HC Deb 08 July 1998 vol 315 cc1073-96 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Robertson)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the outcome of the strategic defence review.

Today, I am publishing a White Paper setting out the conclusions of the review and a volume of detailed supporting essays. Copies are available in the Vote Office. Moreover, I have written, enclosing copies, to all hon. Members individually.

Before I deal with the review, may I first apologise to you, Madam Speaker, and to the House for the unauthorised and improper disclosure to some newspapers last night of the White Paper's contents? I am as angry and as outraged at this leak as any hon. Member—indeed, I hope that it will be condemned by hon. Members from both sides of the House.

I have today asked the Cabinet Secretary to authorise an immediate and thorough investigation into how the leak came about. The person or persons responsible will be dealt with severely. The leak represents a serious breach of an embargo designed to ensure that the detail of this major review was given first to the House of Commons, and I very much regret the fact that the House and Ministry of Defence employees heard first from the media. I take full responsibility for that, as my office demands, which is why I apologise to you, Madam Speaker, and to my parliamentary colleagues

The British people are rightly proud of their armed forces. They want—indeed, they expect—the Government to provide strong defence for their country. The strategic defence review does just that. It is the most radical and far-reaching reshaping and modernisation of our armed forces for a generation. It is unique in three key ways. First, it has been foreign policy led, not Treasury driven; secondly, it has been unprecedentedly open and inclusive; and thirdly, it has the whole-hearted support of all the service chiefs, for whose help I express my thanks.

The review will fundamentally reshape and modernise Britain's armed forces, sorting out the weaknesses, building on our strengths and providing a structure to deal with tomorrow's threats, not yesterday's enemies. Our forces will be more mobile, better manned, better supported and equipped, and better able to act as a force for good in the world, where we can and when we choose.

The world has changed out of all recognition since the end of the cold war. NATO remains the basis for defence and security, but, while the threat of major war in Europe is now a remote prospect, new threats confront us: terrorism; the international drugs trade; the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons; information warfare; ethnic rivalries; population pressures; and the break-up of existing states.

In the cold war, we needed large forces at home and on the continent to defend against the constant threat of massive attack from the Soviet Union, but now instability is the new enemy, and the need is increasingly to help to prevent, or to shape, crises further away, if necessary by deploying military forces rapidly before they get out of hand. In other words, we must now be prepared to go to the crisis, rather than have the crisis come to us.

The review has demonstrated that our forces are not properly adapted to the new environment. In today's world, we need to get our troops to trouble spots and crisis areas quickly and safely, and ensure they are properly supported when they get there. The review has highlighted the serious weaknesses that we inherited, most notably in heavy transport and in our hollowed-out and demoralised defence medical services.

At the same time, increased commitments have taken their toll on morale and on recruitment and retention, and have worsened the already very serious problem of undermanning in our forces. The review proposes major new investment and enhancements to improve our troops' ability to deploy more rapidly to trouble spots around the world.

We will acquire four additional roll-on, roll-off container ships and four large C-17 aircraft or their equivalent. To support and supply our troops once they reach the trouble spots, we will enhance the Army's supporting arms, so that, for the first time, they can undertake two operations simultaneously.

Because we have a solemn duty of care to our service men and women, whom we ask to put their lives at risk, we will make new money and personnel available to revitalise the defence medical services. In total, I am proposing an increase in the size of the Regular Army of 3,300: a change which will go a long way towards restoring vital parts of our armed forces that have been hollowed out.

Another key theme of the review has been a more integrated or joint-service approach to defence, to improve the operational effectiveness of our forces. We are introducing a series of radical changes, which include bringing together all our battlefield helicopters under a single command and expanding the responsibilities of the Chief of Joint Operations; a new joint defence centre to develop doctrine and other planning on a tri-service basis; and a four-star Chief of Defence Logistics, who will properly co-ordinate and standardise our three support services for the first time. I am pleased—I know that my pleasure will be shared widely in the House—to announce that the first such Chief will be Lieutenant General Sir Sam Cowan, who is currently the Army's Quartermaster General.

I am also responding in the review to an historic proposal by the First Sea Lord and the Chief of the Air Staff, by developing what will be known as Joint Force 2000, bringing together Royal Navy and Royal Air Force Harrier jets into a single organisation, able to operate equally effectively from aircraft carriers or land bases.

The most important of the joint initiatives is the creation of a new pool of joint rapid reaction forces, which will be the spearhead of our new modernised front line and will include all our high-readiness forces. Not only will they enable us to respond quickly and effectively to crises of all kinds and to build up larger forces should that be necessary, but—unlike today—we will be able to mount more than one Bosnia-type operation at a time.

The review also introduces important new front-line capabilities. We will create a sixth deployable brigade, which will increase the Army's flexibility and help tackle overstretch. The parachute role of the current airborne brigade will also be transferred to the airmobile brigade, which will become a new powerful and highly mobile air-manoeuvre brigade or air cavalry when the Apache attack helicopter enters service.

To meet our longer-term needs, I am delighted to be able to tell the House that we plan to replace our current small carriers from around 2012 with two larger, more versatile, carriers—in effect floating airfields capable of carrying a more powerful force, including a future carrier-borne aircraft to replace the Harrier—the cost of which will be spread over about 20 years.

I can also tell the House that the review confirms that the acquisition of 232 Eurofighters remains central to our long-term plans, providing a step change in the RAF's combat ability. Changes in the nature and scale of operations mean that we need two fewer submarines, three fewer destroyers and frigates and 36 fewer combat aircraft. However, those changes will not lead to cuts in the overall strength of our regular forces since the manpower released by the reductions will be used to fill gaps in front-line manning, thereby easing overstretch.

For our reserves, there will also be important enhancements to the Royal Naval Reserve and the Royal Air Force Reserve. I am determined that the Territorial Army should become more relevant, usable and integrated with the rest of our forces. Those who want it to languish in an outdated cold war role do the TA no service at all. Although its numbers will be trimmed to 40,000, it will be given a real heavyweight role in our nation's defences and called up more frequently in times of crisis. For that, we intend also that it should be better trained and properly equipped.

Unlike other recent reviews, this review is designed to put people first. That is why I am today announcing a significant new training and education initiative to boost recruitment and retention. All recruits will be given the opportunity to gain the six key skills needed by all in the workplace, and all personnel will be given the chance to achieve qualifications recognised by civilian employers.

In addition, there will be a major new programme—the learning forces initiative—to expand education and training opportunities for the armed forces through the new learning credits, which may be claimed during service careers and for some time afterwards. Those proposals will boost recruitment and retention by increasing the already considerable benefits of a service career, and benefit defence by developing the skills needed for modern warfare. The economy as a whole will also benefit as better qualified personnel return to the civilian employment market after their service career.

For our service families, we are setting up a task force to address the special problems that arise from their particularly mobile life style. For Britain's ex-service men and women, we are setting up a new veterans cell to provide an access point for guidance and advice.

