HC Deb 02 November 2000 vol 355 cc865-938

[Relevant documents: Second Report from the Defence Committee, Session 1999–2000, HC 158, on the Ministry of Defence Annual Reporting Cycle, and the Government's response thereto, HC 452;

Fifth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 1999–2000, HC 100, on the Defence Geographic and Imagery Intelligence Agency, and the Government's response thereto, HC 629;

Eighth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 1999–2000, HC 264, on European Security and Defence, and the Government's response thereto, HC 732;

Thirteenth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 1999–2000, HC 433, on the Iraqi No-Fly Zones, and the Government's response thereto, HC 930;

Fourteenth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 1999–2000, HC 347–1, on Lessons of Kosovo.]

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [1 November], That the House do now adjourn.

Question again proposed.

2.11 pm
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar)

May I begin by expressing my pleasure at the elevation of my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal) to the post of First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means? My only regret is that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will thereby lose a first-class Parliamentary Private Secretary.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State opened the debate yesterday by running through some of the main activities in which our armed forces have recently been involved. Our armed forces have proved time and again why they are the envy of the world. Before I speak about some detailed matters in that regard, I want to turn to the role of defence in the community.

The presence of the Ministry of Defence and our armed forces at the heart of the community is often felt most keenly when they are on hand to help when things go wrong. The armed forces have been much in evidence in the last few days, helping the civil authorities to deal with the consequences of floods and storms. We have provided personnel and vehicles to assist in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire, Kent and Somerset. We have also provided specialist teams to deal with chemical leaks, and helicopters to carry out reconnaissance flights. We did much the same when flooding hit Kent and Sussex last month.

The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force provide search and rescue services around our coasts 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and rescued 1,189 people last year 1999. Our bomb disposal experts received 495 call-outs last year, and the armed forces were on standby to ensure that essential services did not break down during the recent fuel crisis.

Hon. Members know from the answer that I gave in the Chamber on 30 October that the Ministry of Defence is fully engaged in the fuel task force's efforts to ensure that the effects of any future disruption to fuel supplies are minimised. As before, that includes being prepared to help distribute fuel, as directed by the civil authorities, to help keep the country going. The House has already had the opportunity to hear the statement from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

However, we do not want people in Britain to see members of the armed forces only in emergencies. We want them to meet our service men and women, and we hope that they will therefore learn a bit about the vital work that they do all over the world. During the summer months the Royal Navy carried out the "Meet Your Navy" deployment around Britain. This was a highly successful programme of visits to ports and harbours around the country, as part of the national millennium celebrations.

In all, 26 naval units were involved, including a submarine and a royal fleet auxiliary. They were visited by 58,000 members of the public. Highlights included the first port visit by an aircraft carrier to Bristol for many years, and the deployment of a Royal Navy patrol craft to Wisbech in Cambridgeshire—the furthest inland that a commissioned vessel has been in recent times.

Before I move on to the Government's policies for people and for logistics, I want to comment on the anti-European obsession displayed by Opposition Members in yesterday's debate. The Opposition are well known for their visceral fear of all things European. Their dogma on Europe means that they reject co-operation in Europe, even when that would be in the national interest.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)


Mr. Spellar

The hon. Gentleman says, "Rubbish," but we know that he and the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) have relatively progressive views on Europe. That must make for very interesting meetings among the Opposition defence team.

In view of those obsessions, we should not be surprised that they also surface in defence matters. It might be possible to overlook the view of Lord Tebbit, expressed in the Mail on Sunday, that we should buy "tried and tested" United States aircraft instead of the "expensive" and "already obsolescent" Eurofighter, but that view is also the policy of Conservative Front Bench Members.

Lord Tebbit's successor in the Chingford constituency, the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), told the House last Thursday that multi-nation collaborative programmes remain a serious problem…European procurement strategies…run the risk of creating a fortress Europe and alienating others in the NATO alliance. The hon. Gentleman also said: Often…the best happens to be the USA. That will be news to the hundreds of thousands of workers employed in our defence industry. The hon. Gentleman was not shy about telling the House which national collaborative programme was in his sights. He said: I have some serious concerns about the A400MߪI had some deep concerns when he— the Secretary of State— announced it…To be fair to all those concerned…we should tell them whether we are certain that the project can seriously go ahead.—[Official Report, 26 October 2000; Vol. 355, c. 439–441.] The hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green may not be aware that the A400M will create 3,400 long-term, skilled jobs in the UK, primarily at Filton, Broughton and Prestwick. If indirect employment is included, that figure could rise to more than 10,000 jobs. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take this opportunity to give those involved in the A400M a categorical assurance: would a Conservative Government match this Government's commitment to the A400M programme, yes or no?

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

The Minister is talking rubbish. I asked whether the Government would go ahead with the project regardless of its cost or of the problems associated with it. The Minister cannot get away with putting other questions in my mouth. He should answer the questions: is there a problem with the A400M project? If so, will the Government go ahead with it regardless?

Mr. Spellar

The project is moving well, and we are in very useful discussions with our partners. We very much welcome the project.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Would not adopting a policy of "US is always best" be a stab in the back for UK manufacturers who, for example, are trying to sell Grippen aircraft in central and east Europe, against stiff US competition?

Mr. Spellar

My hon. Friend is right, and those manufacturers are facing some very rough tactics from that competition.

Why are hon. Members who represent Chingford so dismissive of our successful aircraft industry? The Eurofighter and A400M projects may not matter in Chingford, but they do elsewhere—in Bristol and Derby, in Yorkshire, in Scotland and in Wales. They matter too in the north-west of England, and especially in Preston. The attitude of Opposition Front-Bench Members will be noted very carefully by those who work in the industry.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Spellar

No. I now want to speak about what the Government have done to improve logistics support. The hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green last week acknowledged the real progress being made in that regard. That is crucial to our forces' ability to fight and win. Training and equipping our forces, and getting them to a crisis, is not enough: we need to be able to supply and sustain them, and to do so as cost-effectively as possible.

The Defence Logistics Organisation has been up and running since April 1999, when the three single service logistics organisations were successfully merged under chief of defence logistics General Sir Sam Cowan. I am grateful to the tribute that the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green paid to the chief of defence logistics last week. The DLO provides logistic support across the board—involving everything from guided missiles to ration packs—and spends nearly £5 billion a year.

Bringing together logistics functions under the DLO provides an opportunity to capitalise on economies of scale and to conduct a much wider rationalisation than could ever have been possible under three separate logistics organisations. This allows us to release more resources for investment in front-line capability.

The DLO's strategic goal is to achieve a 20 per cent. reduction in output costs by 2005. To do that, it has established an innovative business change programme. The key benefits of the programme include a smaller, leaner, single defence inventory shared with industry; a reduced number of direct suppliers, consistent with best commercial practice; the maximum application of e-commerce and e-business, and a focus on the reduction of through-life whole support chain costs, rather than buying equipment simply on the basis of the lowest acquisition prices.

The first priority of the DLO remains the provision of logistic support to the armed forces. That has continued uninterrupted throughout the transition to the new organisation and alongside these major business changes. The new arrangements have been tested—and found to work well—in operations in the Balkans, Sierra Leone and elsewhere.

An important element of the strategy for the DLO is a closer relationship with industry. It therefore gives me great pleasure to announce the signature of a partnering agreement between the Defence Aviation Repair Agency and Rolls-Royce plc to provide best practice integrated logistics support for military engines in service with the armed forces. Under the agreement, both partners will work together to achieve a joint optimum balance between capability and capacity. Both sides will have full visibility of all relevant data and the benefits to each partner will be linked to its respective contribution and performance. This is a ground-breaking industrial initiative which I hope can be replicated with other major equipment suppliers.

This is not the only fruit of the new unified approach to logistics. For example, we have created a defence munitions group which has brought all service munitions together into a single operation, eliminating duplication in the inventory and providing the opportunity to reduce overheads. In addition, the rationalisation of the naval bases and supply agency and the ship support agency into a single organisation, to be called the warship support agency, from April next year will deliver cost and operational benefits in the management of support to front-line ships.

We have also set up the defence catering group, which now provides a single focus for food supply. [HON. MEMBERS: "Stew!"] This builds on the excellence that already exists in our armed forces. A joint service team of chefs has just won the European gold medal, and silver overall, in the Culinary Olympics in Germany, beating all other European corners. This is not the first time that the quality of British military cuisine has met with the approval of other nations.

There were some interesting asides from Conservative Members about stew. That is the traditional, old-fashioned view of the provision of catering in the armed forces, but it has changed dramatically. It shows how out of date Conservative Members are. Hon. Members may recall that earlier in the year, when the SFOR headquarters at Banja Luka became multinational, our NATO allies asked if we would continue to do the catering for all countries, to which we happily agreed.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Will the Minister confirm that those Army caterers were trained in Aldershot?

Mr. Spellar

Not only that, but I suspect that they have probably recently used the excellent sporting facilities that I know the hon. Gentleman has visited, built on time and to price, as an excellent part of smart construction. They are extremely good facilities which are—to answer the hon. Gentleman's question of yesterday—part of our continuing commitment to Aldershot.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Will the Minister also give a commitment to farmers in the Ribble valley and throughout the whole of the United Kingdom that, where possible, the food will be sourced from United Kingdom farmers?

Mr. Spellar

The hon. Gentleman will have seen what we managed to achieve with beef. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be making a further announcement on meat in his winding-up speech, which I think the hon. Gentleman will find of interest.

The DLO is working on a number of initiatives to revise the principles of supply chain management to generate better ways of working. The aim is a step change in stockholding and repair and maintenance practices which will reduce the volume, value and complexity of the inventory, in turn reducing storage requirements. Greater commercial involvement in support and the increased use of public-private partnerships will improve the delivery and reduce the cost of both logistics and engineering support.

We are also transforming the way we buy the mass of low-value but high-volume items consumed by the armed forces. One example is the Government procurement card which we launched earlier in the year and is now in use at 147 sites. It is effectively a charge card that enables goods and services to be ordered and paid for whenever required, without the need for large amounts of form filling. I have spoken to those on the shop floor who are using it and they find it enormously helpful. It creates greater job satisfaction, because they can get on with the work rather than waiting for parts to come in. They say that it speeds up work, cuts down bureaucracy and reduces turnaround times. That is good for the armed forces on the front line and also for our people in the support chain.

These initiatives are designed to meet the chief of defence logistics' target of 20 per cent. savings on output costs over the next five years, releasing resources for the front line.

From the outset of the strategic defence review, we have acknowledged the need to do more for the men and women who serve in our armed forces and their colleagues. Since taking up office, we have done a great deal to improve the lives of service personnel and their families.

On operational welfare, our levels of operational commitment have been steadily falling in recent months. Some 22 per cent. of the Army is currently committed to operations, compared with 44 per cent. at the height of the Kosovo campaign. We are committed to bringing people home as soon as possible. For example, force levels for operations in Kosovo have reduced from 13,000 last summer to around 3,000 now. It is right that our armed forces should be heavily involved at the height of such operations, given their capabilities and rapid response. It is also right that once the conditions have been created for others to take over some of those tasks, they should do so. The corresponding increase in time between operational deployments that this brings about is welcome. However, we must also recognise the pressures on families during operational deployment.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

One area in which our commitment is increasing is Sierra Leone. Back in June, 250 troops were sent there to help with training. The commitment is now more than 1,000 troops and several royal naval vessels. To many people in the House and outside, rampant mission creep seems to be going on in Sierra Leone. While the situation is awful, and we want to support the United Nations, it seems to me and to many others that no discernible British interest could justify United Kingdom military action in Sierra Leone. If the Foreign and Commonwealth Office allows us to be drawn into that, there will be substantial opposition.

