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Earl Howe: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me to respond. I made no personal comment about the noble Lord, Lord Williams; nor indeed would I ever dream of doing so in your Lordships' House as I have the highest regard for him. I believe that the noble Lord is well aware that, in debates of this kind, there is room for a certain amount of, shall we say, lighter comment. I am sure that the noble Lord himself will have taken anything that I said in good heart. I certainly did not mean to cast any aspersions upon him.
Lord Howell: My Lords, I am grateful to hear what the noble Lord said and I will not weary the House by reading out yesterday's remarks. But if noble Lords will look in Hansard they will find that if it was supposed to be a piece of humour it did not quite reach the standards of debate that we expect in this House. I shall leave it there and move on.
One of the things that I have come to enjoy about these debates is the contribution, very wise and sage, each year from noble Lords who have occupied such distinguished positions at the head of our Armed Forces. Today's debate has been no exception.
As everyone knows, the military and the financial equations, which we have had before us in this debate time and again, are out of kilter. In recent years, that is what this annual defence debate has been all about. It is a cause of the greatest concern and has to be approached in a rational and, one hopes, in a non-party manner.
Of course the Government want to take advantage of the peace dividend. I understand that. We all do, or should do, if it is possible--but not at the risk of allowing our commitment to be endangered by our economics which is what I think most of us believe to be happening today. The Daily Telegraph spelt it out on 15th February of this year:
Jane's Defence Weekly told us in May that the Defence Estimates show that army strength has fallen to 117,000 from 231,500 uniformed personnel--a fall of 112,000. Forcing the retention of the Gurkha regiment to make up for the shortfall of the parachute and other regiments is a point I want to make. The only consolation I take from that melancholy situation is that it again shows the value of that wonderful regiment, the Gurkhas, and how lucky we are that they are still there to fill the vacuum.
It is not only our Armed Forces that give cause for concern. The strength of our merchant shipping fleet was raised in the House recently. The Minister told us that in an emergency we could charter ships, as we did in the Gulf War. Can he be more precise today? What contingency plans exist and what is the realistic possibility of chartering such shipping? What would be the timescale? In order to make a judgment on such matters, as we are called upon to do, we must weigh up the national interests. For that we need detailed information. I hope that the Minister can provide it.
A matter of the greatest concern in our NATO and worldwide commitments is the situation we face in Northern Ireland and Bosnia. We should remind ourselves that activity in those theatres must be undertaken as well as meeting our contingency liabilities for possible developments in places as far away as Iraq, Africa, the Caribbean, the Falklands, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Cyprus, the Gulf, Russia and eastern Europe as well as Israel and the Middle East. They are all areas of potential activity with which British forces may be called upon to deal in an emergency. We have more operational commitments today than at any time since World War II. Sir Andrew Ridgeway told us two weeks ago in the Sunday Times:
As regards Northern Ireland, I am aware that we must all weigh our words carefully. But if ever a situation spells out the need for an intelligent, all-party approach today, it is Northern Ireland. That is why I am concerned about inflammatory political statements such as those to which I have drawn attention. We must remind ourselves that 10,000 so-called loyalists arrived last night at Drumcree Parish Church, so far as I can see without any attempt by unionist leaders to stop them gathering in such numbers in an inflammatory manner. That required the emergency movement of soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment. It is expected that another battalion, the Prince of Wales Royal Regiment, will arrive shortly. I would like to ask the Minister where the troops will come from. It is an interesting question following the rundown of our troops.
The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, said in his opening speech, and I agree, that all the gains of peace that we have had in the past two years in Northern Ireland can be easily undermined and seem to be undermined by the minute at present. Those gains must not be sacrificed. A military contingency plan must be provided and we need an assurance from the Minister that it is being covered.
Bosnia is another area of concern. We must face the possible situation that next December we may not be in Bosnia, although many of us think it unlikely. My colleague Dr. David Clark said, after a recent visit there:
Also in relation to Bosnia, will the Government tell the House what is Britain's intention as regards the war criminals for whom arrest warrants have now been issued? What is to be the role of the British forces? These evil men must be brought to trial. It seems that there is no other way of doing it except by asking the forces of IFOR to execute the warrants.
Inevitably, the expansion of NATO will become a more acute subject. It has been raised time and again in our debate today. As I said, Labour played an honourable part in creating NATO. We stand four square behind its aims. We support the Western European Union working in association with NATO. However, we do not support the concept of a European army. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, who drew our attention to the fact that we must have independence of action, even though we do so through our collective agreements in NATO and in the European Community.
If we are to consider the expansion of NATO--which I believe to be inevitable--it must be based on wide criteria. What contribution can any such countries make to the alliance in military terms? That is the overriding criterion that has to be applied. One other factor has to be taken on board; namely, the Partnership for Peace policy, which inevitably we have to ensure in conjunction with our American allies.
Finally, I turn my attention to matters not so far raised in the debate which have concerned the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, and myself in the work we have been doing as members of the Scientific and Technical Committee of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. The first relates to nuclear proliferation. NATO experts believe that, by the year 2000, 20 nations might be armed with ballistic missiles; nine could have nuclear weapons; 10 could have biological weapons; and 30 could have chemical weapons.
We have to strengthen by every means at our disposal international arms control. We need to freeze the numbers of our nuclear warheads. However, on nuclear policy we are with the Government: we cannot have unilateral nuclear disarmament. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, for the very kind comments he made about my noble friend Lord Williams and myself. He wondered why we were not being more forthright and whether the Labour Party was totally behind the Front Bench in this House. I assure him that it is. I accept the plaudits. However, if the noble Lord asks me why it has taken so long for the Labour Party to agree to include Trident in Mr. Blair's statements or discuss the pressing of the nuclear button, I say to him that realism does not grow on trees. It has to be carefully nurtured. That is what we have been doing.
We must have an international comprehensive test ban treaty. We have to strengthen our assurances to non-nuclear states. We have to assist the countries of the former Soviet Union with practical help to dismantle their nuclear weapons and improve the safety, security
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