HC Deb 14 January 1997 vol 288 cc115-7
3. Mr. David Shaw

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what assessment he has made of the state of readiness of the armed services for rapid deployment. [8972]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Michael Portillo)

It is our policy to be prepared for rapid deployment. We have created a permanent joint headquarters and joint rapid deployment force and placed orders for appropriate ships and aircraft.

Mr. Shaw

Does not my right hon. Friend's reply demonstrate that the Government have continually developed our armed forces, and have made sure that they have the modern weapons that they need and are developing in a way that meets the requirements of the new commitments that, sadly, we must take on from time to time?

Mr. Portillo

My hon. Friend is quite right. I am pleased that we have been able to adapt our forces to the modern world, and we are now able to devote about 40 per cent. of the total defence budget to buying the equipment that our forces need. Having the best weaponry, intelligence and command and control of the modern battlefield is essential, and having rapidly deployable forces means that we have an important extra element of deterrence so that we can show resolve quickly when an international crisis may be about to erupt.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

Does the Secretary of State agree that the readiness for rapid deployment depends upon adequate funding for the armed services? Yesterday, a national newspaper that is normally sympathetic to the Government called for a defence review and revealed that, in spite of promises to the contrary, there will be a 3 per cent. cut in defence expenditure in real terms next year. How will that assist rapid deployment?

Mr. Portillo

I am surprised at the hon. and learned Gentleman, who is a member of the Select Committee on Defence, as I explained all this in great detail to the Select Committee a day or two after the Budget. I made it perfectly clear then that, in the present year, the extra £380 million that is being spent has been carried forward from previous years. We have been granted £244 million for this present year for extra costs in Bosnia, and those two figures together come to about 3 per cent. of the defence budget. Of course more money is being spent this year than the plans for next year, but next year's spending will not turn out to be just the planned amount because we shall again be spending money on Bosnia. In reciting what The Daily Telegraph has said, the hon. and learned Gentleman is trying to compare apples and pears, and one cannot compare outcome with plan.

Mr. Key

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the readiness for rapid deployment of Britain's forces. May I invite him to consider the contribution made not only by the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency but by the thousands of civilian industrial workers throughout the country, including those at Boscombe Down, for example, which I visited only last week? I was told that they had never had as much work as they have now, with more than 40 different projects at that one establishment.

Mr. Portillo

DERA makes an outstanding contribution. My hon. Friend raises a broader point that is well worth emphasising: we often pay tribute, as we should, to our armed forces, but they are able to do what they do only because of the tremendous back-up from civil servants centrally in London, in the complex of establishments throughout the country and deployed abroad. It is a combined military and civilian effort and I pay tribute to both sides with great pleasure.

Mr. Barry Jones

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the future large aircraft project would assist deployment of our troops overseas? What talks has he had with British Aerospace on the matter and can he tell us whether the French and Germans are prepared to come in and guarantee the project?

Mr. Portillo

All three countries—including ourselves—have expressed great interest in the future large aircraft. We certainly have a need for future heavy lift capability that has not yet been met in our plans. At present, the Germans and the French have been unable to identify any funding in their programme for the aircraft, and I have no more news about that. I have no doubt, however, that we shall need aircraft beyond the C130J that we have already ordered, and our interest in the project is well known to the House.

Mr. Brazier

Does my right hon. Friend agree that our rapid deployment capability, and indeed our wider military capabilities, are heavily dependent on the armed forces having a breathing space of stability? Does he further agree that the threat of a full-scale defence review is the last thing that they need to settle down?

Mr. Portillo

Yes, the idea of a defence review will be extremely depressing and discouraging for our armed forces. I was, frankly, surprised to see the idea endorsed in The Daily Telegraph. It would have an extremely deleterious effect on our armed forces. We have completely changed the orientation of our forces because the cold war has come to an end and we have redirected forces and developed a rapid deployment capability. There is absolutely no need for a defence review and everyone in the House knows why the Opposition advocate one: they want to cut defence and they do not have the courage to come out and say it. We know that many on their Back Benches long to cut defence, but we shall deny them the opportunity so to do.