Skip to main content


Volume 172: debated on Tuesday 15 May 1990

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Low Flying


To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what steps he is taking to reduce the incidence of low-flying military aircraft over populated areas.


To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what proposals he has to review the flying of aircraft below 250 ft in the Scottish tactical training area.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement
(Mr. Michael Neubert)

The operation of the United Kingdom military low-flying system is kept under continuous review as efforts are made to minimise the impact of low-flying training on those on the ground. This monitoring applies equally to the operation of the tactical training areas which provide essential work-up training for exercises in North America.

Given the broad welcome yesterday for the report by the Select Committee on Defence and especially for the proposal that flights under 250 ft should be phased out over two years, will the Minister tell us when the Government will give a measured response to the recommendations in that report and when they will ensure that hon. Members of all parties who are interested in the subject are given a full opportunity to debate the issues?

We also welcome the fact that the Select Committee has concluded its comprehensive study of this important subject. The report deserves careful and considerable study, which it will receive. In accordance with parliamentary convention, we shall present our formal response in due course. Until then, I cannot respond to any particular recommendation in the report.

In considering the Select Committee's report, will the Minister pay particular attention to the evidence given by his own officials that it was possible to bring down flight training from 250 ft to 100 ft within two weeks? If the international climate persists, two weeks seems sufficient time in which to make the adjustment. Will the hon. Gentleman also pay particular attention to the fact that this country is paying a far smaller amount for research into simulators, especially on Tornado-type aeroplanes, than the Federal Republic of Germany? It would be appropriate to build up such research while phasing out very low flying.

It is important to remember that very low flying, which occurs in the three tactical training areas, accounts for only 1 per cent. of low-flying training as a whole in the United Kingdom. It would also be as well not to underrate the need for that low-flying training because training in this country is carried out at far greater heights and slower speeds than would be necessary in conditions of war, when aircraft would need to fly lower and faster. I take into account all that the hon. Gentleman has said, but, as I mentioned earlier in response to the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), we shall first have to prepare a formal response to the Select Committee.

Will my hon. Friend take particular note of some of the useful and practical recommendations in the Select Committee report, such as better records of low flying in each area and the publicising of a telephone number and address to which members of the public could complain, as well as the other recommendations?

Yes, my hon. Friend is right to recognise the constructive nature of the report and the fact that almost every aspect of low-flying training is covered in it. We shall certainly take account of what is suggested and we shall endeavour to be as positive as possible in reply.

Lincolnshire has the highest concentration of RAF stations in the country and, I believe, one of the highest concentrations of low-flying planes come over my house all the time. Lincolnshire also has a long tradition of great pride in the valour and skill of the RAF. Lincolnshire is totally committed to maintaining the RAF's tactical viability through proper—

If the young men in the RAF are prepared to risk their lives in our common defence, the least that we can do is to put up with a little noise occasionally. While naturally investigating any abuses, will my hon. Friend the Minister give very short shrift to the whingers?

Lincolnshire has many claims to fame, as I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would be the first to acknowledge, and I am glad to hear that it is such a strong source of support for the Royal Air Force and the need to carry out necessary training. As the Select Committee acknowledged, low flying needs intensive training and regular practice. That is the sole purpose of low-flying training in this country.

Does the Minister accept that other countries seem to manage without the amount of low-flying training that we carry out here? Would not it be a sign of the Minister's good faith about the need for change, which my constituents in Porthcawl would welcome, that should there be a reduction not only in low flying by military aircraft but in the number of training aircraft taking off from RAF St. Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan? Will the Minister make that commitment now?

There are no commitments to be made this afternoon, as I made clear earlier. We are members of NATO and we make a major contribution to the defence of this country and that of western Europe. The hon. Gentleman would do well not to belittle the efforts of our highly professional pilots in that defensive system.

Does my hon. Friend agree that Opposition Members who call for the abandonment of any stand-off capability for our low-flying aircraft expect RAF pilots to deliver old iron bombs with none of the security which comes from flying below radar? That is a recipe for disaster.