Mr. Spellar

The total number involved in the training and the headquarters support is about 400. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the amphibious group that will be going to Sierra Leone to demonstrate the practicality and effectiveness of the rapid response. That will be for a brief period during November. I do not therefore think that the hon. Gentleman should read that as the kind of dramatic increase that he described.

When our troops are involved in operations, that puts pressure on families. That is why, as I have said before, we have increased the telephone allowance, from three to 20 minutes a week so that deployed personnel can better keep in touch with those at home. We have also provided modern facilities for those wishing to keep in touch via the internet including the "electronic bluey" We have provided internet terminals at military bases and families centres around the country, in our overseas garrisons and on many ships, so that as many people as possible can have access to it.

We have introduced Project WELCOME, a new communications system that gives service personnel deployed on operations access to a welfare telephone while away from home. On my visits to various bases, I have seen that this is working and starting to have an impact on the service. These arrangements have already worked well during recent operations in East Timor, Mozambique and Sierra Leone.

We have also introduced guaranteed periods of post-operational tour leave so that personnel can be assured that they will be able to spend time with their families when they return from operations. That is because we value our forces—service men and women alike—who do a great job. I am sure that many will greatly resent the comments of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) yesterday. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is not here today. They will resent the hon. Gentleman's slurs about the quality of women in our armed forces. I think that he showed himself in his true colours when he praised the forces for being "old-fashioned". No, they are not old-fashioned; they are traditional. The armed forces support traditional values and are probably one of the best examples in our country of traditional values in a modern setting. Service men and women support traditional values but are very up to date in their thinking, adaptability and flexibility.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Can my hon. Friend confirm that steps are being taken to improve the accommodation facilities in Kuwait for our forces? That was drawn to the attention of the Ministry of Defence by the Select Committee on Defence some months ago. The Ministry of Defence replied that improvements were due to start in November. Can my hon. Friend confirm that those improvements will be made and that our forces in Kuwait will get adequate accommodation in the near future?

Mr. Spellar

Those matters were drawn to our attention by the Select Committee on Defence, and to my attention by members of the armed forces about three weeks ago, when I went to Kuwait. I have also had discussions with the Kuwaiti Government, and I understand that the contracts should be signed shortly, which we and they will welcome.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

The Minister may not be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) is not here today because he had a long-standing constituency engagement, which was arranged long before this debate was scheduled; that is why he spoke yesterday.

My recollection is that my hon. Friend's remarks were to the effect that there were certain key military tasks that women, because of their lighter physique and lesser physical strength, could not undertake successfully. That was recognised by the Equal Opportunities Commission when it gave evidence to the Defence Committee a few days ago.

Mr. Spellar

Practical reasons are precisely why the Army is undertaking a full study of that issue, on which it will report next year. It will evaluate the matter properly, unlike the hon. Member for Blaby, from whom we heard the standard blimpish prejudice, which does our debate no good. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) rightly said that there should be a proper evaluation and assessment of military effectiveness. That is why a proper study is being undertaken. We do not need knee-jerk reactions. They may go down well in saloon bars but they are not appropriate in the House.

We should consider both the forces who are deployed and their families who remain at home. That is why we set up the service families taskforce and encourage families federations for the various services. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) discussed the Navy yesterday. It is true that for a while the Navy did not have a families federation, but we were delighted to support the creation of that body, which provides a channel of communication.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)

Several of my constituents are the families of the men who serve on HMS Tireless, which is in Gibraltar. There is a feeling that that vessel may be there until next spring. However, little information is reaching the families, who need to know exactly what is going on so that they can make plans for the future. I hope that the information will be disseminated.

Mr. Spellar

It has been said several times from this Dispatch Box that we must assess the final requirement for repairs, and the time scale that that will entail. We are awaiting a report from our engineering experts in order to undertake those repairs, and obviously we shall disseminate the information to the forces and their families. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter.

We have sought to recognise the impact of operations and to introduce various innovations aimed at mitigating some of the differences between service and civilian life. We have taken a leading role in cross-departmental liaison in support of our forces and their families, and the taskforce began its work in the autumn of 1998.

During the past couple of years we have achieved some impressive results, including the code of practice on schools admissions, which now makes specific reference to service children. Service children's education is now represented on new local authority admissions forums in most areas where there are large numbers of service children, and local education authorities are directed to be sensitive to the position of service children returning from abroad. I recognise that there are still some difficulties, but the position is considerably better than it was.

The children of members of the armed forces are now exempt from the three-year residency requirement that is normally needed to qualify for student loans. That means that service children will no longer be disadvantaged by the fact that their parents are serving abroad, especially in Germany or Cyprus.

As a result of the problems that were brought to light by the service families taskforce, the national health service established 24 incentive schemes for dentists to take on more NHS patients in areas where there are large numbers of service personnel. We established that service spouses were, through no fault of their own, not meeting the criteria that would allow them to claim the jobseeker's allowance as they moved around the country. Working with the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Social Security, we produced guidance to overcome the problem.

We are also considering how to help service children with special educational needs, and how to tackle the refusal of credit to service personnel. We believe that it is wrong for the men and women who serve their country with such courage and dedication to be denied services that many of the rest of us take for granted, simply because we require those people, as part of their duty, to move around the country more than the average person would, or to serve overseas.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Although I am no great lover of Labour Defence Ministers, I take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister on the work of the taskforce, which really has made a material difference to the families of members of the services.

Mr. Spellar

I am stuck for a reply; this is totally unprecedented. I merely thank the hon. Gentleman for his generosity.

On training and education, we want to enhance the ability of our personnel in their current work and to improve their ability to seek employment when they leave our service. We are rethinking the ways in which we train and educate our forces. Our learning forces initiative is our contribution to the Government's wider learning age proposals. It will greatly enhance our success with distance learning. Personnel are tapping into the DFEE national network, which involves the learn direct telephone service and online learning advice centres. The Royal Navy has successfully trialled IT-based learning facilities at sea in the aircraft carriers HMS Invincible and HMS Illustrious. The Army has 115 new internet sites in 33 interactive learning centres.

The motivation that lies behind such initiatives is simple. We want to ensure that the men and women in our armed forces are properly trained and have more opportunities to acquire recognised academic and vocational qualifications. We want to get the best out of them and we want them, when they return to civilian work, to have transferable skills and qualifications. The major new learning credits scheme will expand opportunities for service personnel to pursue academic and vocational qualifications.

Better training is crucial to modernising defence. That is why we are engaged in a fundamental and wide-ranging defence training review to provide our armed forces and civilians with a training system that best meets defence needs in the 21st century.

Training is a multi-billion-pound-a-year business. We need to ensure that it is cost-effective, and that training is shared where it is common between the services and between the services and civilians. To achieve that, we are considering a major programme of rationalisation for defence training and the associated estate, to reduce costs and improve output in support of our joint operational needs. That will contribute to the defence estates strategy, which is aimed at reducing the defence estate to the minimum required to support the effective delivery of defence outputs. The training review team is due to report next spring, when we shall present its findings to the House.

In September, we launched our youth initiative, which involves going more broadly into the community. That initiative is now known as the skill force. It involves teams of serving and recently retired services instructors going into six secondary schools in Newcastle and Norfolk to train a maximum of 25 children in each school in new skills. Those young people are not achieving all that they could, and they may even be in danger of dropping out completely. We want to use the expertise of our service trainers to help to get them motivated and qualified, and to develop skills for life.

The main focus will be key skills training. There will be a chance to develop employability skills and to go for the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme and a St. John Ambulance first aid certificate. There is also an opportunity for young people to work towards an ASDAN—the award scheme development and accreditation network—award, which is a vocational qualification that covers several skills-related challenges, including problem solving, working with others and improving one's own learning and performance. We have worked closely with the Home Office and the DFEE to forge partnerships between Departments, the armed forces and the community. That will make a real difference to some people's lives, and I very much look forward to seeing it in action during my visit to Norfolk on 10 November.

Understandably, in this debate we have, as always, mentioned the contribution of our reserve forces and of the wider role of our forces in the community, including the cadet forces. The Reserve Forces Act 1996 took effect more than three and a half years ago. It underpins our policy of making the reserve forces more integrated, relevant and usable. The strategic defence review enabled us to define more clearly what is required of the reserve forces. Their main task has switched from the reinforcement of UK forces engaged in major conflict to supporting regular forces deployed on a much wider range of operations. The reserves are integral to our ability to expand our forces in times of crisis. The more flexible use of reservists also gives us the opportunity to harness skills not readily found within the regular armed forces. It makes sense to use reservists in roles where their particular skills are most useful. For example, 10 per cent. of UK forces currently deployed in the Balkans are reservists, which shows that we are putting that into effect.

More and more people are taking up the opportunity of full-time reserve service. Well over 1,000 individuals are now serving on those terms. The second Hercules into Sierra Leone, when our forces deployed there so successfully in May, had an FTRS pilot. That is a further step towards maximising the flexibility and employability of our reserve forces, and we often learn from the experience of other countries about taking a more flexible approach on such matters.

Mr. Key

I do not seek to be provocative, I merely seek information. Can the Minister confirm that among the 1,000 or so troops being trained to drive tankers, there are no Territorial Army volunteers, only regulars?

Mr. Spellar

Yes. They are all regular forces. I thought that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary had clarified that, but I am pleased to confirm it now.

On the other side of the coin, we recognise that employers of reservists are wholly justified in asking what they get in return. The reserve forces have always provided outstanding management and leadership training, but we want to balance the additional demands on employers with the provision of more meaningful qualifications, as a result of which employers have a loyal and better trained work force. We are making considerable progress on that, enabling our reserve officers and NCOs to gain national certificates and diplomas in management—qualifications which will be recognised in the outside world as well. Employers benefit from that, which balances the demands that supporting employees serving in the reserves places on the workplace.

Mr. Brazier

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time, especially as I do not intend to be as kind on this occasion. Will he confirm that despite the initiatives that he has mentioned, reserve officer recruiting has collapsed, and that of the last three courses at Sandhurst, none filled half its places and the worst filled only about a quarter of its places? Will he also confirm that among the reserves being used, the category most heavily used at the moment continues to be the infantry?

Mr. Spellar

We recognise the considerable pressures in terms of the number of hours, particularly on those who work in management, which is having an effect on the reserve forces. We need to consider both our work and the need for discussions with employers. There is a considerable role for the infantry, a number of whom I met in Kosovo and Bosnia. In addition, there are heavy demands on our specialist reserve forces, particularly, as I have mentioned a number of times in the House, on signals. We must consider the difficulties arising from the number of signallers in the regular forces, as a result of their attractiveness because of the excellent training that we provide, and the explosion in the communications industry, which has led to the industry poaching them from us. We recognise those pressures. We do not say that there are no difficulties, but we are providing more equipment for many of those reserve forces, making them more usable in the sort of operations that the hon. Gentleman described.

The cadet organisations continue to go from strength to strength, providing more than 128,000 young people with opportunities to participate in military, sporting, adventurous and community-based activities, developing their social and personal skills, giving them the opportunity to mix regularly with service personnel and gain an insight into the realities of service life.

In several areas of the country, adult instructors from the Army cadet force have also been involved in a programme under which they provide supervised activities for young people from their local communities who are deemed to be at risk of offending or have committed minor crimes. Exposure to the Army cadet force assists such young people with their personal development. We owe a great deal to the adult instructors involved with the cadet organisations—some 23,000 in all. We have underlined our commitment to their work by investing £3 million of new money in the cadets. That is good value for the armed forces and for the community.

Mr. Evans

We all want to see more young people being attracted into the armed forces, but will the Minister comment on the article in today's Daily Mail under the banner headlines "Navy's symbol of shame" and "Our crumbling defences…the catalogue of calamity". Does the Minister think that when young people read such stories they will be attracted to the British armed forces?