Of course, it is vital that our armed forces are properly resourced, but if defence is to command the support of the nation, it must also be seen as good value for money. By 2001–02, in three years' time, we will be spending £747 million more than this year. In real terms, allowing for one-off asset sales, that will be a reduction of £685 million or about 3 per cent. of the defence budget. That compares with a reduction of more than 20 per cent. in real terms in the last seven years of the previous Government. We will do that primarily through increased efficiency, smarter procurement and better utilisation of our assets. Because the review represents a three-year settlement, we will be able to bring a new stability to our defence planning.

The Government believe that, in addition to caring for our people and defending our rights at home, we must also discharge our responsibilities in the world.

We must strengthen the effectiveness of the international community in peace support and humanitarian missions of all kinds, particularly through the United Nations. I can announce, therefore, that Britain will make a larger proportion of our front-line capabilities potentially available to the UN for peace support and humanitarian deployments, including all our rapidly deployable forces.

In a still uncertain and unstable world, we must be able to react quickly to crises as they develop, but we should aim to do more than that. We should aim to prevent conflict from arising in the first place. I intend to elevate conflict prevention—defence diplomacy, as I have called it—to be one of the eight core missions that will underpin our defence planning. That commitment will be backed up by a series of practical measures, including a new education and training initiative to help to develop and promote modern, democratically accountable forces around the world.

I turn now to the review's conclusions on our nuclear deterrent. The Government were elected on a promise that we would retain Trident. We have kept that promise, and we will continue to keep it. All of us want a safer world in which there is no place for nuclear weapons, but, while large nuclear arsenals and risks of proliferation remain, our minimum deterrent remains a necessary and continuing element of our security. We have, however, conducted a rigorous re-examination of our present deterrence requirements, and we have concluded that we can safely make further significant reductions from cold war levels. We will retain Trident as our sole nuclear system, but the single submarine on patrol at any one time will carry only 48 warheads. That compares with the previous Government's announced ceiling of 96 warheads. By reducing our overall stockpile to 200 operationally available warheads, we will have cut the explosive power of the deterrent by 70 per cent. since the end of the cold war.

At the same time, we will press ahead with arms control, and will introduce much greater openness on nuclear issues, including on our stocks of fissile material.

All in all, these are sensible measures, and I am sure that they will be widely welcomed. This truly radical review builds on the strengths and successes of our armed forces. It rectifies the weaknesses that we inherited, and it modernises our forces to deal with tomorrow's threats rather than yesterday's enemies. It places the skilled, brave and versatile people on whom our defence depends firmly at the centre of planning, and it gives them a clear sense of direction into the next century. Above all, it delivers the modern forces Britain needs for the modern world. It is a good deal for defence and a good deal for the country. I commend it to the House.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

I endorse entirely the tribute paid by the Secretary of State to our armed forces and their families. They always acquit themselves with courage and distinction, and the whole country is rightly proud of them.

Let us be clear that the review was never a strategic defence review, but was always about cutting defence expenditure. The Secretary of State even began with a pre-emptive concession, offering the Treasury £500 million. He has ended up with cuts of more than £900 million a year. The Treasury has had its first instalment, and I must warn him that it will not be the last.

The cuts come as no surprise: Labour Governments always cut defence spending—[Interruption.] At least Labour Members have woken up and are making a lot more noise than they did when the Secretary of State made his statement. My hon. Friends and I noticed their ringing endorsement for his policy on Trident; I can assure him of at least our support on that.

The review was intended to take six months, but it has taken 14. For only 10 of those was it in the Ministry of Defence. The final four months saw the strength of our country's defences become a political football as the review was kicked around Whitehall between the Ministry of Defence, the Treasury and No. 10. No doubt a few focus groups were thrown in, too. What that has done to the morale of our armed forces can only be imagined.

Nor was it ever a foreign policy-led review. The Government have never published the foreign policy baseline as they promised—not even today. Even the panel of experts set up by the Government to advise them has never seen it. If the review had genuinely been foreign policy-led, it would have had to make some effort to match capabilities to commitments. There is no attempt in the White Paper to do that.

What has happened since 1 May last year to make the Secretary of State think that the world has become a safer place? All the evidence of the past year suggests exactly the opposite. Our commitment in Bosnia is clearly very long term. We nearly became involved in another Gulf war. A nuclear arms race has begun in Asia. The enlargement of NATO increases the level of our commitment to that organisation. I believe that we might still become involved in Kosovo. On top of that, there are dangers that no one can foresee, and it is not good enough to say that there are no threats just because we cannot foresee them. Who foresaw the Falklands or the Gulf crisis? Who, in the early 1930s, when defence spending was last at the level to which the Government plan to reduce it, foresaw the threat that subsequently engulfed the world? By their nature, such threats cannot be foreseen, but they must be provided against.

We welcome many of the proposals in the review and will support them. The Secretary of State concentrated on the few gains; I want to ask him about the many losses. The defence budget is to be reduced by £915 million a year under these proposals. Can he say what exactly that means for our armed services? Paragraph 89 of the White Paper says that we should be able to respond either to a major crisis such as the Gulf war or to undertake a lesser-scale deployment and a peacekeeping operation. Is he saying that we will not able to mount a major deployment such as the Gulf war as well as maintaining our operation in Bosnia? That is the implication of paragraph 89.

We welcome the various initiatives intended to make the lives of our service men and women and their families better and to improve conditions of service. There is one simple thing that the Secretary of State could to do this afternoon. He could respond to the repeated calls for more generous telephone allowances for our troops in Bosnia. It is a small matter for him, but a major matter for our troops, and he could solve it today.

The Navy is to lose two of its hunter killer submarines, three frigates and destroyers and three mine hunters. Those are significant reductions in capability. We will have fewer frigates and destroyers than France or Japan and about the same number as Italy. When will the cuts be implemented and which ships are involved? Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Falklands protection force will not in any way be diminished?

The Secretary of State has made much of the two planned aircraft carriers. They will, of course, add significantly to our ability to project force, but they will be very expensive and they are not planned to be in service until 2012, by which time Invincible will be 35 years old. Can he give a firm commitment to order those carriers? Conservative Members would be amazed if a Labour Government ever built and equipped them. They will be too expensive and will get killed off by the Treasury, first by delay and then cancellation.

Is the Secretary of State satisfied that our much-reduced surface fleet will be able to protect two carrier groups as well as HMS Ocean? Can he tell us something about the state of Project Horizon? It is widely known that it is in trouble, but the White Paper says that the new ships will replace our air defence destroyers in 2004. Can he confirm that that is the plan? The Navy is getting real cuts today for the possibility of two new carriers in 15 years' time. I confidently predict that the Government will never commission the new ships and that we will be left with a permanently weakened Navy.

