MPs fear effect of more cuts on armed services: Committee warns Britain would be unable to defend itself

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BRITAIN faces a defence crisis if more budget cuts are imposed on the armed forces, MPs of all parties warned yesterday. Further cuts would leave Britain unable to defend itself, according to two highly critical reports from the Commons Select Committee on Defence.

Reporting on the July 1993 Statement on the Defence Estimates the committee said reductions in spending would 'gravely damage the capabilities of the armed forces and, following the 1992 cuts, would have a serious effect on morale.' Urging a period of 'financial calm' the cross-party committee said further cuts would reduce capabilities to below the minimum level necessary for the security of the UK.

The second report, on the Royal Navy, says the service is already stretched to 'unwise levels'. It would be incapable of defending trade routes in the event of full- scale war, the committee says.

During yesterday's Commons debate on the statement, MPs from all sides of the House urged Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, to resist the rumoured Treasury demand for a pounds 1bn cutback.

The committee's report attacks the statement for revealing 'little idea of which national interests were to be defended and where, in what order of priorities and in the face of which anticipated threats or dangers', while neither the statement nor the Ministry of Defence had revealed how last year's spending cuts had been made.

'It is unacceptable that cuts of this sort should be made without even the MoD apparently knowing in detail where they were made,' it says. Parliament should debate a 'rounded statement' of the Government's security goals and the resources it proposes for achieving them.

Members make clear that they believe parliamentary scrutiny is being stifled. The July 1992 statement was not debated until June the following year, while the committee was forced to compile yesterday's report in haste to comply with Government business managers' desire that this year's statement be debated on the first two days of the resumed parliamentary session.

They also spotlight management changes within the MoD which had made it 'more than usually difficult' to detect significant increases or decreases in expenditure. The ministry had been unable to specify changes in six top-level budgets.

Similar complaints are contained in the navy report, which accuses the MoD of 'apparent reluctance' to volunteer information and calls for planned numbers of destroyers and frigates to be expressed as a precise minimum, instead of, as at present, 'about' 35.

David Clark, Labour's defence spokesman, said the committee had once again castigated ministers for excessive secrecy and lack of co-ordination. 'There is now a firm cross-party consensus that the Government have got it wrong.'