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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 264: debated on Tuesday 24 October 1995

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Defence Establishment


To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is the current level of the defence establishment; and what was the equivalent figure immediately before the end of the cold war. [36559]

As at 1 September this year, the strength of our regular armed forces was just under 228,400 and our civilian staff strength was about 130,000. On 1 April 1990, the figures were 305,711 regular service personnel and 172,273 civilian staff.

Will the Minister recognise that there is now an estimated shortfall of about 10,000 personnel in Her Majesty's forces? Will not that present problems to Britain when meeting its national and international obligations in future? Will he recognise, too, that—by contrast—the British economy is suffering from severe unemployment? Does it not take a Government of some ineptitude to bring about such a contradiction?

Not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman has not quite got the right end of the stick. It is true that there are manning shortfalls, principally in the Royal Armoured Corps, the Royal Artillery and the infantry, because of poor recruiting and the inadequate retention of young soldiers. These shortfalls occur from time to time but are being dealt with by a vigorous recruitment campaign; and a special bounty has been introduced to improve retention in some areas.

The hon. Gentleman should realise that 32 per cent. of the land Army is engaged in commitments and operations—it is still an extremely exciting and thrilling career, one that is well worth people's joining. We must do more to ensure that people continue to be recruited to the service.

Will my hon. Friend use this opportunity to congratulate all involved in the defence costs study, which will save about £720 million on next year's defence budget? Will he also confirm that those savings will not be plundered by the Treasury but will be ploughed back into defence expenditure? Would he like to earmark some of it to improve on the establishment of our manpower, which is suffering from overstretch?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says about the defence costs study. As he rightly says, the results are extremely impressive: not just because the front line has been preserved but because substantial savings have been made.

I am also able to announce this afternoon that, in order to alleviate undermanning in the Army, we intend to retain for three years, from 1997, some 400 Gurkhas who would otherwise have been made redundant next year. They will form up to three infantry companies to substitute for British soldiers in infantry battalions, and a small number will also fill unmanned posts in units of the Royal Signals.

I believe that this imaginative scheme to use available military manpower in this way will be warmly welcomed by the Gurkhas, by the British Army, and above all by the British public, who rightly have huge regard and great affection for the Gurkhas.

I can assure the Minister that, despite the misleading headline in one newspaper this morning, as regards the defence establishment the Labour party has no intention of abolishing the courts martial system. As far as the figures are concerned, does he not have some explaining to do? The Ministry of Defence and the armed forces Minister have spent £500 million on redundancy payments, made 40,000-plus soldiers redundant, and now tell us that because we are short of soldiers we have to spend £100 million on recruiting them. Is that not an indication of mismanagement on the part of the Ministry of Defence?

No, Madam, it is not. We are grateful for the clarification on the courts martial system. I am disappointed to see that the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), its genesis, has been removed to the Whips Office. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well—he is merely mischief making—that restructuring could not be achieved by natural wastage alone. A phased redundancy programme had to be used by each of the services. Obviously some recruitment continues during a redundancy programme, to ensure that there is a properly balanced age and rank structure to meet all the skill shortages in certain areas. The hon. Gentleman is making mischief in the way in which he phrased the question. There is a problem on recruiting. He knows that, as do we. We see it coming and are taking the most radical and sensible steps to ensure that we deal with it.

My hon. Friend reflected on the fact that, at the height of the cold war, under the previous Labour Government, members of our armed forces faced decline in their conditions of service, whereas today they have realistic conditions of service that reflect the dangerous and challenging nature of their job. Does not that show that, on many other issues, one cannot trust Labour with defence?

The whole nation knows that one cannot possibly trust the Labour party on defence. My hon. Friend is quite right. Indeed, the services have never been better equipped or motivated than they are today. They are indeed at a lower level than they were, and quite rightly and inevitably so. They continue to be the most formidable armed forces of any nation in the world.

Financial Waste


To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he maintains a central record of financial waste in his Department. [36560]

My Department has identified significant improvements in the way in which we carry out our tasks, leading to large efficiency savings. We are determined to bear down on waste wherever it occurs.