My hon. Friend, with his long experience of the Royal Air Force and of defence matters generally, exposes the poverty of the Labour party's defence stance, which will no doubt bring dividends when it is put to the test at another general election in which the issue of defence will be foremost in people's minds when they make their decisions.

Will the Minister inform his hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies) that Lincolnshire is not a designated low-flying area and that if any low flying is taking place in his constituency, the pilots are breaking the regulations? The Opposition welcome the Select Committee's recommendations, especially those that we have been urging on the Government for some time, but will the Minister assure the House that he will look urgently at the recommendations relating to ultra-low flying, especially that which affects the three areas in the United Kingdom subjected to flights at 100 ft?

I fear that the Opposition spokesman shares the confusion demonstrated by half the nation's sub-editors in this morning's papers. We must be careful to distinguish between the three tactical training areas where low flying is allowed as low as 100 ft and general low-flying training, which accounts for 99 per cent. of low flying. The latter is spread fairly over the whole country and counties including Lincolnshire will see their share of low flying. The only quibble that I have with my hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies) is that he need not necessarily believe that he is getting an unfair share of that low flying.

Chieftain Tanks


To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he expects to make a decision concerning a replacement for the order of Chieftain tanks.

It remains our intention to reach a decision by the end of this year.

My hon. Friend will be aware from his recent visit to Leeds of the skills, commitment and investment by Vickers and its work force in its objective to produce the best tank in the world for the British Army. Can my hon. Friend the Minister confirm that he has had an opportunity to examine the report on the second milestone and that that excellent company has passed that important test?

Yes. I am pleased to announce that Vickers Defence Systems has successfully passed the second milestone report. I am confident that if that progress is maintained, it will pass the third at the end of September. That process should allow completely fair competition, from which we shall select the tank best suited to the Army's requirements.

In selecting the tank best suited to meet the Army's requirements, does the Minister accept that it is necessary to take account of the threat and the need to meet that threat? Does he agree that it is necessary to resist any attempt to exact a crude percentage decrease in the defence budget and that we should ensure that the defence budget is adequate to meet the United Kingdom's continuing requirements?

I very much welcome what the hon. and learned Gentleman has said. That thinking is in the forefront of my right hon. Friend's mind when examining the various options for change in our defence procurement and spending.

In the future battlefield of central Europe—[Interruption.]—force levels may be less. Therefore, when reviewing what tank to select to replace the Chieftain, will my hon. Friend examine with the closest care the possibility of ordering dedicated anti-tank helicopters at an early date?

I do not go along with my hon. Friend's view that the next battlefield will necessarily be found in central Europe. However, Her Majesty's forces must be prepared to counter Her Majesty's enemies in any theatre. To give them the efficiency and capability that they need, it is necessary to address the correct mix between helicopters and armour.

What is the Government's present defence procurement policy? Does the Minister accept that the jobs of those who work in the defence industries, such as those at Barnbow, are proving to be the most precarious in the present climate of disarmament? If that company were not to get the contract, what practical alternatives would the Government suggest to ensure that there is job security for those people in Leeds?

To my knowledge, there have been no redundancies so far in either establishment. However, the issue of redundancies and work allocation is entirely a matter for the commercial judgment of the companies concerned.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on what he has said about the stage that the replacement tank has reached at Barnbow. Does he agree that we are now in a state of such uncertainty in Europe that we must carefully consider replacing our weapons with the most modern systems that we can find to deal with any eventuality? Does he further agree that the comments of some Labour Members about the future of the Leeds tank factory—that it might be turned over to making dishwashers and washing machines in the future—is typical of the defence policies pursued by the Labour party?

Yes. None the less, the Labour party's concept of an arms conversion agency with a central corporate directive ideology remains an interesting concept echoed only in the Soviet Union, which is hardly an example of high economic efficiency.



To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the nature and purpose of the recent visit of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement to Rosyth dockyard and naval base.