We are delighted that the concepts of joint operations and rapid deployment are to be developed. Those ideas were started by us. We are also delighted that the Army is to get its full complement of Challenger 2 tanks. They were ordered by the previous Government, as was so much of the equipment now coming on stream, such as the Eurofighter and the Apache and Merlin helicopters. They will ensure that our forces have first-class equipment. Conservative Members doubt whether that would have been so had Labour been in power in the 1980s when those decisions were made.

We believe that cutting the Territorial Army by a third will prove to be one of the biggest mistakes of the review. Is it true that 172 TA centres will close? Which will they be, and when will they close? How much money will be saved by cuts to the TA?

The Paras have won the respect of the public and their fellow soldiers, to say nothing of our enemies. It is probably sensible to acknowledge the limited remaining role for brigade-sized drops, but, in making the change to the Paras' deployment, can the Secretary of State assure the House that the ethos and identity of the Paras will be retained as a discrete unit in the new brigade that they are to join?

The RAF is to lose 36 front-line aircraft: that is a significant and, we believe, dangerous reduction in our air power. We welcome the acquisition of the four C-17s, but is the Secretary of State confident that that will be enough? We were expecting him to order six. Can he tell us whether those planes are being leased or purchased; and, if leased, for how long? The future large aircraft project is apparently continuing, despite its well-known problems. Does he foresee a successful conclusion and to what timetable?

The White Paper is appallingly light on finance. It is absolutely impossible to understand how the annual totals are arrived at, or how capital receipts have been treated. Will the Secretary of State publish, in the very near future, detailed figures, so that the Select Committee can review them? He admits that the cut in the annual defence budget will amount to £915 million in real terms by the end of this Parliament, but does he agree that defence spending in the last year of the Conservative Government was £21.5 billion and that his plans for 2001–02 are for £23 billion, which represents a real-terms cut of £1.25 billion—considerably more than the £915 million that he is claiming?

There are many aspects of the White Paper that we shall support—indeed, many are simply the continuation of things that we had started or planned. However, there are far too many cuts—cuts in manpower and cuts in equipment. There will be fewer men, fewer planes and fewer ships to do more and more in an increasingly unstable and dangerous world. The Government's priorities are now clear and defence is not high on the list. We always suspected that the strategic defence review was a cover for cuts and today we have been proved correct.

Mr. Robertson

It is my pleasure to welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box for the first time as shadow Secretary of State for Defence. He has been put to a good and important job, although I cannot congratulate him on the quality of his argument. I suspect that he inherited that press release from somebody who was there before, rather than having made it up himself after giving due consideration to the White Paper that I gave him four and a half hours ago so that it would be possible for him to digest it.

It is a bit rich to be lectured by a former Conservative Treasury Minister about cuts in the defence budget. The hon. Gentleman was Economic Secretary to the Treasury between July 1990 and April 1992. The defence budget in the year 1991–92—one single year—was cut by a full 10 per cent. in real terms, yet he has the brass neck to come to the House of Commons and complain that I am going to reduce the defence budget by 3 per cent. over three years. The Government of whom he was a member cut defence expenditure in this country by 23.5 per cent. in real terms between 1990 and 1997, which amounts to 4 per cent. in real terms every year. The figure for the defence budget in 1997 was £6.5 billion lower than in 1990. Cumulative total cuts of some £25 billion of defence expenditure were made. I really think that we should take with a pinch of salt some of the hon. Gentleman's points.

The hon. Gentleman says that we have treated defence like a political football in the past year, but the very opposite is true. I wish that he had consulted his predecessor, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), because the right hon. Gentleman knows that the review has been unprecedentedly open and inclusive. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) attended some of the seminars that we organised and gave his point of view as part of that exercise. We have made sure that everybody had their say in the whole of the process, so that today the review is not simply the property of me as Secretary of State for Defence, or of the Ministry of Defence; I believe that it comes from all the inputs that we received over that time.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about the foreign policy baseline. I have provided for him in the White Paper the foreign policy priorities of the country and he will see a further outline in the supporting essays. Last October, I gave the House a clear outline of the Government's foreign policy objective and I followed that up with two major speeches; one at the Royal United Services Institute and the other at Chatham House. That is a weak debating point.

The hon. Gentleman said that we live in a much more dangerous and unpredictable world. Of course, we do. One of the problems that I have had to address when trying to ensure that our forces are fit to deal with that more dangerous world is to repair some of the weaknesses that I inherited. The hon. Gentleman will have noted that I was deliberately not critical of the previous Government, but those inherited weaknesses are there for everybody to see in defence medical services, logistics and heavy lift. We have had to rectify that.

Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman says, the outcome of the review means that there will be more regulars in the armed forces of this country. They will have better equipment and be better organised and they will be more relevant to dealing with the new dangers.

I gave the hon. Gentleman the White Paper and the supporting documents well in advance of my statement, so I am surprised that he asked about the force planning assumptions. It states clearly in the White Paper that our force planning assumption is based on being able to conduct a Bosnia peacekeeping operation and a Gulf operation simultaneously. That is what drives it. In the supporting papers, the hon. Gentleman will find even more documentary evidence of that.

The hon. Gentleman has obviously not read the supporting papers very thoroughly because he asked about telephone allowances. On page 9–6 of the supporting documents he will see that we say that telephone allowances will be increased as part of the review. We were responsive to what the armed forces had been telling us all along.

The number of frigates and destroyers will be reduced. It is interesting that, in the background piece of paper on which the hon. Gentleman was working last week, his researchers did not seem to know how many destroyers and frigates we had in the Royal Navy. The piece of paper that I have says that they thought we had 33 frigates and destroyers when, in fact, we have 35. It claims that the number will be reduced to 30 when, in fact, it will be 32. That is manageable in the current strategic circumstances and I stand behind it.

Our commitment to the Falklands is laid out in specific and graphic terms. The garrison will remain unaltered, and our commitment to the islands and their inhabitants remains and is on alert.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about aircraft carriers. Rather than deal with this substantial issue, which the Government have studied in detail, the hon. Gentleman chose to make a few cheap debating points. I said that we were planning to replace our three valuable and useful small carriers with two large carriers in 13 years' time. That is the commitment that we make in the review, and it is part and parcel of the capabilities that we think will be relevant for the future. As I have said, they will be paid for over a substantial time. Major decisions will still be required about what aircraft they will carry and what role they will perform, but we believe that our intention makes sense.

The fleet configuration has been part of the defence review, and the Royal Navy is completely satisfied with it. The Royal Navy may be losing some frigates and destroyers, the number of attack submarines may eventually drop from 12 to 10 and it may have fewer than planned in the way of mine counter-measure vessels, but it will also have the enhanced amphibious capability which is so important and of which it is so proud. It will also have some missiles that will work on the vessels that it has today.

The hon. Gentleman made much of the reduction in numbers in the Territorial Army. The bulk of the Territorial Army is configured for a threat that has gone. We want to make the Territorial Army more relevant, more usable and more integrated into the regular forces because that is what it wants. We want the Territorial Army to be able to be called up and form units because it told us that that is what it wants. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces will outline more of the details tomorrow, and we shall consult the Territorial Army about the footprint and contact point that is so important.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) congratulates us, or at least commends us, on the new deployment for the Parachute Regiment, which it will welcome. It will make it much more usable.

