Labour MPs raise fears of defence spending cuts

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The Independent Online
Labour MPs last night raised fears of cuts in defence spending in the wake of a leaked document warning ministers of low morale in the armed forces. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, says the Secretary of State for Defence is facing trouble over the defence review.

George Robertson was last night under pressure to publish the Government's foreign-policy baseline for defence needs after fears were raised by Labour backbenchers that the review of defence is being turned into a Treasury- led cuts exercise.

A leaked report in The Independent yesterday led to Labour backbench demands in the Commons for assurances that the Government will not break its manifesto pledge to make the strategic review of defence "foreign policy-led".

Sir George Young, the Tory spokesman on defence, and the Liberal Democrat spokesman, Menzies Campbell, urged Mr Robertson to allay fears by publishing the conclusions about the foreign policy baseline for defence.

Sir George said: "They have refused to publish the foreign policy baseline on which we can deduce the defence requirements.

"They haven't done that because they know if they did that, the Treasury would not let them have that baseline."

Mr Robertson denied he was holding back the results of his review of the foreign-policy commitments for defence. "Sir George Young was four feet away from me in the House of Commons when in October I told him and the House what the outcome was of the foreign- policy review."

Their fears were raised by the leaked report by Jon Day, the MoD's director of defence policy, warning that many would leave the armed services if the review failed to put right the problems they faced.

The alarm bells were sounded last night by Andrew Mackinlay, a Labour backbench MP, when he challenged Ann Taylor, the Leader of the House over the report.

He called on the Government to give a guarantee that it would not break its manifesto promise that Labour would maintain its forces.

Backbenchers fear that commitment could be put at risk by the Treasury's parallel comprehensive review of spending, which is seeking to shift money from Tory priorities to Labour's plans for expanding education, and health spending. Some MPs on the left would support money moved from "bombs" to "hospital beds" and the Government could be under pressure to deliver a bigger peace dividend.

A group of 14 Labour MPs from the new intake yesterday tabled a Commons motion underlining their support for CND - in spite of the long-term rejection by Tony Blair of unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Mr Robertson last night announced he is setting a target for recruiting from ethnic minorities of 2 per cent for recruits to the armed forces, rising annually by 1 per cent to 5 per cent by 2002.