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Defence Of The United Kingdom (Inquiry)

Volume 972: debated on Tuesday 30 October 1979

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4.1 p.m.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to appoint a Committee of Inquiry to examine the improvements that might be made in protecting the United Kingdom by strengthening the auxiliary defence services: and for connected purposes.
I should like to quote from a man who has had a long life and who recently wrote:
"Sadly, this is the third time during my life that the security of our country is in peril as a result of the neglect of our defences in the face of obvious threat. Let us hope our new Government will take urgent action."
Mr. McCullough's words are ominously echoed in Bassey's "Infantry Weapons of the Warsaw Pact Armies" published last week. That states that the Russians are capable of sweeping across Europe at 60 miles a day on a narrow front and that their vehicles are able to cross nuclear contaminated zones with their hatches closed. The threat is indeed obvious not only in Europe but world wide.

I congratulate the Government on the early steps taken to encourage both Regular and reserve forces. The whole country admires the Armed Forces, especially those serving in Northern Ireland, for their work. However, our reserve capacity and its scale needs urgent review, hence the call for a high-level inquiry.

In 1958–59 our official reserve was 893,000 men for all Services. In 1978–79, that figure has fallen to 395,000, which is less than half. Much of our Territorial Army is committed to NATO—and what of our own island if trained men are abroad? We must also consider that we may need to help our friends meet fresh Cuban or other encroachments, not only on land but at sea or in the air.

Last year my Naval Defence (Inquiry) Bill called for an examination of how modern technology could help merchant ships protect themselves and their cargoes of oil and refrigerated goods. Last year also my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks), together with Mr. Robin Hodgson, the then hon. Member for Walsall, North, made practical suggestions for better home defence. Recently my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) called for a revival of the United Kingdom Joint Airborne Task Force, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) asked for Royal Auxiliary Air Force squadrons to be manned by pilots who left the RAF prematurely, driven out by the Labour Government's defence review. I could give a long list of hon. Members and others outside the House who are deeply worried about various aspects of our reserve forces. There is a need for fundamental review.

We cannot tell what threat there may be in the future, whether from terrorism, major acidental disaster or Russian or Cuban action. If we are to be prepared without undue expenditure we must have the help of volunteers. Only a tiny portion of our defence budget goes on the reserves. At present it is 1·8 per cent. They are not expensive, but to enlarge the volunteer effort we must involve the general public.

The all-party Expenditure Committee's sixth report in 1976–77 said:
"We regard it as vital … that the full implications of the United Kingdom reinforcement policy should be known to Parliament and the public … Reserves are a matter of nationwide policy and the United Kingdom concept outlined above is not shared by all members of the Alliance."
It is not sufficient for studies on the reserves to be made in the Ministry of Defence or by specialist groups. The public must be brought in if we are to inspire substantial new effort. The inquiry should be set up by the Secretary of State and include men and women of distinction in practical applications of scientific discovery, as well as Service men, people in public life and industry and civil servants. They should have the will to extend the size of our reserves.

The inquiry should consider the following matters. First, the whole strategic concept of our reserves is totally different from that of our allies. Secondly, we need substantial increases in manpower, especially in the technical and scientific fields. Thirdly, industry should be more closely geared to defence purposes where that is shown to be economic and effective.

Fourthly, home security and defence should include strategic food and material stores and local defence of specific points such as oil rigs and pipelines. With so many of our forces away from home if the Territorial Army fulfils its NATO commitments, would the United Kingdom be safe from airborne invasion or sabotage from parachutists without additional trained emergency forces, which should of course be fully under Government control? Civil defence should also be available to meet the spread of disease and chemical or radioactive fall-out, whether through accident or hostile act.

Fifthly, the inquiry should also consider threats to seaborne transport around the Cape and how modern technology could facilitate the self-defence of such shipping.

Sixthly, the inquiry should consider the dockyards and other civilian roles. Why should there be a seven months' delay in starting refits for our nuclear submarines? Ought our spare steel making and shipbuilding capacity be put to use, which should not incur great cost for the nation, to strengthen our reserves and at the same time provide more jobs?

Finally, ought a Minister to be appointed by the Secretary of State for the reserve forces and their civilian backup? There is natural rivalry for scarce resources between the Regular and reserve forces.

All that and much else requires fresh thinking. I hope that the Government will bring forward proposals similar to those in the Bill. It is certain that we in the House will never be forgiven if our people have to suffer again from a lack of preparation and forethought.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Loveridge, Mr. Julian Amery, Sir John Eden, Mr. Maurice Macmillan, Mr. Peter Thomas, Sir Frederic Bennett, Mr. Walter Clegg, Mr. Eric Cockeram, Mr. Peter Emery, Mr. Geoffrey Johnson Smith, Mr. Michael Shersby and Mr. Ivor Stanbrook.

Defence Of The United Kingdom (Inquiry)

Mr. John Loveridge accordingly presented a Bill to appoint a Committee of Inquiry to examine the improvements that might be made in protecting the United Kingdom by strengthening the auxiliary defence services; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 8 February and to be printed. [Bill 59.]