The Royal Air Force will lose some of its fast jets, but will gain 232 Eurofighters, which is one of the best multi-role aircraft that the country has probably ever seen. When it comes into service, it will add substantially to our RAF capabilities. We shall order C-17s or their equivalent because that is one of the capability holes that the previous Government left us. The future large aircraft will be a contender for the longer-term role.

The hon. Gentleman concludes that we have left the forces less strong than they have been, and that we have reduced manpower; but we have increased it. He claims that we have reduced the capability of the armed forces, when we have increased it. I know that he is new to the job, but the review has the backing, in public and in private, of the three service chiefs and the Chief of the Defence Staff. The review is right for Britain and its defence forces. That is why the hon. Gentleman is wrong and the forces are right.

Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness)

I very strongly welcome and support what my right hon. Friend has announced to the House. I congratulate him and other Ministers in the Department on making the right decisions on difficult issues.

I strongly welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement about the replacement of the aircraft carriers, which will be good news for my constituency. Will he spell out in more detail the time scale for that procurement objective? What further work will be put in place now to prepare for the replacement of the carrier programme? Will he say more about the Government's plans for our nuclear attack submarines? In particular, what decision have the Government made about ordering the additional two Astute class SSNs, which, as he will understand, formed part of the original decision last March under the previous Administration, who ordered three, with an option for two?

Mr. Robertson

I thank my hon. Friend very much for his understandably warm welcome for the review and its conclusions. As he is the Member for Barrow and Furness, which is the birthplace of HMS Invincible, I can understand his attachment to the concept and actuality of carriers. The time scale that I have made clear is an in-service date of 2012. That is the date which the Royal Navy believes to be sensible and achievable. Any acceleration was not viewed as practical.

On the new attack nuclear submarines, the existing plans remain as they are, and we are committed to taking delivery of the Astute class.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in allowing me sight of the White Paper some four and a half hours ago, which is about 50 per cent. longer than his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I were allowed to study the contents of the Scott report.

I share the Secretary of State's indignation at the leaking of the White Paper. Whoever was responsible for that insulted not only the House of Commons but the men and women of all three services, whose lives and jobs may well be affected by the White Paper's conclusions.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not be surprised if the response to his White Paper is relief, and not necessarily one of rapture, on the somewhat dubious ground that the reductions are not as severe as was originally feared.

I welcome the premium to be placed on flexibility, mobility and rapid deployment, the decision to restrict the number of Trident warheads, the confirmation of the commitment to Eurofighter and the emphasis on joint operations and planning. Will the Secretary of State explain why the White Paper of a Government who, rightly, want to play a leading role in Europe makes such scant reference to the opportunities for defence integration in Europe—a mere 22 lines or so on page 10? Will he tell the House what consultations took place with our European allies in the thinking that lay behind the White Paper? Will he also tell the House what account was taken of the current strategic concept review being carried out by NATO?

Finally, can the Secretary of State confirm that the expeditionary strategy that lies behind the White Paper will be pursued in the interests of the United Kingdom, and in accordance with our treaty and other obligations—as, for example, to the United Nations—but will not be based on an automatic assumption that the United Kingdom will, in all circumstances and in all parts of the world, underpin United States foreign policy?

Mr. Robertson

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his welcome for the key items in the review. I register his thanks for the time that was made available to him to read the report. I suffered 18 years in opposition, constantly complaining about the amount of time available to the Opposition to read documents before statements had to be made. I am very glad that, at the first major opportunity, I was able to do as I said for so many years; I believe that it makes for a better debate.

This is a good review by any standards. The force structure was put together following the foreign policy baseline establishment, and the force structure reflects the country's foreign policy priorities, which I believe are generally agreed and appreciated. Only after that was done were the proposals presented to Government, and the resources discussed and debated.

The force structure that was recommended by Defence Ministers, with the full support of the chiefs of staff, was accepted by the Government in its entirety—that is a crucial point for people to register. I believe, and they believe, that the finances that are available for it, given the new configuration of forces and the targets for efficiency and for asset management, are demanding but achievable, and will still give us the ability to pack a punch in the world.

The hon. and learned Gentleman's criticisms were more moderate than those that we received from the Opposition Front Bench. It is strange how keen the Conservative Front-Bench defence team are to spend more public money, when the shadow Chancellor does not spare an opportunity, any day of the week, to say that the Government are slack on public expenditure. I wonder whether they would deliver in government what they are so keen to say today.

On Europe, we have been engaged in a permanent consultation with our allies about the strategic defence review. On Monday night, at Lancaster House, where I met the Defence Ministers of Germany, France, Sweden, Spain and Italy and outlined where our review had taken us, they welcomed it with considerable congratulation. I hope that when they read the review when they get it in the post tomorrow, they will find something there of interest and value. NATO colleagues have also been consulted as we have gone along, and the formulation of the strategic concept takes very much on board many of the ideas in the review.

We are not tied to any particular alliance or to any individual country, because Britain needs and demands a right to be able to act alone. However, we take our treaty commitments enormously seriously. We take our alliances seriously, and our deep and lasting continued friendship with the United States of America underpins a common view that we have about many of the problems in the world today.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I seek the co-operation of the House. There has been an opportunity for only three questioners in three quarters of an hour. There must now be very brief questions; I am sure that the Secretary of State will co-operate in his responses.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

I welcome the outcome of the review and welcome the reduction in operational nuclear weapons, but I note that annual savings could be doubled if Britain concentrated on non-nuclear defence. I ask my right hon. Friend a single question: from this review, will the Government be in a position to get rid of nuclear weapons in the period following the next general election?

Mr. Robertson

If there is progress in multilateral negotiations, and if there is to be a balanced reduction in nuclear weapons leading to their elimination, we shall play our part in that, but today I have announced reductions in our nuclear forces. We shall maintain the minimum deterrent to which we committed ourselves before the general election—a commitment on the basis of which my hon. Friend and I were elected—but we have done so in circumstances where we have made a contribution to a process which, I hope, will eventually lead to a nuclear-free world.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey)

The House will have had considerable sympathy for the Secretary of State as he searched for something to say about the strategic defence review that we have not been able to read in the newspapers over the past four weeks. In terms of the leak, if the Ministry of Defence is so insecure, one wonders whether it can be entrusted with our country's security.

The right hon. Gentleman made a welcome announcement about increasing the establishment of the Army by 3,300, and he mentioned pay and conditions of service. Could he be specific about those? He will be aware that there was already a shortfall of 5,000 men in the infantry, and I cannot think of what he can announce in the SDR that will enable 8,300 more soldiers to be recruited and others to be retained.

