointed in the last couple of years, not by the MOD's efforts—quite the reverse—but sometimes by the efforts of members of ethnic minority communities to engage with the armed services' serious attempt to recruit more people. I hope that there will be more success in that direction in future.

It is important to make a point about sexuality. I served in the forces for a while. People were always aware that there were gay people in the services, but no one felt that that should be said aloud, lest it have an impact on operational effectiveness. It was argued strongly that there would be no such impact, and of course there was not. I understand that the MOD now recognises that allowing gay personnel to continue in and to join the services has had a nil impact on operational effectiveness. The Labour Government have showed considerable courage, because the Clinton Administration in the United States tried a similar policy early on, probably with bad timing, and the political penalty was high. That is another matter for which the British Government deserve great credit, which they often do not receive in the press and the rest of the media.

Another equal opportunities point, albeit a more complex and multi-layered one, relates to disability. We cannot rule out disabled people of certain gradations joining the services, but we must recognise that the multi-skilling of service people makes things difficult. We can analyse a job and say whether a disabled person can do it, but service people have to do a number of different types of job at short notice. That makes it difficult to analyse a job and say whether a person with a particular disability can do it. As I understand it, the MOD recognises the need to consider its responsibilities carefully; it has an exemption under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. In turn, we must recognise the practical implications for operational effectiveness.

Defence policy is a serious business. A light note would be most inappropriate in this day and age, but perhaps I may use the word ''lightweight'', which of course brings me neatly to the Scottish National party. What are the points of reference for a putative or actual SNP defence policy? Yesterday, my staff asked the SNP head office who its parliamentary defence spokesperson was and they were told Colin Campbell MSP—[Interruption.] Where is he? He is in the Scottish Parliament.

My staff pushed a little harder, asking who the Westminster spokesperson was. After several minutes of confused silence, shuffling of papers and asking of questions, the SNP finally came up with the name of the hon. Member for Moray. We have to give the SNP credit, because it had made a note before the debate. It had chalked on a blackboard somewhere the fact that it had a theoretical spokesperson here, but clearly it believes that the defence spokesperson should operate from Holyrood.

Column Number: 022

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): I believe that the current Labour party Scottish policy was passed at the 1998 conference. Which parts of that policy does the hon. Gentleman agree with?

Mr. Joyce: There is a basic misunderstanding. Parties in government have Government policy—[Interruption.] I can hear the gasps of astonishment and amazement; I am educating hon. Members as I go. I am happy to take interventions if it will help their edification. I was talking about points of reference for Scottish National party defence policy and about Colin Campbell, who, sadly, is not here.

Mr. Salmond: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Joyce: Let me finish my point and then I may give way.

My second option was to look at the SNP's defence policy on its website, but no SNP policy is shown there at all. There is a good quote from John Swinney's post–11 September disavowal of NATO; we know that he is not a fan of NATO. However, the only serious thing that we could latch on to about the SNP's views on defence in an independent Scotland were the words in a staff paper written by a chap called Colonel Stuart Crawford. It is an interesting piece of work, a classic of its genre.

Colonel Crawford is a good-quality cavalry officer who was a member of the Scottish National party. He left the Army and, as he would have done at staff college or as a staff officer at the Ministry of Defence, he used his expertise to write a serious paper on the implications for SNP policy—particularly defence policy—of an independent Scotland. It was a classic, well-written paper, but Colonel Crawford is not a politician and subsequently, when he was official defence spokesman for the Scottish National party, things came apart. He thought that he was putting forward an intelligent military analysis but it was actually a terrible exposé of the mess that the SNP was in in respect of defence.

Colonel Crawford talked about the nuclear military capability in a logical, coherent way and about the SNP's enthusiasm for getting rid of it overnight. I do not know what the party would do with it; perhaps sling a weight round it and throw it in the sea.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 5 March 2002