I paid a routine briefing visit to Rosyth royal dockyard on 25 April as the Minister responsible for the dockyards.

Will the Minister enlighten us about what reassurances he gave to the workers in the dockyard and with Babcock Thorn Ltd. with specific regard to radiation exposure? Will he assure the House that the levels of radiation exposure to which those workers have been subjected in the past will be reduced and that more stringent measures will be adopted in the industry—at Rosyth, Devonport and elsewhere—to ensure that such exposure is reduced and that the workers' health is safeguarded in future?

We naturally take our workers' health and safety extremely seriously. That applies also to the work force in the royal dockyards who are the initial responsibility of the dockyards' contractors. Ministry of Defence policy is that exposure of our employees to radiation should occur only where it is justified, that it should come within the statutory limit of 50 mSv per year and our own much lower self-imposed limit of 30 mSv per year, and that the level should be as low as is reasonably practicable. As a result, the trend for exposure levels has been downwards. If it is any reassurance, 98 per cent. of all dockyard workers have an average exposure of less than 15 mSv and, on average, for all dockyard workers, the exposure is only 2 mSv.

Nato Nuclear Planning Group


To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what decisions were made at the recent NATO nuclear planning group meeting in Alberta, Canada.

The meeting discussed a wide range of nuclear issues. In particular, nuclear planning group Ministers were able formally to welcome President Bush's recently announced decisions to terminate the follow-on to Lance development and nuclear artillery shell modernisation programmes. A copy of the final communiqués from the NPG has been placed in the Library.

Is not it a fact that tension throughout the world has eased a great deal and at the highest level of the super-powers there is new thinking about nuclear armaments? Will the Minister assure us that we are not the odd man—perhaps I should say the odd woman—out in recognising that fact, but are ready to meet all the other nations who are ready to bring down their nuclear armaments, or are we going to stand out as though the Russians are expected to attack next Thursday afternoon at 3 o'clock?

Of course, things have changed in the past 12 months. It is a recognition of the fact that the Warsaw pact's capability is much reduced, and the threat from the east European countries is probably no longer there, that it does not seem to be as necessary now as it was to make sure that short-range nuclear systems are modernised. However, I believe that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation will continue to recognise the need for a flexible nuclear response and to accept the fact that the Soviet Union is still a military super-power with a large nuclear capability and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his answer. Does he agree that the Soviet Union not only has more nuclear weapons than the whole of NATO put together but, more importantly, that nuclear weapons are spreading to an increasing number of Third world countries? Does he agree that it is inconceivable that western Europe should shed the only nuclear defences which currently belong in European hands by Britain and France relinquishing their small strategic nuclear deterrents?

That is quite right. As my hon. Friend has said, our deterrent is a minimum deterrent, so it is not a matter of embarking on a massive arms race. We have the minimum deterrent necessary to give us a nuclear capability. It is a tragedy that the nuclear non-prolification treaty has not been so successful as it might have been and there are other countries developing nuclear capability in addition to the original five powers, including China, which have nuclear weapons.

In relation to President Bush's welcome statement, will the Minister state whether his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister was consulted, or merely informed, before the statement was made?

Yes, there was consultation, and we were kept in touch about the intentions of the United States before the announcement was made.

Does the Minister agree that although there is a lessening of aggression and tension coming from eastern countries, including the Soviet Union, there seems to be an increase in aggression and tension coming from the middle east, particularly Iraq and Libya? Will he therefore assure me and the people of this country that we shall keep up our vigilance and continue to develop our conventional forces and modernise our nuclear deterrent—unlike the Labour party which, at the last Labour party conference, agreed to a reduction in defence spending of £5 billion or, to put it another way, the complete removal of the Royal Air Force? May I ask the Labour party whether £5 billion is the price of protecting our loved ones?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is essential that we keep a defence capability, because we live in an extremely uncertain world. Many of the recent developments that have led to the easing of tension actually create new dangers, so it is important that we should have a nuclear capability as part of our defence capability, and it is essential to keep it up to date.

