Inside Pariament: Tory anger at defence cuts: - Rifkind faces angry backbenchers over defence estimates - Clash over test for invalidity benefit - Speculation on start of new session

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Indy Politics
The old, the sick and the jobless lost out to the armed forces in the concerns of Conservative MPs yesterday as the Commons returned from the summer break and plunged straight into the argument over public spending cuts.

Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, was confronted by a succession of angry Tory backbenchers as he opened a two-day debate on the 1993 defence estimates. His disclosure that the plan for a stand-off nuclear weapon for the RAF is to scrapped drew an immediate protest from John Wilkinson, MP for Ruislip-Northwood and former RAF flying instructor.

Mr Rifkind was ending the 'historic role of the RAF' as the primary instrument of sub-strategic deterrence when France, the United States and Russia had been advised by strategists to retain theirs, Mr Wilkinson said.

'When nuclear proliferation is such a manifest threat and all sorts of tinpot dictators are potentially able to get their hands on nuclear weapons, is Mr Rifkind saying that the threat of Trident is an appropriate response? Surely a flexible, visible, dual-capacity system like an air-launch weapon is the right response?'

Mr Rifkind said the WE177 nuclear bomb would continue to be carried by Tornado aircraft into the first years of the next century. After that, submarine-borne Trident missiles would be the only vehicle for sub-strategic deterrence.

MPs on both sides of the chamber seemed convinced that cost rather than an assessment of defence requirements was at the root of all Mr Rifkind's changes - bar the injection of a measure of egalitarianism into gallantry awards.

Patrick Cormack, Conservative MP for Staffordshire South, urged him to resist any such 'fatuous proposals as an arbitrary cut of pounds 1bn' in the defence budget, while Cyril Townsend, MP for Bexleyheath, said a pounds 1bn cut in conventional forces would be 'fatal'. Mr Rifkind agreed that arbitrary cuts would never be a sound way of conducting defence policy, but failed to still Tory criticism. Sir Geoffrey Pattie, MP for Chertsey and Walton, expressed the 'gravest doubts' about the ability of British forces to act independently.

David Clark, Labour's defence spokesman, pointed out that it was only five parliamentary weeks since MPs considered the 1992 defence estimates. 'The Government are rushing through the debate because they know that in the Budget next month the Chancellor will announce further defence cuts.

'The truth is that the cuts to be announced in November are Treasury-led and the defence secretary knows he cannot justify them in defence terms.' Mr Clark acknowledged the case for a reduction in defence spending following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, but maintained reductions could only be justified on defence criteria following a full review and not 'on the passing whim of the Treasury'.

Making plain where Tory MPs would prefer the spending axe to fall, Winston Churchill, MP for Davyhulme, said the 'prime raison d'etre' of Conservative governments had been the defence of the realm.

'Can Mr Rifkind explain how he and his Cabinet colleagues have arrived at a situation where after 14 years of Conservative government, national security expenditure has increased by pounds 1bn and social security expenditure in real terms has increased by pounds 29bn - more than the entire defence budget?

'If the Chancellor is looking for areas to cut, surely it is in the abuse of social security that he should be looking.' Mr Churchill said. Mr Rifkind said he did not wish to comment on the appropriate level of social security spending, but assured MPs that Conservative governments would never treat defence as 'a luxury issue'.

Mr Churchill might have derived more assurance from Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, who had earlier reminded MPs of his plans for an 'objective' medical test of eligibility for invalidity benefit. The test is intended to weed out those 'capable of work' in a doctor's opinion and curb the pounds 6.1bn cost of the benefit.

Raising the issue at Question Time, Dr Charles Goodson- Wickes, MP for Wimbledon, was cheered by his Tory colleagues when he congratulated Mr Lilley for his 'rigorous' review of the social security system. 'The operation of that system is perceived by many to be subject to abuse at the expense of those most vulnerable in our society. It is ridiculous that at a time when the health of the nation is increasing steadily that the number of people claiming invalidity benefit has risen by one-third over the past five years.'

But Donald Dewar, Labour's social security spokesman, said Mr Lilley should concentrate his anger and concern on 'the Government's economic failures rather than on those who have been forced on to benefit by ill-health'. Had Mr Lilley read the weekend comments of Archbishop Thomas Winning, Scotland's leading Catholic bishop, on the hypocrisy of targeting single parents, the unemployed and the disadvantaged in the name of a moral crusade? 'It is time the minister gave up scapegoat politics.

Mr Lilley said his only anger was over Labour's 'scaremongering', causing concern among the frail and the elderly. The Government's policies of reform were intended to help these people. 'It is monstrous they should be used as shock troops for the Labour Party as a substitute for the lack of policy.'

Perhaps the verbal battles sounded wearingly familiar to Tony Banks, Labour MP for Newham North-west. Challenging Tony Newton, Leader of the House, he asked if an alteration to tomorrow's business - replacing an Opposition debate with final touches to the National Lottery Bill - meant the parliamentary session would end sooner? 'Because we have been back just over an hour and I think people would like to know when this session is going to end.' Outside the chamber the word was that the 'spill- over' period of the old session would end on 3 or 4 November, allowing an unusually long break before the Queen's Speech for the new session on 18 November.