Mr. Spellar

That is an interesting comment. The hon. Gentleman is saying that such smear campaigns, by newspapers such as the Daily Mail, may have an impact on young people and their view of the armed forces. I agree with the hon. Gentleman in his criticism of the outrageous behaviour of the Daily Mail.

Let us deal with the question of the German submarine. Every week, off Plymouth, we conduct naval exercises that are so good that navies from all over Europe and other parts of the world want to participate. I have participated in one myself, as have other hon. Members, including Front-Bench Opposition Members, under the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Those exercises are excellent. As the hon. Gentleman knows, as a result of a decision taken by the previous Conservative Government, we no longer have conventional diesel submarines. I make no complaint about this, but our submarines are configured for a different and much larger role; they are nuclear submarines. Therefore, as part of those exercises, other navies provide submarines, and have been doing so for a considerable time. A figure is worked out for the daily use of the submarine as part of those exercises, and we charge a largely theoretical figure for participation in the exercises and the training that we provide. That has been going on for a considerable time and it works effectively. To suggest that U-boats are guarding Britain, as was portrayed in articles such as the one that the hon. Gentleman mentioned is deplorable. But he is right to say that if people believe that rubbish, they might be deterred. Those who write it should be ashamed of themselves.

Mr. Duncan Smith

I associate the Opposition with the Minister's comments about the cadet force. It is hugely important and we definitely want to see it enhanced and rebuilt, which seems to be a view shared by the Government. The hon. Gentleman referred to the number of reservists serving in Kosovo and Bosnia, but is it not the case that, of those available in the Territorial Army, about one third are available for such postings? If one reduces the global ceiling of the number available, one also reduces the ceiling of those available for such postings. Does not that suggest that the cut of 18,000 was a mistake, and that in all honesty, it is time to review it?

Mr. Spellar

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not, in one preliminary sentence, join me in condemning the sort of campaign to which the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) referred. I should have thought that he would deplore such attacks on our armed forces—but he has never said what he would do about the submarines; he simply makes gratuitous comments. There is a need for a balance, but there has been a significant shift in what we require of reserve forces from the traditional role of the reinforcement of UK forces engaged in major conflict on the north German plain and the guarding of strategic facilities in the UK—the cold war configuration. Therefore there has been a reshaping of our reserves towards the specialised arms.

Mr. Brazier

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Spellar

No, we have been round that course a number of times.

I conclude by reminding the House of the huge range of activities that our forces undertake day in and day out. At this moment our armed forces are continuing their valuable work throughout the globe.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke about our forces' efforts on operational deployments in the varied and often challenging environments of Sierra Leone, the Balkans and the Gulf. The armed forces maintain a significant presence in Cyprus, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands and Brunei. United Kingdom forces are also important contributors to a variety of United Nations operations, helping to build a safer and more secure environment in Georgia, East Timor, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, on the green line in Cyprus and on the border between Iraq and Kuwait.

We currently have two joint task groups in the Mediterranean, one based around the carrier Invincible and the other including the amphibious ships Fearless and Ocean. In all, we have 21 ships, 34 aircraft and almost 5,000 personnel from all three services with those task groups.

Seventeen ships are at sea in home waters, including four involved in fisheries protection. Two are in the Gulf, five are in the Atlantic and two are in the Caribbean. As ever, we have a Trident submarine on deterrent patrol. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explained to hon. Members yesterday, those vessels have not been affected by the technical difficulties which are currently under investigation with our strategic submarine nuclear fleet. The Royal Marines are in Northern Ireland, in Kosovo and in the eastern Mediterranean as part of the amphibious group. All our dependent territories have been visited by a Royal Navy ship at least once this year. During 2000 our ships will visit, and in most cases train with, more than 100 different countries from Trinidad to Tokyo and from the Virgin Islands to Vladivostock.

We have more than 2,000 soldiers in Bosnia helping to provide the security conditions for the Bosnian people to rebuild their country, and we have 3,000 more in Kosovo. The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment is in Sierra Leone providing training to the Sierra Leone army. A major armoured training exercise, Irofsn Eagle, is under way in Canada. A team of Army engineers is in Zambia helping to teach the Zambian army how to repair and maintain vehicles.

The Royal Air Force is deployed on operations in the Gulf and in the Balkans. It provides air defence and air transport support in the Falklands and supports the Army in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I am conscious that the Minister is trying to set out the range of activities in which our armed forces are engaged. However, he will recall from last night that a number of points were raised. I raised some specific points about the cannon for the Eurofighter Typhoon, the type of training and the priority for spares. I also raised the issue of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, concern about which is shared by Labour councillors, including the Minister's close friend in Aldershot. Does the Minister intend to deal with those issues, or will the Under-Secretary deal with them?

Mr. Spellar

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he put that. I am pleased to side-foot that to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. It is called the division of labour—but the Opposition should know an awful lot about internal division. The hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green certainly knows about divisions, although I noticed that he kept out of the cannabis debate. I do not know whether he supports the shadow Home Secretary on that issue or whether he is just keeping out of it.

In addition, our aircraft are deployed widely, training with our allies to maintain operational effectiveness. This week, two Nimrod aircraft are exercising with the US Navy on the east coast of the USA, a flight of Harrier aircraft is flying across the Atlantic with a VC10 tanker and Nimrod support to train in Canada, and a joint exercise will start, bringing allied aircraft, ships and submarines together.

I have given just a snapshot of the huge range and scale of important activities which our forces get up to every day, helping to build a safer world and helping communities both at home and overseas. The Government are committed to ensuring that our armed forces become even more capable of carrying out those and other tasks, both at home and abroad. We have under way the best equipment programme in decades. We are committed to making things better for our people, providing better training and better support on operations, working with other Government Departments to bring better support at home, and looking at terms and conditions, and housing. Those are not just words and fine sentiments. Much of what I have described is already happening. We have already underwritten our plans with a significant real-terms increase in the defence budget under the spending review 2000. This is a Government who are serious about defence, serious about the future of defence, and proud to be working with our armed forces to achieve that.

2.54 pm
Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

Much of what the Minister has said is extremely sensible and positive. We welcome many of the things about which he has talked, such as the improvement in the logistics organisation and the recent arrangement with Rolls-Royce for repair of aircraft. All that seems to make complete sense, and we are glad that he is doing it. We congratulate him on the progress that he is making in improving some of the welfare issues that are so important for our armed services. The compliment that the Minister received from my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) was thoroughly deserved.

In the spirit of good-natured frankness across the Floor of the House, it might have been appreciated if the Minister had recalled—perhaps he did not mention it because he did not recall it—that three years ago my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) drew the attention of the Government, who were apparently ignorant of the problem, to the difficulty that our armed forces families experience, owing to the extent to which they move about, in getting credit and qualifying for the working families tax credit. I am glad to hear today that the Government have taken action on that, but the initial impetus came from the Opposition Front Bench. It was long before I sat on the Opposition Front Bench, but some credit might have been given to my hon. Friend.

Most of what the Minister said was measured, sensible and businesslike. Why he decided to start off so hysterically, I have no idea. Perhaps some spin doctor gave him his riding instructions. No doubt he would not give way to me because he was embarrassed about the rubbish that he was reading out. The whole Conservative party is committed to the Eurofighter programme. We launched the programme, signed the contract for it and defended it when there were difficulties with our allies—for example, when the Germans got cold feet about it.

Mr. Spellar

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Quentin Davies

I will of course give way to the Minister if he will let me finish my sentence.

We are also committed to the A400M programme—my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) made that clear when the programme was announced—but we are worried about whether the Government are capable of running that programme in a properly disciplined fashion and getting those aircraft into service when they are required.

The trouble is that the Government do not care about Parliament. They do not listen to what is said in Parliament. They would be a much more effective Government if they did. It is one of the great purposes of a debate such as this to bring forward the experience and knowledge of people across the House. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery), who is again present in the Chamber, said on the record that a French two-star air force general had said to him that he did not expect the A400M to come into service for 15 years. I trust that I am accurately quoting my right hon. Friend—I see from his nodding that I am. As we all know, my right hon. Friend is an extremely senior Member of the House and extremely experienced, especially in foreign affairs and defence matters. So a comment such as that must be taken seriously. We should be failing in our task as an Opposition if we did not raise such desperately serious matters and expect the Government to deal with them seriously. Childish scatter-gun insults based on ignorance of Opposition policy is no way to deal with vital defence matters.

If the Minister still wants me to give way to him, I will do so.

Mr. Spellar

Will the hon. Gentleman condemn the comments of Lord Tebbit in attacking Eurofighter?

Mr. Davies

I have not seen, and am not particularly interested in, Lord Tebbit's comments about the Eurofighter. I know that Lord Tebbit used to fly aircraft, but I believe that they were civilian aircraft. In my job, I have an awful lot of reading matter to get through written by people who are considered experts, and I am afraid that I have not come yet across anything written on the subject by Lord Tebbit.

This is a debate about our armed forces, and I want my principal remarks to be focused on the men and women who serve in them. It is also a defence debate and, as such, a very important occasion in the parliamentary timetable. We have only three major defence debates in the year.

I wish to raise a number of current issues on which we must get answers from the Government. I have seven key questions and I expect seven thoroughly serious answers before the end of the debate tonight.

It is about eight months since my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asked me to take on my role as Opposition spokesman on Defence. It has been an enormous privilege to do so, but the greatest privilege of all has been the opportunity to spend time with the men and women who serve in our armed forces. In that regard, I am extremely grateful to the Government because they have enabled me to visit many military units in this country and, on two occasions, abroad—in the Gulf and in the Falklands.

Unlike some of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I do not have a professional background in the forces. Anyone who comes afresh to the world of the forces would share my reaction, which is one of enormous admiration and, sometimes, positive amazement at the consistent standard of motivation, and the thoroughness, professionalism, and perfectionism—a word I do not use lightly—with which members of the armed services approach their tasks, whether it be the handling or repairing of their equipment, their staff work or the planning and carrying out of their exercises. The atmosphere of discipline, interdependence, teamwork and selflessness that pervades the armed forces, and their can-do approach to life are wonderfully refreshing.

Anyone who meets members of the armed forces—as I have so fortunately been able to do during the past few months—will have no doubt that the country is enormously lucky in their calibre. The only problem is that there are too few of them. Their numbers are down—currently, 8,000 below the minimum set out in the strategic defence review. That is thoroughly unsatisfactory.

Those numbers are subject to two variables: recruitment and retention. I have no criticism to make of the Government on recruitment; on the whole, they are undertaking sensible measures—similar to those that we might adopt if we were in their place—and there should be some small improvement as a result. We hope for further improvement.

The retention aspect, however, is especially alarming—as I think the Government realise. The retention problem contains the potential for a serious indictment of Government policy. Men and women are not serving in the armed forces for as long as they themselves expected to serve, and thus for as long as was anticipated when they were recruited. Furthermore, they do not spend as long in the forces as their predecessors. That is worrying and we must take the problem seriously.

There are several reasons for falling retention, all of which relate to morale. One reason is political correctness. The points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) yesterday were absolutely correct. He referred to the absurdities of the armed forces discipline legislation. Apparently, if one appeals against a commanding officer's decision in a disciplinary case, the ultimate punishment that one can receive cannot be more severe—and might even be more lenient—than the one originally imposed by the commanding officer. It will thus be rational for everyone to appeal against their commanding officer. It is hard to imagine a provision which, with one blow, will more effectively undermine discipline in the armed forces. We owe that wholly gratuitous attack on morale and discipline to the new Labour Government.

I shall not avoid another extremely important issue—women. No civilised or sensible person would suggest for a moment that we should discriminate against people on the grounds of sex. However, I have yet to meet any service woman who suggests that women should benefit from positive discrimination—so-called affirmative action. It would be irresponsible to the point of insanity to suggest that the thresholds for performance or other military attributes should be lowered on the grounds of sex when recruiting or promoting service personnel when people's lives depend on how they perform in conditions of great stress and difficulty.