Mr. Robertson

Let me deal with the leak. I am not prejudging the outcome of the inquiry or who leaked the document and how it was disseminated. Let us wait and see, and hope that everybody condemns it because it was wrong and whoever did it, if that person is found, will be treated appropriately. However, let us distinguish that leak, which was wrong and improper, from the widespread consultation through the year on all the issues on Britain's defence, for which I apologise not one bit.

I listened to the views of many sections of the community. The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) who is a distinguished former Secretary of State for Defence, came to me and offered his view and advice, as did Lord Younger of Leckie; Lord Carrington; Lord Healey; Sir Geoffrey Pattie; Pat Duffy; the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark); the former shadow Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young); and a host of others. We listened carefully to military and non-military views, and they were debated in the country as a whole. I am proud that although the review may not be a surprise today, it will be seen as common sense, the way forward on which we should all be able to unite because of that consultation process.

The hon. Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) mentioned the increase in Army numbers. That is welcome, and is in line with the Army's ideas. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, like his predecessor, is making valiant efforts to turn round the recruitment position that we inherited. The Army was 5,500 short, but we think that we have turned the corner and that recruitment is making up the deficiency. Through the other enhancements, and especially through the learning forces initiative, it is up to us to make sure that we get the right people of the right quality for the future.

Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West)

May I begin by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friends in his ministerial team? The strategic defence review is a tremendous achievement and will provide a secure future in a modern world. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a core mission of defence diplomacy for the United Kingdom's armed forces is essential to deal with the diverse uncertainties and crises of the present day world? Will he confirm that the review will provide the equipment and support that are needed by our armed forces for such a role, and that it will build on their excellent worldwide reputation as forces for good which can make a difference?

Mr. Robertson

I very much welcome my hon. Friend's support, which she has given not just today but throughout the exercise. As the Member of Parliament for Dunfermline, West and therefore for Rosyth dockyard, she will welcome the review's good news for that dockyard. She is right to pick up the defence diplomacy initiative and to ask for assurances. If we are to engage in serious military-to-military contacts that will lead to a reduction in tension and a greater increase in understanding, we must back our efforts with proper resources. That is why our defence attaché network will be strengthened and why there will be more resources for joint training and exercises with some of our allies, including some of our former opponents. That will make a much safer world, and certainly a safer continent.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on putting a brave face on what is obviously a difficult announcement, and on his courtesy in inviting me to give him advice on the review; I only wish that he had taken it. Having said that, I certainly welcome the development of a number of ideas that have been Ministry of Defence policy for some considerable time and are right—the development of jointery and the development of the rapid reaction forces have to make sense in the new world in which we live.

May I correct the right hon. Gentleman on one other point? As he will know, he has not made any reduction in the number of warheads because we never announced the number of warheads that we would have, for good reasons, and I am surprised that he has chosen to announce it today; we only ever announced the maximum that there could be.

I have had the opportunity of reading only The Daily Telegraph to find out what is actually in the review. The one thing that sticks out clearly, which is profoundly unwise in the present situation and which will link in to the problems of overstretch, undermanning, recruitment and morale, is the cuts in the TA. That is merely an initial comment, because I have not had a chance to study the statement, but there is one specific question and one point that I should like to put to the right hon. Gentleman. It is one thing to make reductions in our armed forces because there is a major change in the strategic situation, and then to fix at a level of defences which I believed was the minimum level that this country should have. There cannot be a justification to make further reductions on the ground that "You did it, so we can do it, too."

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has just left. Will the Secretary of State assure the House, after all the worries of this review, which took longer than I know he wished, that, now the review is over and the expenditure levels are fixed, there will be no attempt whatever by the Treasury to make further cuts in the defence programme—and that he has had that undertaking?

Mr. Robertson

I valued the advice that the right hon. Gentleman gave me. I listened to the advice that was given to me by former Secretaries of State, former chiefs of the defence staff and former permanent secretaries, as I listened to many others involved in this exercise. Like him, I could not take on board everything that was said in terms of advice. I wonder how, when he looks back on his career and on the substantial cuts in defence expenditure that occurred around the time that he was in office, he cogitates on that. However, I welcomed what he said, and I am sure that he will recognise some of the views that resonate through the White Paper when he has a chance to read it.

In terms of the nuclear deterrent, the world has moved on. I sit on the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and the Permanent Joint Council of the NATO-Russia Founding Act with the Russian Defence Minister. We are building trust and relationships. We should be much more open and much more transparent, and the rules of the cold war should not necessarily bind us at times such as this. That is why we are opening our books, making it clear what we have and, by doing that, making absolutely certain that people know that the deterrent is still there, still credible and no one should mess with us as a consequence.

The right hon. Gentleman says that we are going to reduce further the level of our forces. We are not. The Regular Army, the regular forces of this country, will be increased by 3,300 as a result of this review. That is what is going to happen. I hope, therefore, that he will not rely on The Daily Telegraph, although, as it was working from a photocopy of the White Paper, it may have got it right.

We are increasing the strength and capability, and we have the satisfaction of the Chief of the Defence Staff as well as of the other chiefs in putting forward this force configuration. The right hon. Gentleman may think that we are unwise to cut the TA. I hope that he will look at the White Paper and see what we propose. We want to strengthen and underline the TA's importance, make it more usable and more integrated and give it a role for the future, not let it be stuck in the past, still in a cold war role.

Dr. Doug Naysmith (Bristol, North-West)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on this strategic defence review, which has clearly been taken for strategic reasons and not, as the Opposition Front-Bench team has maintained, for financial reasons? I particularly welcome the joint operations, the rapid deployment that is mentioned in the document and, when thinking of my constituency, the Eurofighter confirmation. Is it possible for my right hon. Friend to say a word or two about the Procurement Executive at Abbey Wood in Filton, and what effect the review will have on it?

Mr. Robertson

I welcome my hon. Friend's question, which allows me to underline what he said—that this has not been a Treasury-led review. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made clear, the finances are fixed for three years. That will give the armed forces a much greater ability to plan ahead and much more stability than they have ever had in the year-by-year haggling that characterised public expenditure in the past. I can understand my hon. Friend's interest and, I am sure, satisfaction in the confirmation of the role and numbers of Eurofighters that we will be ordering.

There will be implications for the Procurement Executive in Bristol—a considerable reform of the procurement process, which will lead to better value being obtained for the equipment that we buy. However, it is right and proper that these changes should be subject to consultation with the Procurement Executive's employees before anything is announced in the House.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

The objectives of greater mobility, flexibility, firepower and joint operations are admirable. However, as there are to be fewer flying squadrons, is there not a risk that morale will be further reduced and personnel may leave? In order to fill the 232 cockpit places for the Eurofighter, will the right hon. Gentleman consider allowing pilots to do commercial pilot courses at ground school during their flying training, so that if they leave the regular service they could join the auxiliary air force, thereby making good any shortfall in that way?