Given the Secretary of State's tough reputation for controlling public expenditure, can he explain why his Department appears unable to control cost overruns at a time when more and more disclosures of incompetence and mismanagement are emerging virtually every week?

I am tempted to ask: where's the beef? The hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings) was one of those who signed the Labour amendment last week calling for huge cuts in defence spending and the scrapping of Trident. He is living proof of the adage that was just stated by my hon. Friend the Minister: one cannot trust Labour on defence. My Department has been at the forefront in cutting out waste. The defence costs study, to which my hon. Friend the Minister referred, rightly called "Front Line First", will yield savings rising to £1,000 million over the next seven years, and that is over and above the efficiency savings that my Department has gone in for.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the financial waste that would accrue both to his Department and to the British aerospace industry if the Department were to purchase F16s rather than have the mid-life update of Tornados? Is he further aware that such a decision, if it were taken, would be seen as a major blow to British industry and to many of the constituents of his hon. Friends, and as such would be wholly unacceptable?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on managing to get into his question an important point on behalf of his constituents. It is true that we have to consider all options in considering the mid-life update of our Tornados. One of those options is the possible leasing of F16s from the Americans. That is an option that we are obliged to consider, and we would be properly criticised—possibly by my hon. Friend, but certainly by Opposition Members—if we did not consider all the options in deciding on the mid-life update of our Tornados.

On the subject of waste, will the Minister confirm that the Department spent £24 million on buying 846 Reynolds Boughton light vehicles in preference to Land Rovers; that all those 846 vehicles have been found to be defective and unroadworthy and are in store in Army depots since they are unusable? How does he justify that as a sensible spending of taxpayers' money?

I have already said that, if I or any of my fellow Ministers find waste in our Department, we are determined to come down on it like a ton of bricks. That remains the case. The hon. Gentleman is, as always, picking around tiny little things. He is determined to undermine as much as possible the savings that we are introducing. The efficiency scheme that we have introduced in the Ministry of Defence has over-achieved its target ever since 1988. It has produced savings of around £2.5 billion; that is a dramatic achievement of which we are proud.

When my hon. Friend pursues his study in bearing down on costs, will he tell the House what is happening about the disposal of surplus MOD properties, which has been a subject of complaint for many years now by the Public Accounts Committee? Some progress has been made, but will my hon. Friend tell the House?

My hon. Friend is right that some progress has been made, but it is not yet sufficient and that is why we are conducting a study to improve it and will be able dramatically to improve those sales of land during the next few years.



To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the latest military situation in Bosnia. [36561]

The situation is generally much quieter following the ceasefire which came into effect on 12 October. [HON. MEMBERS: "Thanks to the Americans."] Sarajevo, for example, is a changed city with trams running, convoys arriving unhindered and prices falling.

In the new military situation, what guarantees can the Secretary of State give that British troops will still be available for protection and escort duties for British humanitarian and aid missions?

For as long as the United Nations mission continues, British troops will continue to play their part. I should say that I am aware of a situation which has arisen in central Bosnia where mujaheddin appear to be operating with some sort of vendetta against British troops and, for the time being, the United Nations has withdrawn British troops from certain convoy escort duties in central Bosnia. That is on the recommendation of the United Nations for their own protection. But the general position remains that British troops will play their full part in United Nations operations.

Did not the firm, decisive and well co-ordinated action that took place during the recess, in which British troops played a conspicuous and distinguished part, prove that decisive action does in fact pay?

Yes, I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I was bemused a moment ago to hear Opposition Members calling out that the improvement over the summer had been due to American troop operations, as though British troops had played no part. It is typical of the anti-patriotic ranting that we get from some Opposition Members.

The fact of the matter is that, as the House knows, British forces firing their artillery on Mount Igman played an extremely distinguished part, as did pilots from the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, who committed themselves to missions with absolute courage and commendable success. Opposition Members would do well to recognise that.

Does the Secretary of State accept that, if NATO was to be unable to put the full force into the field to support the fragile peace, it would be damaging for the prospects for peace, and also to the credibility of NATO? Is the right hon. Gentleman apprehensive about the extent to which the United States is willing to put troops into a NATO force in order to assist the peace process in the former Yugoslavia?