The matter is not one of principle but of pragmatism. I pay great tribute to the role of women in all three services—in the front line in the RAF and, even more so, in the Navy. The extent to which women should be employed in the Army is a matter for the Army to decide. That is most important. The idea that politicians are interfering with such professional decisions is devastating for military morale.

Of course, it is up to political leaders to deploy the armed services: to ask them—at risk of their lives and, invariably, under considerable discomfort—to deploy to promote the country's interests and to defend our freedom. However, it is not the business of Ministers to interfere in the actual management of the armed services and to tell them by which criteria they should carry out recruitment and promotion. That distinction is essential. I hope that Ministers will keep out of that matter altogether—as I assure the House the next Conservative Government will.

Several points on welfare were made clearly in yesterday's debate. I hope that the Government will listen to what is said in Parliament—especially from their Back Benchers. The hon. Members for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) and for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) and other hon. Members mentioned housing problems both for single people and for married couples. Those matters must be taken seriously.

The Minister for the Armed Forces tells us that he is taking all these points on board and that he is trying to do his best. We shall hold him to that. Will he give us regular updates and reports on the progress in improving housing?

Mr. Gapes

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the problems of housing that have bedevilled the armed forces date back to the 18 years when his party was in Government?

Mr. Davies

That is a petty party political point. Those housing problems go back to the 18th century. During the past 200 years, we have been making steady progress in housing Navy and Army personnel—as we have for the RAF during the past 50 to 80 years.

As civilisation advances, we hope that the armed forces—and not just the rest of society—reap the benefits too, and that people do not have to sleep on iron bedsteads 40 to a barrack room in a Nissan hut. That was probably the situation when the hon. Gentleman was a national service man in the 1950s—or during whatever the period on which he bases his example.

Contact with families is also crucial. It is one thing to be sent abroad—to a remote location, doing an inevitably dangerous job in difficult conditions. That is what the armed forces are trained for. However, contact with one's family is essential. These days, that means being able to telephone and to use the internet.

I welcome the Minister's statement about the greater availability of internet access for members of the forces posted overseas. I experienced that when I visited the Falklands recently. Real progress is being made. A new computer centre is being installed. That is a positive move and I pay tribute to the Government for that.

Progress has been made on telephones. Earlier this year, the Minister announced that members of the armed forces serving in war zones would be given 20 minutes of free telephone time every week to speak to their families. One could always ask for more, but that is an important step forward for which I thank the Government.

When I returned from Kuwait, I held a private conversation with the Minister, but—as will become clear—it is reasonable and proper for me to mention it now. I told him that, in practice, people were experiencing problems in getting through on the telephone. He sorted out the problem and—generously—paid tribute to me in the House for having brought it to his attention. Obviously, his mood then was different from his mood earlier this afternoon.

We are making steady progress and that is splendid. I take this opportunity to make a further suggestion. When I visited the Falklands, I found that although people had telephone access, it was extremely expensive. The overseas allowance for the Falkland Islands happens to be 35p a day, which seems pretty derisory. It costs 80p or 90p a minute to telephone the United Kingdom from the Falkland Islands, depending on the hour of the day, so one minute costs twice the whole of one day's overseas allowance.

Obviously, that situation is very unsatisfactory. Perhaps the overseas allowance should be increased to take account of the cost of telephone calls, but I want to suggest to the Minister a much more sensible arrangement. Of course, in a war zone, our armed forces may telephone home for 20 minutes for free, but my suggestion extends beyond that. We should establish a general principle that when we deploy our armed forces abroad, they may telephone home for the rate that the same call would cost them within the UK. That is very reasonable. It is not their fault that they are sent abroad; it is not their fault that "abroad" may mean 500 or 8,000 miles away, as with the Falkland Islands; and it is not their fault that a particular telephone company happens to have a monopoly of telecommunications in the country concerned. I hope that we shall make further progress on that.

Contact with families is very important indeed. Traditionally, it has been very important. The hon. Member for Ilford, South will remember from his time in the Army that troops were very concerned about when their mail deliveries arrived. Of course, in those days, although there may have been telephones, they did not really work across frontiers. Now we are moving into the telecommunications age, and I hope that we can improve matters.

Mr. Gapes

Let me put the record straight. I was born in September 1952, so presumably I would have been called up at the age of six.

Mr. Davies

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if his appearance deceived me somewhat. I am getting fairly bald myself, so I had better be careful.

Clearly, one of the big issues about morale, and the retention that impacts greatly on it, is the number of deployments and the rapid turnround time between them. The Minister has said that the situation is much better than it was at the height of the Kosovo campaign, and we are grateful for that. We are certainly grateful for the minimum leave time after overseas deployments, but obviously this is a self-aggravating problem. To improve morale, we must get our numbers up to scratch. The only way to get our numbers up to scratch effectively in short order would be to work on the retention, rather than the recruitment, side of the equation, because it would take much longer to get our numbers up simply by enhanced recruitment. If we can persuade people to stay on a little longer, we shall get there. Everything should be focused on trying to do so.

At present, what is particularly upsetting people is not the announcement of unexpected new deployments, because everyone who joins the armed services knows that they are at the mercy of international events. They are serving the Queen, and they know that they may have to go anywhere in the light of what happens in the world, which, in the nature of things, is not predictable. But what is particularly annoying and frustrating, and a legitimate source of grievance, is knowing that the reason why they have not had the leave, or the time at home, or the home posting, that they expected has nothing to do with the international situation, or with serving the Queen—it is simply that the Government have not got the numbers up to strength. They are being deployed because the guy who should have been deployed for the operation is not there because the numbers are lacking. Therefore it is a self-aggravating problem, and in my view the Government must do something about it, as a matter of real urgency.

Two other things impact on morale, although their major deleterious impact is actually on the operational side—on our ability to do the job, defend the country and carry out our mission. The first of those is the training business.

In the past 12 months, the present Government have gone in for cancelling training exercises to save piffling amounts of money. The amounts are probably less than they are spending on military lawyers and military policemen under their completely unnecessary Armed Forces Discipline Act 2000, which will cost £15 million in the first year. For such amounts of money they have been cancelling major naval exercises. They cancelled the Flotex exercise. They cancelled the Marines' winter exercise in Norway. Anyone who knows anything about the Marines knows that that is one of the two major events of the year—an essential part of their training. The Government must stop cancelling these exercises for such reasons.

Of course there are operational reasons, or other reasons beyond the Government's control, why exercises may have to be cancelled and rescheduled, but they should not be cancelled for that kind of penny-pinching reason, least of all when the Government are wasting money as they are. We want an absolute commitment that when exercises are cancelled they will be reinstated. They should merely be deferred, and the Government should have an obligation to reinstate them.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

On the issue of the Royal Marines' Arctic exercise, when I was with 42 Commando in Virginia last year, people told me that they were quite pleased not to be doing the Arctic training that winter because it was a regular thing, which they had done time and again, and they felt that they knew it. They found other things that they were involved in to be much more beneficial to them. I accept that some exercises may have been cancelled on financial grounds, but I do not think that the Marines going to the Arctic was one of them.

Mr. Davies

It is wonderful with what gallantry the Liberal Democrats rush to the Government's defence, even though Ministers sit paralysed on their Bench, not knowing how to respond. That is a good try, but it will not work, because that exercise was not cancelled for functional reasons. If it was cancelled for functional reasons, let the Government now say in terms what the functional reasons were which meant that, in terms of greater priorities, that exercise should not have taken place at that time. I fear that it was cancelled for the reasons that I mentioned. It makes the whole matter a great deal more squalid when concealment is added to the initial failure and there is an attempt to bamboozle the public. It is a very important issue indeed.

The second matter that has an important impact on morale but is primarily of importance for operational, functional reasons is equipment. The Government must not neglect it. If equipment is not adequate—if we ask our men and women to fight without the equipment which they should have, and which allies fighting alongside them, such as the Americans, have—that is deeply demoralising. It is a thoroughly unsatisfactory state of affairs if our armed forces cannot communicate, if they are not properly interoperable, or if they are at risk from events from which allied forces taking part in the same operation may not be at risk.

On Thursday, I mentioned a list of instances in which, at present, our equipment is inadequate and the Government have not responded with anything like the necessary urgency, or at all. Where are the stern sonars for type 23 frigates? When will they be fitted? Five type 23 frigates, supposedly with an anti-submarine role, do not have those stern sonars. The Government have spent three years on the GR1-GR4 conversion programme. We have yet to hear what stage it has reached and when it will be completed. Those are very important matters.

The SA80 is absolutely crucial. The fear that one's rifle may jam in an emergency can have a terrible effect on morale. That must be sorted out definitively, one way or another.

That brings me to the subject of communications. What an extraordinary state of affairs it is in which the British Army is sent into combat in the field with portable telephones—the sort of thing that can be bought in any store on the Tottenham Court road—or, even worse, with a radio system, the Clansman, that does not work properly or is not as secure as it should be.

There is no doubt at all that this has been a long, complicated saga and that the matter was not resolved—as I wish it had been—in the 18 years of Conservative Government. Equally, there is no doubt at all that this Government bear 100 per cent. responsibility for what has happened over the last three and a half years. Almost throughout that time they have put themselves in the hands of the Archer consortium, and they have now confessed that that was a mistake.

I understand the reluctance of any Government to stop throwing good money after bad. The Government have taken more than three years to take that decision. They have pulled the contract away from Archer and are re-letting it, and we wish them good luck and godspeed in getting it right this time. Nevertheless, we have lost £200 million and three years. The Government would come out of this story with a great deal more dignity and credibility if they were prepared explicitly to accept their share of responsibility for that disaster.

Mr. Donald Anderson

The hon. Gentleman is giving a long list of reasons, mostly valid, for problems in recruitment. Is he not missing the main point—that we are now benefiting from the lowest unemployment for over 20 years?

Mr. Davies

The hon. Gentleman is wrong in this respect: the military profession is a vocation. In some ways, it is rather like the House of Commons, for example. I do not think that there is any falling away of desire to come and serve in this place simply because people could make more money elsewhere. The military profession has always been a vocation and attracts a particular type of person. Frankly, it would not be suitable for the great mass of humanity. Furthermore, the profession has considerable advantages. I have yet to come across anyone who has spent a part of his career in the military—where he may be superbly trained to do a technical job or go on to do a management job—who has not added not only to the richness of his life but to his qualifications for a subsequent job in the civilian sector.

I said that I wanted to take advantage of this debate to extract information from the Government. "Extract" is the verb that I must use, because we have to go through a painful and long drawn-out process to obtain information these days. The Government do not like telling Parliament anything. When they want to give information out, they like to do so in a highly doctored, selective way through the press and in a way that is carefully spun by their spin doctors. What they do not like to do is give straight answers to Parliament.

May we have straight answers this afternoon? We shall all be listening to find out whether the Government are capable of doing that. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence is more than capable of providing them if he wishes to do so and if he is allowed to do so by his superiors on the Government Front Bench and in the Treasury, which seems to run military policy under this Government. If the Government give us straight answers, we will be able to have a serious discussion and move forward. If not, we shall continue to return to the issues until we receive straight answers. Let me give the Government that warning at the outset.

First, on submarines, at least some information was given to us yesterday—although we did not have a formal statement because we rarely hear them these days—and I am grateful for that. However, it was not enough, as my intervention yesterday made absolutely clear. We know that five of our 12 hunter-killer submarines have been cleared of having the same problem that HMS Tireless has in Gibraltar. That is very good news, and I understand that three of the strategic submarine nuclear—SSN—vessels that have been cleared are Swiftsure class and that the other two are Trafalgar class. However, if the Government do not yet know, when do they expect to know the status of the other submarines? We know about five and Tireless, so that makes six. If we subtract six from 12, we get six, and I think that the Government will agree with the arithmetic. What is the status of the other submarines, and when can we expect to know that?