Mr. Robertson

The training initiative is already under way and my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces has it under review. I assure the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) that morale in the Royal Air Force will not be affected, other than for the better, by this review and our vision for the future. The confirmation of the order for Eurofighters has been looked for and their role has been vindicated by the very deep analysis carried out in the review. I thought that the hon. Gentleman might have welcomed the decision to take over the lease on the C-17s or their equivalent. I am aware that he has a long-standing interest in that.

Morale in the forces has been badly affected in the past by hollowing out. That is especially true of morale in the RAF, which has led to an exodus of fast jet pilots. That will be relieved by a reduction in the number of fast jets but a continuation of the existing levels of manpower. It will relieve the overstretch that has been at the basis of falling morale.

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his foreign policy-led defence review. I especially welcome his comments not just on expensive pieces of military kit, but on our most valued asset—the men and women of our services and their families.

In the context of the review, does my right hon. Friend agree that the process has again highlighted the absolute lunacy of an independent Scotland, a separation of the forces and their payment and the creation of two foreign armies, two foreign navies and two foreign air forces, operating in two separate countries side by side on these islands?

Mr. Robertson

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Nothing better highlights the fantasy world of the separatists in Scotland than the concept of a separate Scottish army, navy and air force—presumably with the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) as the commander-in-chief. Our armed forces contain a rather large proportion of high-quality Scots, and they are strengthened as a consequence of that.

The review is very good news for the armed forces in Scotland. It is good news for Rosyth dockyard; good news for Faslane; good news for the Nimrod replacement and Kinloss; good news for Leuchars; good news for the Edinburgh area with the Eurofighter contract; good news for the Army personnel centre and the other central functions of the MOD in Kentigern house in Glasgow; and good news for Scotland. Separation and ripping Scotland out of the United Kingdom would be profoundly bad news for Scotland and for the rest of the country.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Leaving aside the panic button that was obviously triggered by opinion polls in Scotland, may I tell the Secretary of State that—despite many hon. Members' urgency in finding answers to specific questions—the documents merit serious study and considered response? What are the geographical implications of reductions in Territorial Army numbers? There has been genuine concern in the highlands and islands of Scotland that, in a line from Fort William to Stonehaven, there may be no Territorial Army centre.

The Secretary of State also mentioned the issue of the special problems—such as mobility—faced by service families. Will there be a specific Ministry of Defence education budget to assist children who have to move from various settings and countries—sometimes at very short notice—or will the matter be negotiable with the Department for Education and Employment, the Scottish Office, the Welsh Office and local authorities? Parents and families are concerned about that matter.

Finally—very briefly—why are we only cutting in half the number of Trident nuclear warheads? Why do we not set a model example for the rest of the world, so that we can genuinely argue the case for non-proliferation?

Mr. Robertson

I do not know what position the hon. Lady will have in Alex's Scottish army—perhaps chief of the air staff. We shall see. She asked about the Territorial Army. The geographical distribution of the new, reinvigorated Territorial Army is a very important matter which should be the subject of consultation with the Territorial Army itself. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces is currently engaged in such consultation—which, rightly and properly, should take time to be completed.

The hon. Lady was right about education, and I hope that she will register both my comments and the White Paper's contents dealing with the matter. We shall establish a task force to deal specifically with the problems experienced by mobile families—who do not have first choice in choosing schools to provide the education that their children deserve, and who find it difficult to get on to doctors' waiting lists and almost impossible to get NHS dentistry.

Those problems are difficult ones because of the current structure of the health service and education service, which is why a specific task force will be established to deal with them. Although the problems may seem to be small issues within a vast strategic defence review, they are far greater than any strategic issue if one cannot get medical attention or one's children into school. We want to deal with those problems.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

With the interests of my 3,800 aerospace workers in mind, will my right hon. Friend say more about the heavy-lift future large aircraft? We want to build its wings—will it fly? Will the Astor project—I have a constituency interest in it—go forward? Will he say how many more months we shall wait to hear the fate of the 3rd battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers (Territorial Army)?

Mr. Robertson

My hon. Friend is a doughty champion of the interests of the aerospace workers in his constituency, and rarely wastes an opportunity to make his views on them clear to me. I am always glad to listen to him. I have made it clear that we have an interim need for heavy-lift transport, and the C-17 or an equivalent fits into that category. However, the future large aircraft project continues. We fully support it, and hope that it will provide an appropriate European heavy-lift aeroplane for the future. We have a commitment to the Astor programme, which goes ahead. My hon. Friend will receive news of the Territorial Army configuration once consultations have been completed.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

The Secretary of State will be aware that the proposal for the joint rapid reaction force expansion builds on the Conservative joint rapid deployment force; therefore, we welcome it. However, he will also be aware that I am extremely concerned about the future of the Parachute Regiment and airborne forces. Is it not the case that, as a result of a review, the cap badge and the red beret of the Parachute Regiment and the proud ethos of airborne forces is likely to be submerged into the new air manoeuvre brigade? Is he now able to respond to the point that I made in the House last week—that this welcome new brigade should be based in Aldershot in Hampshire rather than in East Anglia because the forces have to deploy from west of London not east of London?

Mr. Robertson

The hon. Gentleman takes a healthy non-partisan view of defence which is very welcome. Although he did not say it, I am sure that he welcomes the thrust of the review. He says that we may well have taken some ideas from the previous Government's joint rapid deployment force, but even he will recognise that it was not easily deployable, so we have given it the capability to deploy and the rapidness that it did not have in the past. I am happy to continue with some of the better ideas of the previous Government and to give them the resources to make them work.

The hon. Gentleman is right to praise the Parachute Regiment, its proud tradition and record of fighting, but it is generally felt that its capability in parachuting should be built into something that makes more sense and is relevant to future circumstances. Its cap badge will be maintained, as will its traditions and, given those who run the Army at present, it is highly unlikely that there will be any attempt to change that. However, within the new air manoeuvre brigade, its relevance and purpose will undoubtedly be increased in future. No decision has been taken about where the brigade will be based, I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about Aldershot and I am sure that he expresses a dispassionate and objective view, but I have no doubt that other objective views will be expressed from other parts of the House, and we shall listen to them all.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley)

May I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement today, particularly the reference to the defence medical services? It was depressing to find that those in Bosnia doing the job on behalf of our reserves and regular forces were so damaged by the reorganisation of services by the previous Government. It is difficult enough to work in the medical services, as I know, and to do that job in dangerous and awful conditions is something which I consider unacceptable. I very much welcome the move to do something about it, and I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Robertson

I thank my hon. Friend who is a member of the Defence Select Committee and has seen at first hand many of our troops in operations. Like so many others, she has heard from them about the current demoralisation in the defence medical services. The previous Government made a serious mistake in the way in which they made economies. It is something which many people regret. I do not make much of it, in the interest of maintaining the consensus that we have built up, but it has to be rectified, and we are committed to that. If our deployed troops require and rely on anything during operations, it is the medical back-up; we have to re-create that and make sure that it is there.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

I should be grateful if the Secretary of State could answer three or four quick questions about the White Paper, as I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members will have doubts about how £750 million will be saved. He spoke specifically about overstretch and undermanning. How does he square that with reducing the number of ships. Putting more men into ships, but having fewer ships will undoubtedly mean more deployment, possibly for longer. Where will the new aircraft carriers be kept? I should like to make a special plea for Portsmouth dockyard, which is custom made for it. Will he also explain to the tens of thousands of people in the Greater Portsmouth area who rely on the defence industry for jobs what there is in the White Paper that will give them some satisfaction that their jobs are safe and that the projects that they are currently working on will not be abandoned? I am heartened by the thought that there will be a further statement tomorrow. Finally, will he let us know what he plans to do with defence medical services, in particular the future of the Royal Haslar naval hospital?