No, I am not apprehensive about that. I agree with what the hon. and learned Gentleman says about the importance of NATO deploying a full and effective force, but I am confident that the United States will wish to play its part in that. I can also assure the House that the United Kingdom will wish to play its full part as well.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the current situation in Bosnia was brought about largely because we deployed the right equipment and the right people at the right time? In particular, the top-cover flying of the Royal Air Force with the Tornado F3—especially at night—could not have been done by other aircraft crews available from NATO. The same applies to the important job of delivering the necessary laser bombs, performed by Harriers and Jaguars, and the enormous task undertaken by transport and other aircraft, including helicopters. All that meant that we were doing the right thing at the right time.

This has been an enormously distinguished period in the history of all three services; but the history of distinguished service in Bosnia goes back further than just the past few weeks. What we have done, patiently, in feeding the hungry and saving human lives has been commendable, but when our forces were called on to adopt a more robust posture, they did not fail.

Is the Secretary of State yet in a position to advise the House on the command structure for the 50,000 to 60,000 troops that, according to NATO, will need to be deployed in Bosnia following a truce and peace accord? Will British troops serve under the United Nations or NATO, and is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the agreement outlined yesterday in Washington will safeguard those troops?

I believe that the operation must be undertaken by NATO, operating within the bounds of a United Nations Security Council resolution. I believe that NATO is the appropriate body. As has been proved recently, it is able to operate effectively in military terms. I also agree with the American position, which is that the command and control arrangements for NATO need to be absolutely straightforward and unambiguous.

That having been said, however, I should like nations outside NATO to participate. I am thinking of Russia, and of Muslim countries. I hope that we can find a way of including those countries in the operation without in any way confusing the command and control aspect.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that recent events in Bosnia show how successful air power can be if it is properly deployed? Will he contrast NATO's effectiveness in the past few months with the dithering of the UN over the past two years? Will he ensure that, in future, British interests in Europe are pursued through NATO rather than the United Nations?

I certainly agree that NATO has been very effective, but I do not join my hon. Friend in his attack on the UN. I think that the UN found itself in a difficult position. Many of the problems that it faced were not its fault, but were caused by the inadequate support and resources voted to it by member states. I do, however, join my hon. Friend in again paying tribute to the way in which our troops have performed in the NATO operation.

National Parks


To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what new proposals he has concerning the extent of military activity in national parks. [36562]

My Department has no new proposals that will alter the current extent of military activity in national parks, which continue to provide essential facilities for our armed forces.

Will the Minister support a full public inquiry in relation to the proposed Ministry of Defence development in Northumberland national park—an area that is already being subjected to intensive military activity? Does he realise that, as well as the environmental concerns expressed by the Ramblers Association and others, concern is felt in the urban area of Tyneside about the number of military convoys and the inadequacy of roads to accommodate them?

I do not think that the hon. Lady speaks for many people in that part of the world. There is massive support for the developments at Otterburn among all local people; the Army continues to be an important part of their lives. We hope very much that a sensible decision will he made early in 1996, and I hope that a planning inquiry will not be necessary.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the defence land agents and land command at Wilton on the sensitive way in which they have improved the management of the defence estate, and the use of the national parks and other countryside sites? Does he agree that the strange coalition who oppose the Army's sensible and sensitive development of the Otterburn ranges are anti-Army, anti-local people, anti-jobs and anti-countryside?

My hon. Friend is right. That coalition is also anti-defence and I am extremely grateful to him for his tremendous support for the services in his part of the world. The Ministry of Defence gives the highest possible priority to conservation and maintains close liaison with national parks officials at both national and local level. The MOD has an unparalleled and unrivalled reputation for its conservation programme and it does not need lessons from anyone in that regard. I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

European Security


To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he next plans to have discussions with his colleagues on the Council of Ministers of the Western European Union about the future of European security. [36563]

The members of the Ministerial Council of the Western European Union will meet in Madrid on 13 and 14 November.

When he meets his colleagues on the Council of Ministers, will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to seek the support particularly of those in the associate partners organisations, to persuade our French colleague on the council to abandon all nuclear testing in the Pacific?