We also need to know what is happening about Tireless. How long will she remain in Gibraltar? Will she be repaired in Gibraltar, or will she be towed back to this country? How long will it take to repair her? If other SSNs are found to need work, are the berths and specialists available? What time scale can we expect before the SSN fleet—God knows it is the smallest that it has been in the past 50 years—is back in service. At the best of times, we do not normally have more than seven or eight of the submarines available for operations, so we badly need to know what the position is.

Secondly, can we have a statement about the Tucanos? I am surprised that the Government have not provided any information about them, because I would have given it if I were a Minister. Tucanos are the prime Royal Air Force trainer and they are all out of service. There must be about 100 of them although the Under-Secretary will give me the exact figure. Every one of them is out of service, and it is amazing that, last week, two whole systems or platforms were completely out of service. I cannot remember an occasion when even one system was out of service. It is amazing what happens under a new Labour Government. I am sure that Ministers want us to believe that that is a coincidence.

Can we please know what is happening to the Tucanos and what the nature of the problem is? When do Ministers expect them to be fixed? We merely want clear answers on that subject. We have no objection to the pilots being sent in the meantime to Australia; that may be a sensible solution.

Mr. Spellar

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will deal with the details, but let me make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that all armed forces would sensibly take aircraft or other vehicles out of service when a common defect in one type is found and while the fault is established and the recovery programme is undertaken. That happens in all forces. The United States Marines recently had three of their major platforms grounded while they were dealing with defects. That happens in the commercial world, too.

All the hon. Gentleman should be considering is the defect, its cause, the recovery programme and the alternatives available, and my hon. Friend will deal with those points. Instead of becoming excitable, the hon. Gentleman should accept that such things happen and that we will deal with them.

Mr. Davies

The Minister at least takes a fairly humble tone for once. I am glad about that, because the Government owe the House answers. The hon. Gentleman has touched on exactly the questions that I asked. What is the defect and what is the time scale within which it will be fixed? If he had been listening to my remarks, he would have realised that I said that it was not necessarily wrong to withdraw either the submarines or the Tucanos from service—not at all; I dare say that was the right thing to do. However, we do not know all the facts that we should know. Perhaps we will have them at the end of the debate, but I certainly did not suggest that those platforms should not have been withdrawn from service. However, since the first announcements about those two disasters were spun out in the media in the way they usually are, I have thought that the House was owed a full and proper explanation. We still have not received one.

Let me deal now with the third platform—the Lynx helicopter. We have just over 200 of them—how many of them are currently out of commission because of the rotor head fatigue problem? I realise that a certain number of Lynx helicopters will always be in refit or being maintained, but how many of them that should be operational are not operational? Can we have an update on the position, because we have heard nothing since my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green asked a parliamentary question in May? The Government do not seem to want to tell the House anything, but they must tell us where we stand on this important piece of equipment that is essential to the Army, the Marines and the Navy.

The fourth key point that I come to is ISTAR, and for the benefit of the Hansard writers I should spell out what that means. It is the information, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capability. We should have had a statement on that, but we have not. The Government have entered into a contract to purchase aircraft with an airborne stand-off radar—ASTOR—fitted to them. However, we have not heard how many aircraft are being purchased and when they will come into service. Can we please have a clear statement on this important aspect of the country's military capability?

Fifthly, it is extraordinary that the Government did not take the opportunity in last Thursday's debate or yesterday to mention the most important procurement decision that they are likely to take in the remaining months of their time in office. After that, they can enjoy the benefits of opposition and we can give them advice on how to play it in opposition when we change places with them.

Before the next election—even if the election comes as early as May—the Government will have to take a crucial decision on the joint strike fighter programme. Will we enter the engineering management design—EMD—stage for the JSF? [Interruption.] I think that I heard the Under-Secretary say under his breath that he did not know yet, but the Government have a way of running away from difficult decisions. If they do not know yet, what factors that are currently not available to them do they need to be aware of so that they can take an informed decision? I hope that the Under-Secretary will answer my first question.

Secondly, by when do we need to take the decision? The Americans have said that the decision must definitely be taken soon, but have they given us a deadline? If so, when is it? Thirdly, how much will it cost us to join the EMD stage? I am told that it is $2 billion. Is that figure approximately correct? If it is, over what time scale will the money have to be paid over to the US Department of Defence? Fourthly, if we do pay over the $2 billion, what will we receive for it? Will we receive an assurance of full access to the technology and to the know-how that will enable the British partners to build the aircraft or parts of the aircraft here and will we have full access to the updates on technology? Will there be full know-how disclosure?

Fifthly, will there be an opportunity for British subcontractors and American subcontractors to bid on the same basis in exchange for $2 billion, which is no mean sum? Sixthly, if we pay the $2 billion up front, will we benefit from an export levy on third-party sales of the joint strike fighter subsequently? Seventhly, if we are to come up with the $2 billion, is that money already in the budget, or will the Minister have to go to the Treasury to get a supplementary budget? If it is to come out of the Ministry of Defence budget, will that be at the expense of something else? We need a clear answer.

If we do not pay the $2 billion, what are the penalties? Will we have sufficient control of the programme? Given that specifications may change at the later EMD stage, in addition to what is agreed, is that a satisfactory situation?

Finally on this matter, will the decision to enter the EMD phase prejudice in any way our decision whether to go for conventional take-off and landing aircraft or short take-off and vertical landing aircraft? In other words, whether we go for a STOVL or a CTOL-type carrier. There is an important interrelationship between these decisions and we must establish whether the one will prejudice the other. I hope that we shall have some straightforward answers on this important matter. It is the most important procurement decision that the Government might take, and they have steadily and studiously avoided mentioning a breath of it. They have not said a word about it to Parliament. That is not good enough.

I shall make two other important points, and I hope that the Under-Secretary, who is to reply, will listen to them. Again, we want some answers.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Before my hon. Friend finishes his list, will he point out that most of us who spoke yesterday made a number of serious points which received no reply? Will he reiterate the need for us to know what the Government intend with the Parliamentary Assembly if the Western European Union is done away with? Perhaps the Government would also like to say what extra money or manpower is needed for them to go forward, if they intend to, with the European defence initiative. These questions must be answered.

Mr. Davies

I hope that my right hon. Friend's points will be taken on board. I have already reminded the Government of the important matter that my right hon. Friend raised yesterday and of the intelligence that he brought to the House about the French view of the likely coming-into-service date of the A400M. I hope that the Government will respond.

I have not finished with the Government because I shall raise two other important matters on which decisions will be taken shortly, and certainly long before we have another defence debate. We need to know where the Government stand. That is what parliamentary government is all about. One of the two matters is the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. The Government will have to take a decision on it. When will they take it? The worst thing is the uncertainty that their present indecision and vacillation has created. The situation is extremely worrying.

DERA is losing people. Its annual report sets out the decline in manpower in the agency. DERA will also be losing out on collaborative opportunities with the private sector and elsewhere, including the Americans in their public sector, with the Department of Defence and its various institutes. This continuing state of uncertainty has caused damage. When will a decision be taken? That is the first thing that we need to know.

If the Minister does not know, let me help him with the decision that he must take. Whatever decision he takes, he must not opt for the breaking up or fragmentation of the agency and partial privatisation. That would be the worst of all possible worlds. We know that that would be a squalid compromise between the initial proposal that the previous Conservative Administration turned down after due consideration of complete privatisation and the Treasury's desperate desire to get £300 million out of defence at any price in terms of our future defence capability. Also, there are the American objections to full privatisation. Such a decision would not add up.

I shall set out four good reasons why such a decision would not make sense. First, DERA has the dual role of advising the Government on the evaluation of defence bids and research. It is extremely important that the Government have access to independent technical advice on evaluation. The agency's second role is the research and development that it carries out when assessing new military technologies.

Theoretically, the agency could be divided along those lines, but it would be disastrous to do so. DERA has first-class scientists who are at the head of their game internationally. If they were told that they were only to be in the business of advising the Government and evaluating bids, having been taken away from the coal face of research, they would not stay in the agency. That would lead to second and third-rate people undertaking evaluation and advisory roles. We cannot split DERA on that basis.

A second basis on which we might theoretically split the agency is the one on which the Government are proceeding, which is to keep in a retained DERA those parts of the organisation that are working in close collaboration with the United States so as to appease American fears, and to privatise the rest. That will not work either because the two divides will not be the same. There is the division between the people whom we need to retain to advise the Government objectively and those engaged in research, and the other people we need to retain because they are dealing with the Americans and the Americans do not want them to be privatised; and the two distinctions do not coincide.

Thirdly, even if we could make such a distinction on day one, it would not be valid the following day, the following week or the following month. It is important that all aspects of DERA can enter into fruitful collaboration with overseas partners, especially the Americans. That relationship is crucial. It can also enter into joint ventures with the private sector. We cannot freeze for once and all which parts of DERA may be involved either with the Americans or with the evaluation and internal advisory role as opposed to the research role. That does not make sense.

Finally, if the Government think—it would be entirely consistent with the frame of mind and culture of new Labour—that they can somehow finesse the issue by clever spin, by saying that one part of the agency is being privatised and the other is being retained, when in practice both parts will stay together in the same building and have a symbiotic relationship, they underestimate the intelligence of other people. The Americans and the private sector here are not fools; they will see through that immediately. If there is to be a bogus exercise, the Government will end up again with the worst of all possible worlds, with disruption being caused and unnecessary costs being incurred by having two organisations and two sets of overheads. The Americans will still walk away and the private sector will still hesitate to deal with the privatised sector of DERA because there is the issue of giving away for free its own intellectual property. That concern will inevitably exist if it is dealing with what might be a rival commercial enterprise.

There is no basis on which DERA can be split up, except one which will seriously damage the utility and, therefore, the value of DERA as a whole. There will be enormous negative synergies if the organisation is split, and the Government should think again while there is time.

Finally, I come to the great decision that the Government must take in the next three weeks. We are coming up to the commitment conference under the common European foreign security and defence policy, at which the various member states of the European Union will say what they are contributing to the party, or to the catalogue as it is technically called, to achieve the Helsinki headline goals. We are only three weeks away from the conference. Either the Government do not know what they will contribute or they are damn well not going to tell Parliament about it. This is the second day of the defence debate, and we had a defence debate last week, but we still have not heard a word about the UK contribution.

Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green dealt extremely authoritatively, if I may say so, with the important political, geopolitical and philosophical aspects of CEFSDP. He referred to the possible advantages, the risks and the motivation of the Government in proceeding in one direction or another. I am merely dealing with practical decisions that must be taken in the next couple of weeks or so. I am asking on behalf of Parliament what the Government will do. What have they decided? It is inconceivable that a commitment conference is to take place in three weeks' time and the Government do not know what they will say. Are they going to be completely empty pocketed and empty handed? If they know, they should be telling Parliament now.

Also, we need to know what commitment the Government intend to make in terms of prioritising assets. It is clear that this will be an exercise in double-hatting, triple-hatting or even quadruple-hatting. After all, our forces have commitments to NATO. We may have domestic commitments in Northern Ireland, or commitments overseas—for example, the Falklands, possibly Brunei or Zimbabwe, if that blows up, or perhaps Belize, if we still regard ourselves as committed there. Those have nothing to do with either the Washington treaty or the Brussels treaty territorial defence commitments, or with the new Petersberg tasks and therefore with the headline goals.

We thus have, first, the NATO article 5 commitments; secondly, the other overseas and domestic commitments; and thirdly, a commitment—which some of us find rather worrying and gratuitous—to support UN forces. Now the Government are coming up with a fourth commitment, so it seems that we will be quadruple-hatting the same assets and the same men and women in our armed services. That is a meaningless exercise—just playing with toy soldiers—unless the prioritisation is clear.