Mr. Robertson

It is difficult to give short answers, Madam Speaker, if hon. Members ask five questions. May I first put the hon. Gentleman right? The savings in the defence budget will not be £750 million. We are talking about a 3 per cent. reduction in real terms in the defence budget by the end of three years—£685 million. We believe—and the MOD believes—that that can ensure that we still deliver the force package that we have announced. Undermanning in the Royal Navy will be helped by the reduction in the surface fleet. Unlike previous Governments—let them remain unnamed at the moment for the sake of peace—who reduced both the surface fleet and manpower, creating overstretch, we are leaving manpower levels as they are. The Navy believes that that will make a substantial difference to overstretch.

I note—no more than that—that the hon. Gentleman wants the new aircraft carriers to be based in Portsmouth. The happy news is that my constituency of Hamilton, South is absolutely landlocked. I am therefore completely objective in that regard. No doubt, there will be competing interests for that basing policy. It is just conceivable that I will not be the Defence Secretary around at the time who must make that decision. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I express shades of mortality rather than any sign of modesty.

The defence industry is in very safe hands. It is important to the country because of the jobs that it creates, the exports that it generates and the technology of which it is a part. The defence review underlines the importance of the British defence industry, which I spend much of my time helping when visiting foreign lands.

Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East)

Does my right hon. Friend understand that the threat of a new nuclear arms race in southern Asia is worsened by Britain retreating to a position from which we defend our national right to use nuclear weapons but deny that same right to almost every other nation on earth? If so, does he accept that, in announcing that Britain is and will remain a nuclear weapons power, he has missed an unique opportunity to give a lead on nuclear disarmament, which could pull the world back from a nuclear brink that has suddenly and frighteningly become that much closer?

Mr. Robertson

Despite my new post, I watch the Scottish press carefully. I always thought that my hon. Friend believed in delivering what one promised. He and I were both elected on a manifesto that stated that we would retain Trident; we should keep our commitments. On the subject of new nuclear arms races, this Government ratified the comprehensive test ban treaty immediately they came to power. I hope that India and Pakistan will also do so. That would make a serious contribution to reducing the chances of proliferation and the dangers of testing.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

The Secretary of State will be aware that service men and women, from the most senior officers to the newest squaddie, will have been watching and listening to what he has said. Does he accept that what he has announced, which an artillery man might call a smokescreen barrage, cannot disguise huge cuts? Our service men and women will have noticed that he failed to answer the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King). The Secretary of State has no undertaking that the cuts will end—otherwise, he would have told us. How can he possibly believe that recruitment, retention and overstretch will be helped by his announcement of huge, Treasury-driven cuts?

I welcome one or two points, particularly the strengthening of defence medical services, which the Secretary of State will know are important in my constituency. Does he recognise that his announcement on the cutting of fast jets now, with the promise of jam tomorrow when the Eurofighter arrives, will not help retain pilots? That is the economics of the madhouse; they will all have left long before the Eurofighter is available. Does he recognise that all he is promising is beyond visual range? Will he finally answer the question that I have been asking him and his Minister of State on behalf of my constituents for more than a year? Will he address the scandalous refusal to announce what there will be in the splendid buildings of the staff college in Camberley?

Mr. Robertson

The hon. Gentleman is right in one respect. Our forces across the world will be interested in the defence review and in what their Parliament has to say about it. Where he is wrong is in underestimating their intelligence when it comes to discriminating between what he is saying and what I am saying. They know what the past seven years have been like. They know of the 23 per cent. cuts and compulsory redundancies in the armed forces when they were on operations in Bosnia.

We are saying today that the regular armed forces of this country will be increased. The Army will be increased by 3,300, and all other services will be maintained at present levels. Our forces will be able to understand what is in the review, and they will see the contrast between it and what they have experienced. The hon. Gentleman was not listening when I made the point—following the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King)—that the financial deal in the White Paper is part of the comprehensive spending review and is guaranteed for the next three-year period. No Conservative Government gave a three-year forward commitment.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Camberley and what use might be made of that building. We will consider, with all the valuable buildings that are within my responsibility, the best and most appropriate way of dealing with those sometimes surplus assets, and whether they could be used in terms of the rationalisation of some of the defence estate.

Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the rest of the MOD team on the review. It is the first review I can recall where Wales has not been penalised in terms of job losses. During the final two terms of the Conservative Government, 2,000 defence jobs were cut in Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire.

May I ask specifically about the three armoured regiments that are planned to return from Germany with their 2,500 personnel? Has a decision been made on where those three regiments will be based and trained? If no decision has been made, may I recommend that my right hon. Friend look closely at basing them and providing training at the Castlemartin tank range in my constituency?

Mr. Robertson

I am taking careful note—I am sure that my officials will be as well—of all bids for the new configurations, which I know will be generally welcomed. No decisions have yet been taken about where the regiments coming back from Germany will be based. We will look carefully at the assets, to ensure that the right decisions are taken in terms of the military and the public purse. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw a contrast between the experience of those in the armed forces and what is promised in the review today. The defence review was designed as a vision of the future that would unite as many different elements in the country as possible, so that defence would cease to be the political football that it has sometimes been in the past. I believe that it does that, and that it is good for the country.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire)

As the right hon. Gentleman continues to deny that the Treasury had anything to do with the review, he is, I suppose, unable to accept the congratulations that some of us would want to offer him and his colleagues on having fought extremely well against the predators of the Treasury and having coming out with cuts which are much smaller than many of us feared. I am sorry that he cannot accept those congratulations, which are offered sincerely.

May I particularly welcome the appointment of a new Chief of Defence Logistics? I hope that the Secretary of State will instruct him to finish the job of managing defence centrally, which was started all those years ago by Mountbatten and has been frustrated from time to time by single-service rivalries and turf protection. If he can solve that problem and bring together all the defence logistics, he will have done us a great service.

I wish to make a point about the Territorial Army. In this country, the services, in their professionalism, are gradually getting further and further away from the people. The closing of Territorial Army centres and the taking out of the defence world of members of the civilian community will accelerate that. Will he look at that problem, because if the services are divorced from their civilian counterparts, we will get an unstable and unsatisfactory situation, which we have not had in this country since the war?