Ministry Stores (Security)


To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he has any plans to increase security at Ministry of Defence stores in the United Kingdom.

Security at all defence establishments is kept under regular review. We look carefully at any general lessons which can be drawn from incidents such as yesterday's at Eltham.

Will the Minister confirm that £3·5 billion worth of military equipment is still stored in depots which do not meet Ministry of Defence fire regulations? Given the previous fires at Donnington which destroyed hundreds of millions of pounds worth of equipment, is not that criminal complacency?

We have a continuing programme to improve the ability of our stores to withstand fires. It costs considerable sums and cannot be done overnight.

Although I appreciate that the IRA will always use its cowardly methods regardless of the amount of security that we maintain at our bases, and that it will just aim for ever softer targets, will my hon. Friend assure me that as far as possible we shall draw service personnel and activities within secure premises and that when we come to think of selling off MOD establishments which are surplus to requirements we shall bear in mind above all the requirements of security?

Yes, we always bear the need for security in mind when we relocate military establishments. If we ended up with a number of enormous military bases incorporating all our different military establishments, the IRA could claim a victory.

Does the Minister agree that there is little point in strengthening the outer defences if potential terrorists can gain access to the very heart of defence installations? Is there not an overwhelming case for a truly effective method of screening all who have access to those establishments?

I must point out to the right hon. Gentleman that there are about 2,000 military establishments in the United Kingdom, and it is extremely difficult to provide a high degree of security at all of them. He would not expect me to go into details of the security measures that we have taken, but it is significant that lives were saved and injuries avoided at Eltham by the precautions that had been taken. The laminated windows that had been put in stopped glass splintering across the room.

Has my hon. Friend any plans to replace with something rather more effective the current wire mesh fencing that is so commonly used around military establishments and which is so obviously not intruder-proof?

When my hon. Friend asks for something more effective he is talking about an incredible increase in expenditure on security fencing, if we are to use all the different available sensors and so on that are needed to make them effective. It worries me that people think that security can be enhanced merely by installing perimeter fences, which may create the illusion of security even though it is easy for people to break through them.

Arms Reduction


To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what United Kingdom forces have been offered for inclusion in the proposed START agreement; and if he will make a statement on the defence implications.

The START negotiations are bilateral between the United States and the Soviet Union—British nuclear forces would therefore not be included in any agreement.

Why have none of Britain's nuclear forces been included in the START agreement? Is it because the Government are made up of closet warmongers who do not believe in the principle or practice of arms control? Do the Government remember their commitment to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and to negotiate away our nuclear weapons in good faith? Why, when the time is right, are the Government not prepared to make any reductions?

The hon. Lady is a bit wrong about this. The START treaty was between the United States and the Soviet Union. We were never part of it and it was not intended that we should be. I remind the hon. Lady that the Government's policy is to have the minimum independent nuclear deterrent that we need. We differ from the Opposition, who would like that deterrent negotiated away as soon as possible. I am sure that the hon. Lady supports that stance. There is a major difference in our attitudes. We want Britain to have a minimum nuclear deterrent and I hope that that will remain the position for a long time.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be foolish to include any British nuclear weapons in the START treaty until the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal is reduced to the extent that it no longer poses a threat to this country?

I totally accept what my hon. Friend says. It is difficult to envisage a time when the Soviet nuclear capability would be reduced to that degree. That certainly has to be one criterion. We must also remember earlier contributions to the effect that the non-proliferation treaty has not worked as well as it might and that other countries are now achieving a nuclear capability. We should not be concerned solely about the nuclear capability of the Soviet Union.

Why cannot Trident be included in the START agreement? Is not Trident an eight times increase in capability over Polaris at a time when world tension is reducing? Would not cancellation of the fourth Trident save Britain about £1 billion per annum? Why will not the Government cancel that?

