Inside Parliament: Peer makes last stand on armed forces cuts

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Indy Politics
In what he called his own Custer's Last Stand, Lord Bramall, a former chief of the defence staff, yesterday warned John Major of the serious electoral consequences lurking beyond further cuts in spending on the armed forces.

Putting the military's case a week before the Budget, Lord Bramall said that unlike other departments, the Ministry of Defence had already played its part. 'The country has had its peace dividend. Enough is enough. To absorb any more would affect the front line and seriously curtail our foreign policy,' he said as the Lords debated the Queen's Speech.

In the time-honoured formula, the Queen said her Government 'attach the highest importance to national security'. But Lord Bramall said this 'worthy intention is increasingly not matched by practical realities'.

Cuts of pounds 1bn to pounds 1.5bn were being threatened, he said. If they materialised, it would have 'catastrophic effects on armed forces' strategy, training, motivation and morale'.

'We will soon be in a position when no sustainable operational capability would be possible without resorting to the reserves in some shape or form - the reserves themselves are under considerable threat. Any prime minister who has to admit, when action was demanded, that there was no longer anything he could do about it, would be in serious trouble - just as the Government would have undoubtedly fallen if the Falklands had not been recaptured in an operation of such professional brilliance,' Lord Bramall, whose career reached its zenith at the time, said.

Baroness Blackstone, for Labour, predicted a further decline in overseas aid. Since 1979 the proportion of Britain's gross national product spent on aid had fallen from 0.51 per cent to 0.31 per cent in 1992. If the freeze introduced in last year's Budget continued, it would be down to 0.26 per cent by 1995 - a record low. 'As in so many spheres, this government fails to keep its promises. It neglects the poor in Britain. It neglects the poor in the Third World,' she said.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey, Minister for Overseas Development, would not anticipate what might happen to her spending in the Budget. 'I am determined to push ever harder for the best possible value from the aid budget - good value for the British taxpayer and good value for the recipients on the ground.'

The Queen's Speech debate continued in the Commons, focusing on reorganisation of local government in Scotland and Wales. George Robertson, Labour's spokesman on Scotland, said plans for creating 25 unitary councils north of the border were a 'gerrymandering extravaganza' to try and tie up safe havens for a few Tory council bosses.

But Ian Lang, Secretary of State for Scotland, said the change would bring savings and end confusion over which authority was responsible for which service.

Any confusion in Wales over the changes is destined to last a bit longer following an announcement by John Redwood, the Secretary of State, that reorganisation in the principality is to be put back a year. Eight counties and 37 districts are to be replaced by 21 unitary councils, but elections will now be in 1995, not 1994, with the authorities working a year later. Ron Davies, Labour spokesman on Wales, said the delay represented a 'complete humiliation' for Mr Redwood who had failed to get Cabinet agreement to present the Bill in the Commons. It will start in the Lords.

(Photograph omitted)