No, I will not do that. It is extremely important that the House should understand that, if a nuclear deterrent is to be credible, people must know that it works: the country that owns the deterrent needs to know that and others need to know it too. In the United Kingdom, we are able to have that confidence about our weapon system without undertaking tests, but it is not for us to lecture the French on whether they can have that confidence without testing.

I remind Opposition Members—I remind those many unilateralists among the Opposition—that we have secured a long period of peace thanks to the operation of the nuclear deterrent, which has been paid for by the taxpayers of the United States, of France and of the United Kingdom, and that those countries have borne responsibilities on behalf of the rest of the world.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the European Union's ambition to absorb the Western European Union defence organisation is deeply resented by those connected with the WEU and by many people outside, particularly in view of next year's intergovernmental conference? Is he also aware that the efforts made by his diplomats and officials in that sphere to achieve a sensible, middle-of-the-road approach are much to be welcomed and are much supported by many people connected with WEU? In those circumstances, will he give every encouragement that he can achieve a worthwhile bridge between WEU and the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation?

My hon. Friend puts it extremely well. I understand why there should be resentment among members of WEU at the idea that it would be absorbed into the European Union. The two are not susceptible to being merged. After all, the European Union includes a number of countries that are neutrals and it would be absurd to erect a new barrier to entrance to the European Union—a defence qualification that those countries would have to cross. My hon. Friend is right to say, therefore, that we want to build a bridge between the European Union and the WEU and to ensure that, as European nations take on more responsibilities for their defence, the arrangements they make are compatible with NATO and not in competition with it.

Does the Secretary of State accept that Labour Members disagree both with the concept of the single European army and with majority voting by the Council of Ministers on defence policy? Will he therefore assure the House that his discussions with his European counterparts are both sensible and constructive and are not coloured by an obvious and damaging anti-European bias? Talking about trust, how on earth can we trust a party and a Secretary of State for Defence who, over the past two weeks, have played party politics of a most blatant sort with our nation's defences?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position; after hearing his question, that welcome is really heartfelt and sincere.

The hon. Gentleman rises to denounce his own party, because Pauline Green, leader of the socialists in Europe and a Labour Member of the European Parliament, tabled a motion calling for the abolition of the veto in the European Union virtually everywhere, including the application of qualified majority voting to foreign and security policy, to frontiers and to tax harmonisation. If I might be entirely fair, I should also mention that the European People's party decided that qualified majority voting and participation and monitoring by the European Parliament must be worked out and that intergovernmental co-operation in foreign and security policy must be replaced by qualified majority voting.

It is perfectly clear that there is a battle to be fought to make sure that the national veto is maintained. There is nothing anti-European in what I say; it is merely anti-federalist. That is because the Conservative party will defend the United Kingdom's vital interests in the European Union.

Airmobile Brigade


To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement about the role and activities of 24 Airmobile Brigade in the former Yugoslavia. [36565]

Following the taking of British hostages at the end of May, 24 Airmobile Brigade was deployed to the former Yugoslavia to make clear our determination to enhance the effectiveness of UNPROFOR and provide additional protection to British troops. As part of the changes in UN force deployments requested by the UN Secretary-General, most of the troops are relocating to England and will remain on short notice to return to theatre if required.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. As well as paying tribute to the Highland Gunners who took part in action outside Sarajevo this summer, will he also pay tribute to the other elements of 24 Airmobile who were stationed rather unhappily in Ploce on the Adriatic coast? They were in great discomfort, but nevertheless provided an important deterrent role.

Yes, I am extremely pleased to do that. While for the majority of 24 Airmobile their mission in Bosnia turned out to be somewhat unglamorous, that does not mean that their role was unimportant. They played an important role in deterring and they lived under difficult conditions with very good cheer and I congratulate them on that.

When discussing former Yugoslavia and the remaining British forces there, will the Minister make it clear to the United States that we do not intend our forces to take one side in the conflict and that when the implementation of the peace plans begins, firm and, if necessary, tough military action should be take against Croatia if it continues to violate human rights and the rights of civilians throughout the former Yugoslavia?

It is extremely important that the forces in Yugoslavia—including the implementation forces—should be even-handed. I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about human rights violations. We wish to have further details about what has been happening in Krajina following the Croatian advances.