That must be true also for our European allies. They are coming to the commitment conference, one hopes, with their own proposals. If these are not new capabilities and are not dedicated to the Helsinki headline goal—we are told that that will not be the approach—they, too, will be double-hatting or triple-hatting. Again, we need to know what the prioritisation is.

That is the most important issue to be discussed this afternoon. Enormously important decisions will be taken and tremendous risks will be run if we get it wrong. If, after all the time-consuming meetings in Brussels, Paris and Nice, after the good dinners and the self-congratulatory speeches and toasts, we come up with not a single new ship, aircraft, tank, weapons system or infantry unit; if all that we are doing is double-hatting, triple-hatting or quadruple-hatting existing units and assets; if we do not even have a prioritisation programme; and if people say, "We are not going to do any more by way of increasing our capability, and what is more, we will turn up on the day only if we feel like it, on a good day, and if we have nothing better to do with our forces at that moment", the entire exercise will be seen to have been a thoroughgoing fraud.

That will bring with it enormous dangers, not least if the Americans see that the exercise is a thoroughgoing fraud. The Government may be totally incompetent but they are dealing, sadly, with matters that carry very high stakes. If, instead of enhancing the cohesion and solidarity of the Atlantic alliance, the exercise begins to undermine American confidence in European commitments and promises, the Government will have presided over the undermining of that great achievement, the Atlantic alliance, which, ironically, was created by a Labour Government—the Labour Government of Attlee and Bevin—with the very strong support of Churchill and the Opposition of that time, and the support of every Conservative Government since that time.

If that happens, the Government will not merely stand condemned before the Bar of history for simple, banal, muddling incompetence. They will be accused of having perpetrated a monumental historical disaster.

3.43 pm
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) reminded me of some advice that I received from a fellow parliamentarian, to the effect that one should use the word "finally" several times during a speech because it excites expectations. Those expectations were at last fulfilled. Like other colleagues, I imagine, after the speeches from the two Front Benches I feel a little breathless, so I shall speak more slowly and gather pace as I develop my theme.

Both sides have expressed enormous admiration for the quality of our armed services, one of the great groups of excellence that we still retain. I like to think that the Bar is another. Both sides also recognise that it is a privilege to speak in a defence debate. Although we are a minority group, and fewer and fewer parliamentarians have a direct knowledge of life in the services, there is still a considerable degree of expertise.

Since 1989, there has been a fundamental change in the defence environment in the world and particularly in Europe. All the old certainties have gone—the static defence in central Europe—with the logistic and equipment implications which follow from that. In yesterday's debate, it was the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), I think, who mentioned "upholders". That is symbolic of the nature of the change.

There is, for example, a new Russian military doctrine. There are currently as many surface ships in the Russian as in the British fleet. I do not mention submarines, but that aspect is also very different. The changes are not confined to Europe. As a result of the change in African policy, there are more French soldiers in the Balkans—in Bosnia and Kosovo—than in the whole of Africa. There is thus a sea change in priorities for us and our European allies.

We must learn to adjust. That is difficult for many of us, who learned and experienced our defence in earlier decades. We are light years away from a scenario in which there may be a significant conventional article 5 threat to NATO territory. As we hear in so many debates, the word "security" is much more widely defined. In the past, security meant military and political matters; now, it is extended to organised crime, migration and the environment.

All that is the background to my remarks about the nature of the Atlantic alliance and the potential strains in that alliance. I shall also follow the remarks of the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) about parliamentary scrutiny of defence in Europe. I begin with the United States' role and the relationships between the United States and the European Union in the defence field.

For us, part of the adjustment relates to the projections that we make about how the US will relate to Europe over the next decade and beyond. The US is the sole super-power, and there is a perceived need for greater European co-ordination in defence. That is an old issue—we discussed it in the Harmel debate in the 1970s. In the Brussels summit communiqué of the early 1990s, there was an emphasis on the European contribution.

That is a serious debate, which is not helped at national level by the anti-Europeanism expressed from the Opposition Front Bench and widely within the Opposition. I was waiting to hear whether the word "Europe" would be allowed to escape from the lips of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, who, if not the last of the Mohicans, is perhaps the last of the Europeans on the Opposition Front Bench. I did hear the word, at least towards the end of his speech.

For the Conservative Opposition, 10 October was a rather sad day, because of the unhappy coincidence that the shadow Foreign Secretary gave a speech in Paris to IFRI—the French equivalent of Chatham House—in which he spoke about the new European defence arm as a harmful and pointless project driven by what he called a "cancer of anti-Americanism".

Alas, the telephone had not rung between Paris and Birmingham. Just a few hours before that speech, William Cohen, the US Secretary of State for Defence, said in Birmingham that it is right and natural that an increasingly integrated Europe seeks to develop its own Security and Defense Policy with the military capability to back it up. Let me be clear on America's position: we agree with this goal—not grudgingly, not with resignation, but with wholehearted conviction. In seeking to gloss over that, the Opposition have been forced to rely on some rather dated remarks made in Chatham House last September by Strobe Talbot, and on something that was said at the press conference, with which most of us agree—that there should not be a duplication across the board in planning between the EU and the US.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

Does the hon. Gentleman also recall that Strobe Talbot's lecture at Chatham House was based on the proposition that while there should be a European security and defence identity, certain conditions had to be satisfied? These were not obstacles, but rather conditions to be satisfied, in the context of which an ESDP was entirely sensible.

Mr. Anderson

I was there and I remember what was said. The whole tenor of the Strobe Talbot presentation was positive, but the Conservative Opposition chose to extract a single sentence that could be construed as being negative. We have the very words of the current United States Secretary of State for Defence, uttered hours before the expression of a visceral anti-Europeanism that cannot be in our national interest. Even The Times reluctantly carried the headline, "Tory tirade falls flat as US backs European force". Let that speak for itself.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The hon. Gentleman is perhaps guilty of the offence of which he accuses the Opposition—of being selective in what he chooses to report. The press conference that took place afterwards criticised the report on the basis of its suggestion that the American Secretary of State for Defence had changed his position. He said that he had not, and that he had deep misgivings. Incidentally, he had mentioned those misgivings in a section of his speech that was not reported in The Times.

Mr. Anderson

If it was clear that he had not changed his position, he must have been in favour of the proposal in the past. The words speak for themselves. I have a copy of the speech here, and have highlighted key sections. If the hon. Gentleman has not read it, I will pass it to him. Anyone placing an objective construction on it will see that it is very positive about burden sharing in the alliance and the new EU initiative.

The only part of the speech on which the Opposition can rely—in fact, I agree with this—is the part that suggests that there should be no duplication of planning facilities across the board. The US Secretary of State for Defence said: We hope to establish that if NATO and the UN were to proceed along the path of relying on autonomous force and planning structures they should not duplicate those facilities.

It is impossible to identify any serious contradiction between what the European Union—as stated—is doing and the positive reaffirmation in that speech.

Mr. Brazier

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Anderson

No, because others wish to speak—and I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not claim that the United States is now giving a gut negative response to EU developments.

Mr. Brazier


Mr. Anderson

I really must proceed with my speech.

There are clearly uncertainties in the long term about the US commitment to Europe. The debate will not be resolved by next week's presidential election, but the results of that election will obviously influence the trend.

We in Europe are fortunate in that, over the years, we have benefited from an Atlanticist US foreign and defence policy establishment. We benefited enormously even during the Falklands conflict, when Mrs. Kirkpatrick tried to steer policy more towards the hispanics because of demographic trends. Some day those trends will catch up with us.

We see echoes of that in what has been said by Condoleezza Rice, Governor Bush's senior national security adviser. On 21 October, for example, The New York Times reported her as saying that If elected president, George W. Bush plans to tell NATO that the United States should no longer participate in peacekeeping in the Balkans. Apparently, NATO's Secretary-General is saying that that would have an unravelling effect.

Condoleezza Rice told the newspaper: The governor is talking about a new division of labor…And extended peacekeeping detracts from our readiness for these kinds of global missions. She clearly underestimated the negative reaction in Europe. This raises questions about the future policy of the US under a Bush Administration.

Mr. Evans

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Anderson

No, I really must make progress. I may give way later.

National missile defence is one of the possible strains on the alliance that loom. A report published in July by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs stated that a United Kingdom refusal to allow the upgrading of Fylingdales would be unprecedented and prove very testing for the alliance. It "would have profound consequences" for our bilateral relations.

There has been a delay. The policy of Governor Bush is said to represent, possibly, a more ambitious project involving expensive sea-based plans. Is the NMD policy defence industry driven? Will the US listen to the serious concerns that are being expressed in Europe? What—I ask this in the light of the speech made yesterday by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife—will be the effects on the anti-ballistic missile treaty?

That depends partly on an assessment of whether Russia is prepared to deal, or is absolutist in its opposition to NMD. I know that the right hon. Member for East Devon attended a meeting at which it was suggested that the Russians would try to extract the best deal that they could. The analogy is given of Russian opposition to German reunification until the price is paid. It is a dangerous possibility—and, of course, behind Russia is China. We must ask again whether, given the new rapprochement or at least thaw between the US and North Korea, the perceived threat will be reduced to such an extent that the US will be able to draw certain conclusions about NMD.

Let us return to Europe. The policy of the European Union will develop—pace the Conservatives—and will apparently have US understanding if it is clearly based on NATO as the core of our security. It will involve the use of US assets, which have been promised, as well as a necessary burden sharing in the spirit of St. Malo. The tasks will be limited peacekeeping and crisis management.

My hesitations about the EU initiative derive from two issues. First, as is frequently pointed out, it is easier to make grand declarations than to pay the money to support them. Although there has been a marginal increase in UK defence expenditure following the comprehensive spending review in July, that has not been matched by our European allies, much to NATO's concern.

My second worry relates to the problems of intelligence within the proposed European structure. The culture of the EU consists of transparency, openness to citizens and, indeed, leaking. The culture of intelligence and the military is secrecy, if matters are to proceed properly. We heard echoes of the problem facing the EU when we learned that it had no building that was secure. There was also the problem of interpreters who refused to be positively vetted in respect of defence matters. We now learn that the European Parliament has made a submission to the European Court of Justice against the 14 August decision of the European Council to forbid public access to classified documents.

That suggests that many of our good colleagues in the European Parliament are living in a very different world if they expect Europe to have a proper defence role and are unwilling to follow that through in terms of the classification of documents. We in national Parliaments have reached various forms of modus vivendi with our Executives in that respect. They are not always satisfactory, but the European Parliament and European institutions must learn that the culture of intelligence is very different from the culture of openness.

I end with two matters. The first is NATO enlargement. When we project United States relations with the European Union, we have to ask, "Which Europe?" We know that there is a possibility of NATO enlargement in 2002, and that many countries are anxious to join the alliance. That applies not only to Slovenia, which was an unfortunate victim in the previous enlargement, but to Baltic countries. They pose special problems. For example, Estonia has been a model country in terms of the membership action plan. It has done all that can be required and more. Yet, in the current sensitive circumstances, it is difficult to envisage a rapid move towards including Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the alliance. Perhaps incorporating them in the European Atlantic structures will have to begin with the European Union.

Secondly, I want to consider the important point that the right hon. Member for East Devon made yesterday. In our democracies, we must have informed debate about and scrutiny of defence. That is done reasonably effectively by our national Parliaments: in this country, in the Chamber and by our excellent Select Committee on Defence and the objective reports that it produces. However, nowadays, few of us have done national service and the Army is shrinking, and there is a danger of the military separating itself from civil society. We must find ways in which to bridge that gap.

