Inside Parliament: Tories mass ranks to defend armed forces: Rifkind announces cuts in miltary hardware - Benefits for young single mothers under fire - Labour attacks 'vandalism' of pit closures

Single teenage mothers lost out in the Commons yesterday to the massed ranks of Britain's armed forces as Tory backbenchers cast round for savings in public spending.

After announcing cuts in military hardware, Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, was warned by a succession of Tories that the services were now 'fully stretched' and he should not contemplate further Treasury-driven reductions.

Winston Churchill, Conservative MP for Davyhulme, thought the line had already been crossed and told Mr Rifkind that however skilfully he dressed up the announcement, he could not 'conceal that it constitutes part of the relentless run-down in the capability of armed forces from an already tiny base.'

Regretting there was no reprieve for any more infantry battalions and concerned at the reduction from 50 destroyers and frigates of a decade ago, to about 35, he went on: 'We will no longer be able toEfulfil our capabilities that we have in the past in the event thTHER write errorat we ever have to fight a significant conventional war in the future.'

Bruce George, a defence specialist and Labour MP for Walsall South, said that Mr Rifkind would go down as the secretary of state 'responsible for reducing the Royal Navy to the lowest number of ships of the line since 1689'. But Mr Rifkind said that was 'historically inaccurate. For example in the 1820s, after the Napoleonic wars, the number of ships of the line was reduced from 98 to 23.'

By contrast, Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, was urged by his backbenchers to take a tough line on taxpayer support for 'young girls who have babies in order to get flats and houses', as Harry Greenway, MP for Ealing North, described them at Question Time.

'When the welfare system encourages young women to have babies out of wedlock so that they can get a council house and get benefit, then that system has gone too far,' added Graham Riddick, Conservative MP for Colne Valley.

But Donald Dewar, Labour's social security spokesman, said people were worried about the treatment of lone parents in future budgets following ministerial speeches at the weekend. John Redwood, the Thatcherite Welsh Secretary, suggested single mothers should be denied benefits until fathers had not only made a financial contribution but had been pressed to return home.

The impression had been given that lone parents were 'a feckless group of social outcasts', Mr Dewar said, whereas 70 per cent were divorced, separated or widows. 'Ministers preach family values, but their policies constantly undermine family stability.' Government statistics showed that in 1979, 19 per cent of lone parents had an income of less than half the national average; by 1991-92 the figure had grown to 60 per cent.

But Mr Lilley claimed the largest and fastest growing group of lone parents was the 'never married' category. 'The important thing is that we are not against any category of people. We are certainly not against lone parents. We are in favour of parents accepting responsibility for their children, both parents, and offering them love, affection and support.'

Glenda Jackson, MP for Hampstead and Highgate, said there was no evidence to support the 'scurrilous allegation' that girls deliberately got pregnant to obtain benefits. She called for an assurance that no mother would have benefit denied because either she would not name the father or he could not be found.

Labour returned to the longer-running controversy of pit closures, aided by some of the Tory coal 'rebels' who did not bite three months ago when it appeared that Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, had secured a reprieve for 12 of 31 doomed mines. Opening a debate, Robin Cook, Labour's trade and industry spokesman, accused ministers of 'vindictive vandalism'. Not a single extra bag of coal had been sold and as a result, two of the 12 were already closing. 'If the Government gets away with it tonight, more of the 12 pits will close before the House returns after the summer.'

David Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment, said miners knew that 'most pits have a strictly limited life'. Replying in the absence of Mr Heseltine, recovering from a heart attack, Mr Hunt emphasised the president's words of three months ago that he could not guarantee British Coal would secure extra sales and that, 'The outcome will be settled, as it should be, in the marketplace'.

As Mr Hunt sang the praises of privatisation, plans for selling off British Rail were coming unstuck in the Lords with a defeat for the Government by 150 votes to 112, inserting into the Railways Bill a right for BR to bid to provide services.

(Photograph omitted)

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