My right hon. Friend rightly paid tribute to 24 Airmobile Brigade and to all our troops engaged in Yugoslavia. Can he give any indication of the total cost to the British taxpayer of our operations there over the past three or four years? To what extent have they been underwritten by the United Nations, and how much is currently outstanding?

I speak from memory, but I think that the cost has been £224 million so far. We have recovered about £70 million, but in principle most of that sum is refundable by the United Nations.

Anti-Personnel Land Mines


To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what discussions he is having with other countries' Defence Ministers to reduce the number of anti-personnel land mines currently deployed. [36566]

The Government are at the forefront of international efforts to restrict the export and use of anti-personnel mines. We are disappointed that the recent conference which was called to tighten such restrictions was unable to reach agreement, but we will continue our efforts.

While I share the Minister's disappointment about the breakdown of the talks in Vienna recently when the United Nations held a conference on inhuman weapons, who does he think was to blame for the breakdown of those talks? Will he clarify the Government's position on self-destruct weapons and whether that played any part in the breakdown of the talks? Does he agree that with more than one million fatalities so far from anti-personnel mines and inhuman weapons and with many countries littered with hundreds of thousands of such devices, it is a major humanitarian and development issue, and that, when the conference meets again in January, our Government should give a moral lead in ensuring that the world is rid of anti-personnel mines?

I have some sympathy with the way in which the hon. Gentleman has put his question. I do not think that it would be appropriate or constructive for me to attempt to point the finger at any particular country, because we want to achieve a successful result when the conference resumes, in December we hope. We and our allies believe that a bad agreement would have been worse than no agreement at all. In order to press for a better outcome, we strove for the resumption rather than the total abandonment of the conference.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of any agreement covering self-destruct and detectable anti-personnel mines, because those mines cause severe damage to civilians throughout the world. We want to restrict their use and their export.

What is being done about de-mining measures in countries such as Afghanistan, Laos, Cambodia and Rwanda? Can my hon. Friend confirm that, with expenditure totalling nearly £20 million, Britain is in the lead in spending money on such projects? Would he agree that that pragmatic policy, combined with his policy to impose a moratorium on the export of land mines, is the right one rather than the rubbish spoken by many Opposition Members?

I can confirm that we have committed nearly £17 million to mine clearance projects around the world. We have funded projects in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, northern Iraq, Laos, Mozambique, Rwanda, Somalia and the Yemen. We are one of the world's leading contributors to mine clearance programmes. We have also been working with the United States and others on proposals for a land mine control programme, which would regulate the production, stockpiling and transfer of anti-personnel mines.

We believe that the conference result demonstrated that a total ban on anti-personnel mines—called for from a number of quarters—is not possible at this stage because there is simply not enough international support for it. We will work, however, for a successful outcome at the future conference, which we hope will take place in December.

Local Authority Discussions


To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what discussions he has had with local authorities in the last year to discuss changes to the size of the defence industry. [36575]

We try to involve local authorities by giving them early warning of changes to defence requirements for land and buildings, and we seek their help in finding alternative uses when those lands and buildings are no longer required.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that, since 1979, more than 345,000 highly skilled people have been paid off from the defence industry? Is it not about time that the Government formed a diversification agency to employ those people? The worry in the communities where those redundancies have occurred is that, without some action, those skills will be lost to their future generations.

We consider that decisions on how to adapt to changes in market circumstances and what products to make are for the commercial judgment of companies. I must say that, if ever there were a Labour Government again, no company would be likely to ask for the advice of Labour Ministers on how to run industry, because they have never run a whelk stall.

In his discussions with local authorities and defence industry leaders, can my hon. Friend reassure them that Her Majesty's Government are using their best efforts to ensure an equitable work share on important collaborative programmes, such as the Eurofighter 2000? That programme has been seriously delayed because the Germans are insisting on a bigger work share than that to which they are entitled according to their production requirements.

I can indeed confirm that the Eurofighter 2000 programme is intended to form the cornerstone of our air defence in the next century. If the cuts in defence spending proposed by many Opposition Members ever came into effect, we would have to have far more discussions with local authorities than we do now; then perhaps even Labour councils might begin to recognise that one cannot trust Labour on defence.