As I have already explained, Trident is merely an uprating of our nuclear capability, and that is the minimum deterrent that we think we need. It is important for us to maintain Trident because if we did not we would cease to be a nuclear-capable nation. It is not the intention of the Government that we should be in that position, although I know that, in the unlikely event of a Labour Government, the Opposition would negotiate away as early as possible our independent nuclear deterrent.

Following the START treaty, may we look forward to a reduction in nuclear weapons throughout the world? Do the principles of those reductions—that they should be balanced, mutual and verifiable—hold good today and will the Government have nothing to do with the unilateralism about which we still hear from the Opposition?

Yes, indeed, and the basic preliminary agreements of the START treaty are ceilings of 6,000 warheads on 1,600 strategic offensive delivery systems. That would certainly lead to significant reductions. My hon. Friend talks about a reduction in nuclear weapons throughout the world. But other nations are trying to develop nuclear capability and there is a difficulty about making the non-proliferation treaty stronger and have verification in such countries.

Defence Companies


To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will list the five largest British defence companies providing defence equipment to the United Kingdom armed forces.

The Ministry of Defence does not maintain separate information on the size of companies, but the five largest British companies by turnover and providing equipment to the United Kingdom armed forces in 1989–90 were BP, Shell, ICI, BAT Industries and British Telecom.

The Minister told the House on 9 January that issues of defence diversity were purely matters for the commercial judgment of the companies concerned. Does not he realise that the Government, private firms and public enterprise must all play a part in the profound changes that are affecting our defence industries? The Government cannot wash their hands and leave the matter purely to commercial considerations.

The hon. Gentleman distinguished himself as being the only hon. Member who tried to get a whinge-up going on the occasion of the European fighter aircraft statement by my right hon. Friend last week. Therefore, I do not feel particularly disposed to join him in a philosophical discourse.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the question just put to him was absolute nonsense? Would not it be much better to talk about which companies are most important to our defence capability and, in that context, would he include Westland?

Plainly, as our principal helicopter manufacturer, Westland will have an important role in the provison of helicopters for the armed forces in the next decade.

Will the Minister advise the five companies to which he referred to avoid getting into bed with SGL Defence Ltd., whose paid hack in the House of Commons is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence?

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that he cannot say that. We dealt with the matter yesterday. The hon. Gentleman must not cast aspersions of that kind across the Chamber. Will he please withdraw that charge?

I am not aware of what I can withdraw. The Register of Members' Interests shows that the hon. Gentleman is a paid hack of SGL Defence Ltd.

Order. The phrase to which I object is "paid hack". That is not a parliamentary expression. [Interruption.] Order. This takes up a lot of time. Will the hon. Gentleman please withdraw the phrase "paid hack"? It is unparliamentary.

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that he must not bandy words of that kind. I want him to withdraw that charge. If it was levelled against an Opposition Member, he would feel strongly about it. Withdraw it, please.

Order. I am dealing with the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours).

I am not dealing with another point while I am on my feet. I am asking the hon. Member for Workington to withdraw that phrase.

I am a little concerned that my credibility among my hon. Friends might drop if I withdraw it.

The hon. Gentleman should be far more concerned that his credibility in this place may be compromised. Withdraw the charge, please.

One thing that I have never done is to tell anyone whom he should go to bed with.



To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many infantry battalions, both Regular and Territorial Army, are in existence at present; and if he will estimate the number of infantry battalions in 1995.

At present, there are 55 Regular and 41 Territorial Army infantry battalions in the British Army. The total number of battalions in 1995 will depend on the circumstances at the time. However, we recognise that the changing circumstances in Europe will have implications for the deployment and structure of our forces and we are therefore examining options for change.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as the next five years will show, the defence of the realm in the near future is more likely to depend on soldiers on the ground than on the intercontinental ballistic missile? Will he undertake to preserve the county infantry regiment with its territorial battalion as the logical military bobby on the beat which we are likely to need in the face of increased urban terrorism?