Mr. Robertson

If I had had a battle with the Treasury, I would have been happy to accept the congratulations of the hon. Gentleman. My right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the President of the Board of Trade have all had an interest in the White Paper, and we have had a reasonable discussion.

As I said—and it should not be underestimated—the package that was designed in the Ministry of Defence by the Chiefs of Defence Staff, the Ministers and others who gave their input to the process was untouched by Government. A civilised discussion then took place with the Treasury, and a package was agreed. None the less, I accept the hon. Gentleman's congratulations on the size of the package and pass them on to my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming the Chief of Defence Logistics; we believe that it will result in better co-ordination of a key component in ensuring that the right forces can be delivered at the right time. I know that General Sir Sam Cowan's appointment as the first chief has been generally welcomed; there is probably no better man to fit that position and to begin with energy doing the job that the hon. Gentleman describes.

I recognise that very small armed forces, which are proudly treasured by the British people, can become disconnected from their local communities and lose visibility. The TA plays a part—but not the only part—in ensuring that there is contact. That will be one of the key criteria by which we judge the TA's final shape when it is reconfigured, reinvigorated and made more appropriate to the future.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

Recent events in Iraq, India and Pakistan have raised awareness of the terrible risks of nuclear proliferation. Does my right hon. Friend believe that the initial cuts in British nuclear weapons that he has announced will enable Britain to take a strong lead both in discouraging proliferation and in reviving the process of multinational disarmament?

Mr. Robertson

My hon. Friend is right. We need to move with some urgency towards a safer world, in which there are fewer of these weapons. We believe that we should maintain a credible nuclear deterrent, but that that can be done at lower levels. We also believe that we can be more open about what we have. The review will achieve that, which is good news for those who serve in our deterrent patrols and will, I believe, be welcomed in the country and, indeed, in the wider world.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Does the Secretary of State agree that, on the crucial medical services, the White Paper is strong on generalisations, which I welcome, but silent on points of detail? Is that not surprising, as a report was completed some months ago on the secondary care agency? Will he confirm that he will build on the core of the Royal Naval hospital at Haslar and the medical college at HMS Dolphin, retaining them as a centre of the enlarged medical services?

Mr. Robertson

Rebuilding the defence medical services and the morale that has disappeared will not be easy, but we are committing money and people to ensure that it happens. I cannot say what the final shape will be; Haslar and the local national health service trust are having on-going discussions. I want urgently to consider how best we can fulfil our commitment, use properly the money that we have set aside and ensure that one of the key capabilities of our armed forces is given the priority that people believe it should have.

Gillian Merron (Lincoln)

May I pay particular tribute to the review's acknowledgement of the worth of our service people and its practical commitment to improving their lives through better personnel services, education and training and the task force for the family? Will my right hon. Friend tell my constituents when a decision is likely to be reached on the future of RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire?

Mr. Robertson

My hon. Friend is right to point to the key role that people have in the review and in the armed forces as a whole. I am told that it is a cliché to say that people are our key asset, and I suppose that it is; it is repeated by those who have done them a disservice as well as by those who have done them a service. However, it is a fact of life. People make our defences the envy of the world; their capability and skills are highly important. She mentions the Royal Air Force, of which the same is true; the fast jets do not fly without skilled people to man them, and we give those people due priority.

We will announce in due course the implications of the review for individual circumstances, which are complex at this stage, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will be relieved as a consequence.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for including me in the consultation process, and I am naturally gratified that some of the recommendations that I, among others, made have found their way into the document. He did not, however, properly answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples): will the carriers in fact be built? They are the only factor that justifies the word "strategic" in relation to the review, which is otherwise a list of fairly intelligent cuts and an exercise in saving money.

How will the Secretary of State protect himself against the fact that, as soon as the Treasury realises how much equipment and expense will be involved in maintaining a dual-carrier task force—the review is short on detail—it will torpedo the carriers, leaving only the debris of the three services that have been pillaged to pay for them?

Mr. Robertson

I thought, when I made the announcement, that I would have the right hon. Gentleman's support, as I know of his abiding interest in the subject. Every capability in the Ministry of Defence has been examined thoroughly in the review. The balance in the document and in the supporting documents—he may care to read them—leads to clear conclusions about how we should best configure our forces to meet the uncertainties of the new world. That is why we decided to plan for two new carriers to replace the current three.

The costs of the carriers and the aircraft to go on them—decisions are still further down the line—will be considerable, but they will be spread over a long period in both preparation and delivery. It is no intention of the Government to make a proposal and then walk away from it. We are saying in the review what we believe will be right for our country's future and what should be delivered.

Mrs. Anne McGuire (Stirling)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on an inclusive and open process, culminating in the television programme, which was undoubtedly the talk of the steamie throughout Scotland. As a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, it struck me as faintly bizarre that we have invested tens of thousands of pounds in technicians who have no transferable pieces of paper to take them into civilian life, and officers who can drive boats and ships across the world but are not qualified to drive a CalMac ferry across the Minch. I welcome the learning forces initiative. Does my right hon. Friend have a time scale in mind for its implementation?

Mr. Robertson

My hon. Friend is my own representative in Parliament, and a very fine one, too. I welcome her question. The transferable qualifications that we have proposed that all recruits and existing personnel should aim for are a key component of the review, to help to ensure that we recruit and retain the best people. The learning forces initiative is designed to be implemented as quickly as possible.

I know that my hon. Friend is in the armed forces parliamentary scheme with the Royal Navy, and perhaps I may take the opportunity provided by her question to make a small announcement about the review's implications for our frigates. As the White Paper makes clear, the emphasis is moving away from large-scale maritime warfare and open-ocean operations, and as we have concluded that our force of attack submarines will be reduced from 12 to 10, there will be implications for frigates.

HMS Splendid will pay off in 2003, when she was due for refit. HMS Spartan will have a refit in Rosyth, starting in 1999, but will pay off in 2006, a little earlier than previously planned. Five type 22 frigates based in Devonport will be paid off: in 1999, HMS Boxer, HMS Beaver and HMS London; HMS Brave will be paid off in 2000; and HMS Coventry in 2001, as two new type 23s are brought in. HMS Birmingham—a type 42 destroyer—will pay off as planned in 1999, to be replaced by a new type 23 frigate. It is right that the House should receive that news, not any outside audience.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I must conclude questions on the statement—[Interruption.] Order. Some Members are exasperated that they have been rising for a long time, but have not been called and I sympathise. At 4.15 pm, I said that progress was not to my satisfaction, but hon. Members ignored what I said and continued to put many questions to the Secretary of State, as well as making long statements. To a large extent, the House must discipline itself. I have done my utmost to call hon. Members with direct responsibility for defence establishments in their areas. If there is a debate on the White Paper, I shall see to it that those hon. Members who have taken an inordinate length of time asking questions today do not get priority.