HC Deb 20 March 2000 vol 346 cc706-8
6. Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

What recent representations he has received on the level of the defence budget. [113693]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

I have received a number of representations on the level of the defence budget from a variety of sources.

Mr. Blunt

The Secretary of State surely knows that the defence budget is wholly insufficient to deal with current commitments and the equipment programme. If it were not insufficient, we would have had a short-term answer on strategic lift last year, and the Secretary of State would have been able to publish the list of targets for efficiency savings—which we are now entitled to believe are cuts. Does he understand that, when he negotiates with the Chancellor in the comprehensive spending review, if he fails to obtain significantly greater resources for defence, he will have failed the armed forces and imperilled the future security of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman is a considerable expert on the question of defence cuts. When he was special adviser at the Ministry of Defence, he advised on real-terms defence cuts in the order of £1.4 billion. I therefore do not think that he is in any position to give lectures to Labour Members on the subject. However, since he has mentioned the subject, I can tell him that in contrast to the record of the previous, Conservative Government—whom he supported and who cut defence spending by up to a third in the 1980s—the reduction in defence spending under this Government is less than 4 per cent.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Given the indiscriminate and inhumane use of cluster bombs in Kosovo, will my right hon. Friend tell me what representations he has had from interested parties to provide extra resources to clear up and de-mine the province?

Mr. Hoon

I have seen British forces in Kosovo engaged in the very difficult and dangerous task of removing mines and occasionally removing the failed parts of cluster bombs—the bomblets that have a 5 per cent. failure rate. Certainly that is something that they do extremely well. If they can be of assistance to any other organisation, although we certainly look to that other organisation for funding we are certainly prepared to participate where we can.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact on the United Kingdom defence budget if the United States, as now appears inevitable, deploys a system of national missile defence? In particular, what are the financial implications for Menwith Hill and Fylingdales? For how long will the Secretary of State decline to state the UK Government's position on the political, military and economic consequences of the deployment of such a system? "I shall think about it tomorrow" may have been good enough for Scarlett O'Hara, but it is not good enough for the Secretary of State.

Mr. Hoon

The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows full well that no decision has yet been taken in the United States on the deployment of national missile defence. Although there have been considerable discussions among NATO Ministers about NMD and its possible deployment, the assessment of the financial implications for the UK—which, after all, is not part of any of the first phase of national missile defence—is not something that need currently concern either the right hon and learned Gentleman or the House. However, I should be entirely willing to discuss that matter should any right hon. or hon. Member suggest a debate or ask a question on the subject.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

Can the Secretary of State estimate what part of the budget, in the next three or four years, will be used for the design and construction of roll on/roll off vessels and the type 45 destroyer? There is very keen interest in those contracts in the shipyards on the Clyde, and I should like to know whether he has any good news for me.

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend puts together two processes that are being approached in quite a different way. He knows full well that ro-ro procurement is being done according to quite different principles from conventional defence procurement. Those ferries will have the capability of being used not only for military purposes, but—most of the time, we should hope—for civilian purposes, thereby significantly reducing their cost. I therefore cannot at this stage give my hon. Friend precise figures on the contribution from the defence budget. It clearly depends on the extent to which the vessels can be used for civilian purposes.

The type 45 procurement will be along more conventional lines, although certainly building in the considerable benefits of smart procurement, which have shown so many advantages in relation to the defence budget.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

The Secretary of State's budget is falling by about £800 million a year, and the deployments of troops to the Balkans that have taken place and may take place in future have a huge bearing on that budget. Does not the announcement that a battery of artillery armed with surveillance aircraft will be deployed in the area suggest that the need to survey both the area of Mitrovica and south-east Serbia indicates the way in which the Kosovo Liberation Army is beginning to drive decisions here that may impact directly on the budget?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman knows that all the costs of Kosovo have been provided to the defence budget and that substantial repayments have been made, both in terms of the materiel that has been used and the consequences for our people in the form of long-service allowances and the various extra expenses that they have faced as a result of the deployment. His linking of the two subjects is not particularly helpful.

I shall refer specifically to the deployment in and around Kosovo of intelligence gathering. It is clear that we should have better intelligence of what is happening in Kosovo, and especially along its borders. That is why the Government have been delighted to assist in providing the extra facility and the extra people who can do the job, to ensure that KFOR can carry out its job of providing security in Kosovo still more successfully.

Mr. Duncan Smith

First, the right hon. Gentleman is only partially right about the way in which the budget is being funded. The pressures and stresses on his budget from having extra troops deployed in the area create a knock-on effect right the way through. May I draw his attention to the recent words of General Wesley Clark, who has been given to warning the Serbs about their actions in Montenegro. He has gone on to say that that would, if necessary, have drawn NATO in. Has the general consulted the right hon. Gentleman? Are we building plans for future deployments into Montenegro? If so, what effect will that have on British troops? Have we any such plans, or are we simply sliding behind the general?

Mr. Hoon

There are regular discussions between NATO allies about the security situation in the Balkans. We have made it clear to Milosevic that we would view seriously any sort of interference in the affairs of Montenegro. That is and will remain the position.

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