I accept my hon. Friend's view that we shall continue to need the capability to meet the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland, and that that capability will continue. However, we are now moving into a period when arms control agreements are likely to be signed and I cannot anticipate what the effects of those will be on the size and shape of the British Army.

If a major in an infantry battalion were to get into any kind of dismissal or resignation difficulty, would his case be confined, like paragraph 19A of the report on Colin Wallace's case in relation to his statement, to a very few senior officials? Would that be the position?

I cannot comment on what parallels can be drawn between the question and Colin Wallace.

When my hon. Friend is considering the future and number of infantry battalions, will he consider all the ways in which he can enhance the strength and quality of the volunteer reserves and Territorial Army? Will he continue to emphasise the importance of links between infantry battalions and their local area, county, and so on?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We are well aware of the importance of links between infantry battalions and various parts of the country. If there are changes, there is no doubt in my mind that the role of the Territorial Army and the volunteer reserves will become more important—in terms of reinforcement plans in Germany, for example.

Lance Missile


To ask the Secretary of State for Defence whether Her Majesty's Government will abandon their support for a replacement to the Lance short-range nuclear missile.

The Government were consulted on the decision not to proceed with the development of a follow-on to Lance, and we fully support it.

How do the Government justify their isolation in that respect? Will they stop blocking proposed cuts in short-range nuclear weapons at the next meeting of NATO?

We are not blocking any SNF negotiations, because the alliance's position on that has not yet been agreed. But there is no question of our blocking it. As to going along with the decision not to have a follow-on to Lance, we must accept that over the past year the position in eastern Europe has radically changed and that the need for short-range nuclear systems is not what it was.

In these important considerations, will my hon. Friend bear it in mind that the alliance needs to maintain the capability rather than a particular category of weapons systems?

That is absolutely right. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that we need to maintain the flexibility of nuclear response. Therefore, I sincerely hope that a tactical air-to-surface missile will be introduced as part of that—[Interruption.]

In view of the Minister's commitment to a mix of short-range nuclear weapons, will he say where they will be deployed and against whom, given the shortness of their range in Europe?

It is obvious that the hon. Gentleman is addressing his question to the wrong person. Why does the Soviet Union have both a shorter-range and ballistic missile capability? As long as it has that capability, and the ability to administer nuclear weapons at different ranges, we must be able to respond and thus maintain the nuclear stalemate in Europe.

Does my hon. Friend agree that what distinguishes the Conservative party from all other parties is that we are not prepared to drop our guard in defence matters? It is very important to be able to counter-punch when necessary. Mr. Gorbachev may not always be there, and we must keep up our defences.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are entering a period of great uncertainty, and it would be foolish during that time to drop our guard.

Merchant Ships


To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make it his policy to use only British merchant ships for Ministry of Defence charter; and if he will make a statement.

It is the Government's policy to charter vessels on the basis of availability, suitability and cost—and, subject to those conditions, to give preference to British ship operators.

Is the Minister aware that British-owned and registered merchant shipping has slumped from 1,143 vessels to 336, and that that is the lowest figure this century? Is the hon. Gentleman prepared, as a Defence Minister, to sustain the British merchant fleet by accepting the recommendation that it should be the only fleet to which the Ministry of Defence gives charter work?

There has been a decline in the size of the British merchant fleet, but that decline has been slowing down and profitability has picked up in the past few years. Most forecasters see some scope for expansion in merchant shipping worldwide. In the meantime, the Ministry of Defence—we are obviously responsible for that aspect—is chartering vessels from the merchant fleet. In 1988–89 out of 60 that were chartered, 45 were British—75 per cent.—and in the 15 months from 1 January last year until the end of March this year, of the 40 vessels chartered 32 were British. Of the eight that were not British, five of the ships were not available on the British register.

If the decline were to continue and to gather speed, there would be grounds for concern. At present, we have no reason to believe that, with the different arrangements that we have made, the armed forces would not have their shipping needs met in time of war.