The Foreign Secretary told the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that he views the European developments as essentially intergovernmental. That means that national Parliaments must get together on some basis. I agree that the European Parliament should be included, but not as a first among equals. If there is to be adequate scrutiny of developments in the European Union, we already have the Western European Union Assembly. It will continue because it exists through the Western European Union treaty and does a reasonably effective job.

In the first six months of next year, there will be a happy convergence because Sweden will chair the European Union and the Netherlands will hold the presidency of WEU. The Netherlands is keen for an in-depth examination of the key parliamentary dimension. It wants the subject to be on the agenda at Nice. The French are resisting that because of the danger of overloading the agenda. However, I urge my right hon. Friends to support the Dutch at Nice to ensure that a marker is at least put down and that the subject is firmly on the agenda.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting and important contribution. The enormous merit of the WEU Assembly, of which I have the privilege of being a member, is that it includes representatives of the national Parliaments of 28 European countries, with various statuses. It includes the Ukrainians, and representatives of the Baltic states—regions of critical importance to overall European security, which cannot be viewed simply in a European Union context.

Mr. Anderson

The hon. Gentleman is a distinguished member of that Assembly, and I listen to his comments with respect. I am sure that he will agree that the new developments mean that the European Parliament must be linked into the process in some way. However, we cannot simply have a six-monthly meeting of those who chair Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees, which Mr. Brock, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, wants. That would be wholly inadequate. We must build on the strength of the WEU Assembly. Hence the importance of placing it on the agenda at Nice and fully discussing it in the first six months of next year.

The Prime Minister made an important speech in Warsaw, where he discussed a second chamber for the European Parliament. As he said, that second chamber could cover defence and security matters. However, another intergovernmental conference will not be held until at least 2004; with ratification, we are considering 2005. In the important interim period, we must seriously discuss democratic scrutiny of defence within Europe and in the context of the co-ordination of European countries. I urge the Government to join our Dutch colleagues to ensure that the matter is firmly on the agenda.

4.5 pm

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. As other hon. Members have done yesterday and today, I begin by paying tribute to the members of Her Majesty's armed forces. They are some of the finest trained and led forces in the world. I especially associate myself with the remarks from the three Front Benches on the death of Bombardier Brad Tinnion, who was buried in my constituency only a few weeks ago. His service with 22SAS again shows that that regiment has been in the front line on more than one occasion in the past 12 months. It is an example of the very best of the very best, and I pay tribute to it.

I welcome many of the comments of the Minister for the Armed Forces, who is sadly no longer in his place. I especially welcome the new arrangement that he announced today between Rolls-Royce and the Defence Aviation Repair Agency. My late father trained with Rolls-Royce and served with RAF ground crew during the second world war. He knew then as we know today about the close links between the RAF and Rolls-Royce. I am sure that the announcement will be welcomed by Rolls-Royce and the RAF.

I also welcome the Minister's comments about the local use of credit cards in procurement. It works on bases and means that people can acquire equipment locally and source it more effectively and efficiently. I also welcome the increase in internet use by members of the armed forces.

The Minister was also right to praise flag officer sea training—FOST. I have been to Plymouth and, like other hon. Members, have undergone a Thursday war to see the efficient way in which our Royal Navy works. FOST is one of the key training elements of western navies. It is extremely useful and successful, and its use of NATO and other diesel-electric submarines—we have none of our own and sadly, we now have only one nuclear submarine—is a common feature of FOST.

The Prime Minister said that a memorial would be dedicated to the men and women killed in the troubles in Northern Ireland. On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I express our gratitude for that. We look forward to its establishment.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) thanked the Government for the access that he and his colleagues have to military establishments. I echo that on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. It is an important part of our democratic procedures that not only defence spokesmen, but all Members of Parliament, have the sort of access that we are afforded. I thank Ministers and officials, who also play an important role, for that.

On one of the points that the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) made, we have a problem in Britain and perhaps in Parliament with the connection between general society and our armed forces. The hon. Gentleman rightly said that fewer and fewer people have served in Her Majesty's armed forces. I never have. However, when I was in Kosovo recently, a senior member of the Royal Green Jackets said that they preferred defence spokesmen who had never served in the armed forces because they came to the job with no preconceptions. That is not a criticism of the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), but there is some truth in the remark.

The new intake of Members of Parliament shows that there is increasingly less connection with the armed forces. In yesterday's debate, only one member of 1997 intake made a speech. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) spoke very well. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) made some important contributions, and I contributed. I see that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) is in his place. Perhaps we will hear from him later. My party is as bad as the others. Members of the new intake do not have the same connection to the armed forces that others had in the past. It is therefore important that the armed forces parliamentary scheme works well. I am a proud graduate of that scheme—I am wearing the scheme's tie today.

I pay tribute to Sir Neil Thorne for his excellent work over many years on the scheme. It is notable that when Lord Robertson became Secretary of State for Defence after the general election, the number of people involved in the scheme was increased from two hon. Members for the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Marines to five hon. Members for each of those services. However, it is sometimes difficult to fill those places with new or experienced hon. Members. By its very nature, the armed forces parliamentary scheme is geared towards hon. Members who already have an interest in defence. So the Government should take a lead in making defence more relevant, particularly to newer, younger hon. Members who may have a constituency interest or an interest in the cadet services or the Territorial Army.

I turn to another parliamentary group—the defence study group. I went to Germany with that group and the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who is not in his place, has also been associated with it. The defence study group is funded by the Ministry of Defence, but is largely based in another place. There is an important need for it to become more involved with the House of Commons and to encourage a greater interest in defence matters. That also applies to the wider community.

The Minister mentioned the cadet forces which comprise 128,000 young people. He paid tribute to the adult instructors and I join him in that. I was honoured to take the salute of the Severn branch Trafalgar Day celebrations in Ross-on-Wye in my constituency last weekend. I met 120 or so sea cadets from all over the south west. They were there because they wanted to become involved in the Royal Navy and the adults that instructed them and looked after them were doing a fine job. However, the cadet services remain short of resources. I have been told by sea cadet groups how difficult they find warship visits. Perhaps the Minister could ensure that when there are ship visits around the coast of our country and at places such as the Pool of London, where HMS Belfast is based, sea cadet groups all over the country are informed of those visits and given an opportunity to visit these ships.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Does not the declining interest in defence reflect the widespread belief that as a subject defence is of less political salience than was once the case? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the crucial point is that although the sources of the threat to our national security might have changed, the fact of it has not?

Mr. Keetch

The hon. Gentleman is right. I was born in 1961 and I was brought up to suspect that there might be a war with Russia. That has changed since the end of the cold war, but the threats to our society, internationally and technologically, through terrorism and different types of warfare, are greater now than they have ever been. We must engage young people in particular and make them understand that those current and increasing threats did not affect previous generations.

We need to ensure that cadet forces have proper access to military assets throughout the United Kingdom. We also need to ensure that cities and communities continue to be associated with the armed forces. I am surprised at the decline in the number of twinnings between warships and cities and communities. The city of Hereford lost its ship HMS Antelope, which was sunk in the Falklands. Every other city connection with ships sunk in the Falklands has been re-established with other vessels, but Hereford has not.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie)

Why not?

Mr. Keetch

The Minister asks why not. I have written to him before to ask him about that. Perhaps he will investigate. Those twinnings where forces marched through the streets with bayonets fixed are very important. Particularly as the armed forces are declining, we need to ensure that those connections are maintained and developed.

I now turn to Gulf war syndrome which was mentioned in yesterday's debate. The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) drew attention to the difference between the announcement made the other day about compensation for new-variant CJD victims and the way in which successive Governments have dealt with Gulf war syndrome. There have been approximately 80 deaths resulting from new-variant CJD. We deplore that and we welcome the compensation. but there have been up to 400 deaths as a result of Gulf war syndrome and as yet there has been no public inquiry. I am not saying that one is needed, but the Government should consider the kind of no-fault interim compensation that was paid to haemophiliacs. We welcome the fact that some 7,500 former Japanese prisoners of war may receive some compensation. I hope that the victims of Gulf war syndrome do not have to wait as long as they have.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

I have taken an interest in former Japanese prisoners of war and have been a member of the all-party group for more years than I care to remember with no progress whatever being made. Has the hon. Gentleman had any indication that we are likely to get what we have sought for so long?

Mr. Keetch

The Prime Minister mentioned this very recently. I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his work. My hon. Friends the Members for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) have also made important progress on this. It has genuinely been an all-party group. If there is an announcement next week, I am sure that it will be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Let me turn to two other issues that have been exercising people recently. The Minister's review of the position of the gardeners is welcome, particularly as possible cuts in the number of gardeners were announced at the same time as news of £340 million being spent on MOD upgrades. Perhaps it was unfortunate timing. We certainly welcome that. I also congratulate the Minister on his response to an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall yesterday concerning the protection of graves at sea on HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse. There has been concern among hon. Members on both sides of the House that international protection is required.

I have one final point about Gulf war syndrome. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) has passed on to me a letter dated 26 October this year from a gentleman in Hampshire who is a Gulf war veteran. It would be wrong for me to name him as I have been unable to contact him, so I shall use his words without identifying him. He writes: Many Veterans are now suffering Illnesses and Disabilities which, as time goes on, leave them more and more incapable to carry on with normal life…The Government has recently announced a compensation package for Victims of CJD, and quite rightly so…But if you look at the figures…we are still suffering…The Government has stated on many occasions that it is doing all it can to help Gulf Veterans, but I can assure you that this is not true I hope that this matter will be dealt with.

Let me now say a few words about procurement. We had a long and interesting debate on the subject last week, but I wish to comment on what the Secretary of State said yesterday. Just after my intervention on the type 45, he said that the type 45 will have a vertical launcher suitable for a variety of weapons including Tomahawk.—[Official Report, 1 November 2000; Vol.355, c. 728.] My hon. Friends and I have been calling for that for some time, even when in May the Secretary of State said that there were no plans for the type 45 to have a land attack capability. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has changed his mind and that he is listening in to us.

I also welcome the announcements on shipbuilding. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife has said on more than one occasion that the judgment of Solomon is needed in relation to shipbuilding orders. The balance was broadly right in respect of the orders that were announced last week, but there are some serious disadvantages. The shipyards in Appledore in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) has not yet received anything. I hope that the Government will ensure that the United Kingdom retains a variety of shipyards throughout the country with the ability to build warships. Mention has already been made of the carriers and the aircraft to go on them. Of course, any aircraft carrier is only as good as the aircraft that it carries. We therefore look forward to the decision on whether we will continue with the joint strike fighter. We must ensure that, in choosing our carriers, we do not do what we did with the Invincible class and choose something that is too small and cannot carry enough aircraft. We must consider what size our carriers are going to be.

I shall move on to an element of procurement that I mentioned in our debate last week, namely the use of the Duro vehicle for the vertical communications system, about which I have tabled parliamentary questions today, as the Minister will have noticed. May I refresh the memories of hon. Members who were in the House last week as well as those who were not.

Dr. Moonie

This is the hon. Gentleman's hobby horse.

Mr. Keetch

The Minister says that the system is a hobby horse of mine, but it is £8 million-worth of hobby horse, and I am trying to get a few answers on it. Indeed, I wrote to the Secretary of State about the matter on 10 October, but have still not had an adequate answer.

We are building a new kind of vertical communications system that will go in the back of a vehicle and will be deployed on a Hercules or a C-17 to support our forces. Used in earnest, I suppose that it is the kind of communication system which, on the battlefield, would be next to headquarters. Having made a decision and put down a specification for the system, the Government have chosen two suppliers, but have allowed them both to choose which vehicle they want. For some reason, instead of choosing a Land Rover, an Alvis or a Leyland Daf, they chose a vehicle from Switzerland. In his reply to me last week, the Minister said: The vertical communications system is based on the Duro vehicle which was proposed to the competitors because no other vehicle has the configuration to take the system and still be transportable by air.—[Official Report, 26 October 2000: Vol. 355, c. 486] I must press the Minister on that. Is he saying that those vehicles are so unique that they could not be produced by Land Rover or Leyland Daf? If they are so unique, why are 2,000 of them left doing nothing in Switzerland and why has no other nation bought them? We need to find out why £8 million is being spent on a Swiss vehicle, when UK vehicles probably could have been sourced.