Why will the Minister not accept that the real problems facing many areas are as a result of the downsizing of the defence industry? Instead of using the cheap political rhetoric that we have just heard, why will he not accept the responsibility of Government to set up a defence diversification agency to work with industry and local authorities to deal with the problem?

So did I. It is not cheap political rhetoric; it is in fact the truth. None the less, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities. I feel sure that he will carry them out very effectively. I am pleased to be able to say that our recent decision, for example, on the Rosyth naval base, which I announced last Tuesday, had the full support and involvement of Fife regional council. That decision has been widely welcomed. We are grateful for the input of local authorities. We do not believe that a defence diversification agency would add anything to the conversations which we have already had.

Does my hon. Friend accept that, were the policies of the Opposition to come into force, there would not simply be diversification of our defence industries but destruction of them? Not only can we not trust the Labour party on defence but the Labour party itself does not trust Labour on defence, judging from the policies that it advocates and the votes that were not taken at the Labour party conference.

I could not have put it better myself. In fact, I did put it like that myself.

Greenham Common


To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what plans he has to transfer Greenham Common air base to Newbury district council. [36568]

Newbury district council, as one of the former owners, will have the opportunity to acquire part of the open area at Greenham Common under the Crichel Down rules. The area which has been developed is not covered by these rules and is expected to be sold on the open market.

Does the Minister accept that one of the main causes of delay is the fact that the developed part around the main gate is still common land? Would not a faster way of going forward be to exchange land between the developed land around the main gate and other land adjacent to but not part of the common, so as to avoid the whole issue of deregistering the common?

The hon. Gentleman is right; it is a fiendishly complicated matter, made the more so because of the element of common land, which, as he knows, has been the subject of a court case which recently found in favour of the Ministry of Defence. He will understand that it is our intention to ensure that the best possible use is made of the whole site and that it benefits the community and taxpayers. I can assure him that we are taking a great deal of trouble in processing it all, and I would be happy to discuss it further with the hon. Gentleman if he wished to do so.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the best possible use of the land would be to make Greenham Common available to the Millennium Commission so that it may be used as a theme park for the great failures of socialism? There could be monuments to unilateral disarmament and global socialism, and it would serve as an everlasting reminder of the fact that we cannot trust Labour on defence.

That is a fantastically tempting proposition, which I have no doubt my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would find very interesting to push forward. I shall ensure that is drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage.

Married Quarters


To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the progress made in dealing with surplus married quarters. [36569]

We are making good progress in dealing with surplus married quarters and aim to dispose of 4,000 quarters by the summer of 1996.

Does the hon. Gentleman not agree—I suspect that he does—that it has been a scandal that so many houses were empty—[Interruption.] Does he not agree that it has been a scandal that so many houses were left empty in the village of—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Gentleman still agree that it was a scandal that so many houses were left empty in the village of Longhoughton for so long when they could have been taken over by the district council or by a housing association? It is not only a scandal at a time of housing shortages but an embarrassment to the Royal Air Force locally, because it has no control over the situation at all.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that it has taken much longer than we would have wished to resolve the matter. I know that he has been following it keenly and pushing it along. Our aim is always to dispose of surplus property at the earliest opportunity so that it can be brought back into use as soon as possible. The sale of 20 houses to a housing association will be completed in December. I know that this will be welcome news to local people in housing need.

I thank my hon. Friend and congratulate the Government on their excellent progress in disposing of surplus properties in Portland and around Bovington. May I, however, add to the pleas I have made in the past as a result of talking to local authorities and housing associations? Many people would also like quite a large number of these properties to be sold to private people because we do not want to have a block of just council properties again; private owners tend to bring up the whole quality of an estate for the people living in it.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's point; what he says is self-evidently true. Whenever possible, quarters that are temporarily surplus are leased to local authorities and housing associations. We are currently looking to identify more properties that can be leased in the short term which would well fulfil some of my hon. Friend's ambitions.

Prime Minister



To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 24 October. [36589]

I have been asked to reply.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is attending the commemorations for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in New York.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming yet another fall in the unemployment figures, which are now below even those of Germany for the first time in recent years? Is this not a resounding vindication of the Government's policies and is it not about time that the Labour party explained how a minimum wage would help young people to get jobs?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The latest unemployment figures are quite excellent. He raises an important point in directing the House towards the minimum wage. I noticed that the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), the deputy Leader of the Opposition, said:

"Some Party Colleagues have advocated such a wage without having the courage of their convictions to state an amount that would make the commitment meaningful."
Will the deputy leader of the Labour party now break the habit of his party and answer the question? What is the figure that would give meaning to the policy?

This is an historic moment. I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his first Prime Minister's questions. It has been a long. time, but he has finally made it.

Given the Prime Minister's belated but welcome concern with waste and mismanagement abroad, can we now expect him to show the same concern for waste and mismanagement at home? Can the Deputy Prime Minister tell us how much money was wasted on the poll tax? How much money was wasted on the new bureaucracy in the health service? While he is at it, can he tell us how much it cost to set up and run his own new empire?

I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for welcoming me to the Dispatch Box today in this position. Of course, I reciprocate in welcoming him to the position he holds. But I cannot help but notice that, while my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has trusted me to come alone, the right hon. Gentleman has had a minder appointed to look after him. The curious point about the minder is that he has not even had the courage to turn up to help with the minding process. The right hon. Gentleman knows full well—[Interruption.] Do I gather that the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) has crossed the Floor and is now sitting on this side of the House, or is he scouring away in the basement somewhere relaying what is going on in the House to the leader of the Labour party, who, of course, will never be able to get a first-hand account from the deputy leader because they do not talk? It really is ridiculous—[Interruption.]

Order. This is very time-consuming. I want brief questions and brief answers now.

I think that we shall get a brief answer, Madam Speaker, because the hon. Member for Hartlepool has now turned up.

As the right hon. Gentleman cannot give us a proper answer, may I help him? According to the Government's own figures, £14 billion was wasted on the poll tax and £1 billion on the new bureaucracy in the health service. Is not the real truth that the Government's press and publicity machine costs the taxpayer £1 million every working day? Is that not the real cost to the country of the right hon. Gentleman's new title? Is it not clear that something so expensive to sell must be a pretty shabby product?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that, when a Government have as many good policies as we have, it is our duty to draw them to the attention of the people who will benefit from them. Our first obligation is to point out that, for every £1 spent on the health service in 1978–79, we spent £5 last year.


To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 24 October. [36590]

I have been asked to reply.

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply I gave some moments ago.

Order. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) will resume his seat.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the BBC and Channel 4 on transmitting live the whole of last week's debate on the Prison Service? Does he agree that that provided viewers with the opportunity to see my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary demolish the Opposition's unworthy and unsuccessful attempt to smear his reputation?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. It was excellent that the House and a wider public had the chance to see the vacuum that lies behind Labour's allegations. They also had the chance to hear the excellent speech by my right hon. and learned Friend. If the BBC continues to show the Opposition in that light, it will not be Alastair Campbell who rings up to complain but the League Against Cruel Sports.


To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 24 October. [36591]

I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Lady to the reply I gave some moments ago.

Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that, because of financial constraints, Rochdale health authority proposes that elderly, critically ill patients should not be allowed into nursing homes funded by the national health service unless they will die within four weeks? Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that that is ultimately the responsibility of the Government?

It is the ultimate responsibility of the Government to provide the excellent health service that we do. I would not be prepared to discuss at the Dispatch Box the sort of case that the hon. Lady put to me without a chance to examine it in more detail. However, the health service is attracting increasing funds and the results are increasingly attractive to the public. Public assessment of the quality of the health service is rising consistently.

After the warm-up bout last week, will my right hon. Friend arrange, after the manner of the Ryder and Walker cups, a series of singles matches between members of the Cabinet and their opposite numbers, not least so that we can see whether the captain of the other side, in a manner unusual in international golf, continues to intervene to help his hon. Friends out of bunkers?

My right hon. Friend is a pastmaster at coming to the heart of a matter. I suspect that the Leader of the Opposition will not want to reveal his shadow Cabinet too conspicuously because it is self-evident that the parliamentary Labour party has elected a shadow Cabinet diametrically opposite to the direction in which the Leader of the Opposition wants to go.


To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 24 October. [36592]

I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister recognise that investment in manufacturing is lower than it was six years ago, despite a recent and welcome improvement? Does he accept that the lack of investment—widely acknowledged as a British problem—is directly responsible for the loss of 520 jobs in my constituency at the British Steel plant which is the only supplier of specialist seamless tubes in the United Kingdom? Will he undertake to intervene—preferably before breakfast—and ask for a rethink on the closure? Does he recognise that, if the plant closes, we shall have an even bigger balance of trade problem than we have at present?

The hon. Gentleman would help his constituency if he got up earlier in the morning, as he would discover that unemployment in his constituency has fallen by 30 per cent. in the past two and a half years.

On United Nations day, will my right hon. Friend reflect that the Inter-Parliamentary Union conference at the General Assembly in New York a month ago agreed unanimously that the problems of the UN are our problems and that, if we did not have the organisation, we would have to invent it?

My hon. Friend has made a valuable contribution to the subject, and particularly to the work of the IPU, and the House is indebted to him for that. Our support of the UN is second to none, but that is no justification for the organisation wasting money and not collecting its proper dues.


To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 24 October. [36593]

I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.

We seem to have some difficulty in eliciting direct answers from the Deputy Prime Minister. Following what my right hon. Friend the deputy Leader of the Opposition said, an article in The Independent yesterday asserted that the Deputy Prime Minister had spent £80,000 of public money on a desk diary. Did the Deputy Prime Minister receive permission from the Prime Minister to spend that money in such an extravagant manner?

The hon. Lady will find that, if she relies on the national press for the basis of her research, she will be consistently wrong-footed. I spent no money on a desk. The hon. Lady would be better employed praising the Government, who have presided over a 22 per cent. reduction in unemployment in her constituency.


To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 24 October. [36594]

I have been asked to reply.

I refer my hon. Friend—[Interruption.]

Order. The House must come to order. I want to hear the answers to the questions, whether the House does or not. [Interruption.] Order. Do be quiet.

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply I gave some moments ago.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that no less a luminary than the director of the Fabian Society has come out in support of grant-maintained schools, much to the relief of the Leader of the Opposition, whose party is opposing him on the matter? With almost cross-party support for the measure, can we count on the Government to proceed with all speed to make all our schools grant maintained, thus bringing a choice of school to every parent?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw the attention of the House to this critical matter. The fact is that, in putting forward the proposal, the Fabian Society is once again looking to the Conservatives for the ideas which are taking us forward into the next century. For all the rhetoric of the left, what the Opposition are about is abolishing grant-maintained schools, abolishing grammar schools, abolishing city technology colleges and abolishing simple performance tables and simple tests—everything is for dogma and rhetoric, and nothing is for quality in education.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister not realise that all this knockabout opposite will be taken very badly by starving millions in the third world who are already fearful of the proposed cuts—[Interruption.] Conservative Members are laughing, as usual. Now we have the Prime Minister at the United Nations talking about abolishing UNESCO, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Labour Organisation. That will go down extremely badly because everyone knows that, like the cuts in overseas aid, the proposals are to fund the pre-election tax cut bribes of the Tory Government.

Did I hear the hon. Gentleman refer to knockabout Opposition when he first intervened? It cannot be explained in any other language. This country has the fifth largest aid programme in the world. How can the Labour party decry that? When one adds to that our inward investment in other people's countries and the remarkable contribution that we make to peacekeeping, one has just one further example of the way in which, whatever this country does, the Labour party seeks to decry and destroy it.


To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 24 October. [36595]

I have been asked to reply.

I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Did my right hon. Friend welcome the protestations that we have heard, particularly from the Opposition parties, that all of us in the House are in favour of increasing investment in our railways? Does he believe that those protestations are consistent with, first, the suggestion by the Leader of the Opposition that the railways will be renationalised and, secondly, the statement by the new shadow spokesman on transport that she would not pay for it?

The whole House is interested in what my hon. Friend has to say, but it is also interested in what the deputy leader of the Labour party has to say to the union that sponsors him. Is he in favour of it taking strike action and imposing hardship on very large numbers of Londoners trying to get to work, or is he not in support of that?