If we get into service in the British Army a vehicle that may be cheap, but has not gone through any evaluations or testing that Land Rovers and Leyland Dafs have to go through, it will become part of the Army's green fleet and will be available to be bought by other NATO nations without having been tested first. That is why I have tabled seven questions on the matter.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

I want to make sure that I am clear about what the hon. Gentleman has said. I presume that he is not advocating that the British Army and the Ministry of Defence should not seek the best value for money on each contract. If they have to buy overseas, they should do so, as that is in the best interests of the armed forces. Work should not be directed unnecessarily to the UK, as that costs the MOD money and takes money away from UK equipment.

Mr. Keetch

The hon. Gentleman is right that we should go for best value for money. However, time and again in the House we hear of substandard equipment that is not up to the job. I would like to know under what specification the vehicle was ordered and whether other UK manufacturers had an opportunity to tender, as some of them say that they did not. I would certainly like some answers about that contract.

Regarding procurement, Bowman was announced yesterday. We should not hold our breath on Bowman, about which there has been a long, arduous tale, but the Government have, at long last, acted. I do not agree with those who say that £200 million was wasted on the project, as some of the money that has already been spent could be used in future developments. That is what the Minister said last week, for which I pay him handsome tribute.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford spoke about recruitment, but he rushed over the matter, saying that recruitment figures are good. It is true that there is record recruitment and 25,000 people are coming in. However, one area of recruitment is sadly not right—our armed forces' ability to recruit people from our ethnic minorities. The proportion of ethnic minorities in our armed forces is currently hovering at only about 1 per cent and recruiters have failed to reach Government targets.

I have recently attended several recruitment fairs in my constituency and elsewhere that have been organised by branches of the armed forces. Those evenings are enjoyable. They bring together business people, local councillors and members of the community and are undoubtedly successful. However, they clearly do not reach the members of our ethnic communities, which they should be doing. The Government are now recruiting in Fiji, where many excellent members of the armed forces come from, and perhaps the best loved regiment in our armed forces is the Gurkhas. Ironically, however, we are unable to recruit large numbers of people from ethnic communities in our own cities. Whatever the Government's policy is, clearly it is not working, so I hope that they will look again at their recruitment methods in that area.

Retention is a major problem and yesterday we heard a lot about the problem of married quarters. In the continuous attitude survey for service leavers, the effect of service on family life was the most frequently cited reason for leaving the armed services. Whether or not we have served in the armed forces, we all know that that effect is huge, but much could be done to improve it. Like Conservative Front-Bench Members, I welcome Government moves which have begun to change the ethos, and congratulate the Government on that.

However, the Government could do more, such as setting a minimum consistent standard that could be applied to facilities in all garrison bases. Why do some bases have huge sports halls, while others do not? Surely, we should have a national audit of our bases and should try to ensure that there is a common standard for the kind of facilities that they have. We should review the qualification for married quarters to include permanent partnerships, abolish the current march-in, march-out regulations and replace the contract cleaning of voids paid from an element of rent. We should review the moving and relocation allowances, ensure that pay for them is better and ring-fence funding for family support. For every family on every base, there should be a family officer able to look after the care of armed forces.

We have heard from Members on both sides of the House that we have the best armed forces in the world. We are recruiting them well, they are being equipped well—and I hope, equipped better—but, if they continue to leave, our ability to do what we have done over the past few months will end. Retention is crucial to our armed forces, and, although the Government are starting to move ahead, there is still a long way to go.

4.27 pm
Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

I apologise for not being here yesterday, but there is serious flooding in my constituency. The river Roding has burst its banks and I had to visit a number of my constituents and see the damage to their homes.

I speak as a member of the Select Committee on Defence, and it is important to put on the record the fact that our Chairman my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) could not participate in our debate, as he is on parliamentary duty in Hungary. He asked that that information be conveyed to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I also have a constituency interest in some matters that have been discussed. As a member of the Defence Committee, I welcome yesterday's announcement on Bowman. However, as Member of Parliament for Ilford, South, yesterday was a sad day for me because it confirmed what has been apparent for a long time.

My constituents were supposed to manufacture the new system. According to the Archer consortium, the designated manufacturing site was going to be the former Plessey site in Ilford where in 1948, 10,000 people were making defence equipment. In the second world war there were bomb attacks all round Ilford to try to hit the Plessey factory and its underground tunnels. Ultimately, that factory was bought by Siemens and then British Aerospace. Following British Aerospace's failure to deliver on the Archer project, and the way in which the work force in my constituency were sold an illusion that there would be 700, 800 or perhaps even 1,000 jobs for many years, BAE Systems, having acquired several other factories in the Essex and Kent area, announced that it was restructuring its operations and that from February, the Ilford site would be closed.

That means the end of my constituency's continuous 80-year association with defence manufacturing. It must be placed on the record that Ilford and people living in Ilford made a major contribution to the defence of the United Kingdom through their work in the defence industries over many years. It is sad that it has come to this—which is the fault not of the present Government but of the fiasco of the Bowman project, its delays and all the things that are dealt with in the Select Committee's report on major procurement projects. We are not discussing that today, but I must place the fact on the record.

I intervened on the Minister on a point arising from the inquiry that we conducted into Operation Bolton and the no-fly zones in Iraq. The Committee's report and the Government's response are among the documents that are available for the debate. When we visited the facilities in Kuwait, the Ali Al Salem air base, we saw the great contrast in facilities in the region. There is an enormous contrast between the facilities that our personnel have to inhabit there and the facilities available to the personnel of the United States and to our personnel in Saudi Arabia.

I know that the Secretary of State has seen that; he has visited the region. I know that pressure has been applied and discussions have been held with the Kuwaiti Government about the standard of accommodation. In his response, the Minister said that things would improve soon. The facilities are not British Government-owned property. The building has been made available by the Kuwaiti Government for use by our personnel, but it is not adequate. The washing and sleeping facilities resembled the worst kind of 1930s hospital accommodation. They did not look in any way adequate, particularly given the extreme temperatures in Kuwait. It will be a pleasant day when we finally get good accommodation for our service personnel, who are doing a vital job in Kuwait in enforcing the no-fly zones against Saddam Hussein's brutal, expansionist and fascist regime.

I shall spend much of my time talking about European defence and the lessons arising from the Kosovo report that the Select Committee published the week before last—but before I do that, may I concur with the remarks of the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) about ethnic minority recruitment. The Select Committee has just started another inquiry into armed forces personnel. Yesterday we took evidence from the air marshal, the second sea lord and other leading figures in the armed forces about recruitment of ethnic minorities and women to the respective services.

One important issue is how we get young people from inner cities, and from cities generally, to go into the armed forces. There is good ethnic minority recruitment to the cadet services, yet that has not yet been translated through. We need to find role models in our armed forces. For example, the United States had Colin Powell. We need people in senior positions in our forces and services who act in the same way as people have in the media and, increasingly, in other professions, including the judiciary. Even in the Metropolitan police, senior black and Asian figures are coming through.

In the armed forces, we must have that relatively soon. If we do not, we will not tap into the great interest that might exist among many of our black and Asian British citizens. They might recognise that interest if they could see that they would not suffer discrimination and ostracism by the people that they had to work with, but would be able to progress to senior positions in our armed services.

Mr. Blunt

I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not expect the armed forces to turn things round overnight. I know that under the current Administration, huge efforts are going into that area. I welcome the results in the Army cadet force, which will lead into Army recruitment—but inevitably, it will be a gradual process. It was a priority of Sir Malcolm Rifkind when he was Secretary of State for Defence. Policies were put in place then, particularly with regard to the Household Division, but do not expect the proportion to go from 1 per cent. to 5 or 10 per cent.—which is probably a more realistic figure, representing the size of the young population—immediately. I know that the armed forces are trying. Let us please give them credit for what they are doing.

Mr. Gapes

It is important to recognise that change will take time, but the problem we face is that the targets set by the armed forces themselves are not yet being met. The inquiry that our Committee is establishing will investigate the reasons, and I hope that we will be able to discuss it. That is not a criticism of the leadership of the services or the MOD. There is a new commitment under this Government in terms of targets, encouragement and recruitment, but we must address the other barriers.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

My hon. Friend is right. Targets on recruitment have not been met, but is he aware—I am sure that the Select Committee is aware of it—that the promotion of black and ethnic minority service men to higher ranks is very rare? There are very few at a high level in the services. There is a need for further investigation into the issue of promotion.

Mr. Gapes

That is one of the issues that the Select Committee will consider. We have just begun the new inquiry, and I hope that in a few months' time, we will be able to have a whole debate on it.

In yesterday's debate, there was a lot of what I can only describe as hysterical Europhobia with regard to European security and defence identity, or European security and defence policy. I was surprised by the comments of the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who seems to have been reincarnated as a rabid Eurosceptic. In his previous incarnation, he always struck me as one of the most pro-European Conservatives. Perhaps, to preserve their position in the modern Conservative party, Members take the view that they must make over-the-top, hysterical remarks about all things European.

The Kosovo conflict, and the Select Committee's recent report, drew attention to the fact that if we are to be serious about defence matters in Europe, we must address a number of important operational and equipment questions. It appears from the evidence that we received and from our conclusions that, basically, the Europeans cannot operate in any way in any conflict situation without the involvement of the United States.

Paragraph 313 of the report says: Overall, Operation Allied Force demonstrated just how far the European NATO nations are from having a capability to act without massive US support. This deficit is recognised and acknowledged by the European Allies, and some measures are in hand to address the major shortfalls under NATO's Defence Capabilities Initiative. Kosovo reminded us just how critical it is that this programme is backed by political will and adequate financial resources. Its successful implementation will also demand a high level of European political co-operation. I would welcome it if the Conservative party became part of that European political co-operation and consensus in trying to make our defence capabilities in Europe more effective. In my opinion, the greatest threat to the future of European defence and to NATO does not come from Europe or any European politician, but from the election platform of the United States Republican party. I suggest that anyone who doubts that goes on to the internet and clicks on the policy positions adopted by the Republicans over the past three or four years, and on the speeches of Condoleeza Rice, who is the senior policy adviser to George W. Bush. I hope that if that party's policy is implemented, sense will prevail among the American electorate or the wiser heads in the State Department and the Defence Department. If they go ahead with ballistic missile defence, they will cause the worst crisis in relations between Europe and the United States that we have seen for more than 20 years.

I am not encouraged by the remarks of the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), the shadow defence spokesman, who seems to be whipping up hostility to the idea of Europe increasing its defence capabilities, and acts as a cheerleader for the unilateral deployment of ballistic missile defence—which we know will have serious consequences for relations between the United States, Russia and China, and for the future of arms control, the strategic arms reduction treaties and many other things. That worries me enormously, especially given Russia's key role in ending the Kosovo conflict, to which the Select Committee referred in its report, and the key role of diplomatic efforts, in co-ordination with Russia, if we are to achieve a transformed Balkans that can become part of Europe.

The geographical position of Serbia is central to those efforts, and our relations, as west Europeans, with Russia are crucial in influencing what happens between the Serbs and their neighbours. The last thing that we need now is global unilateralism from the United States, which encourages conservatism and reaction in Russia, which then leads to irredentist positions among the Serbs and their neighbours in the Balkans. That would be an absolute disaster.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, talked about NATO enlargement and widening European security. We should now seize the opportunity presented by the half-completed revolution in Serbia and the democratic transition following the death of the fascist Tudjman in Croatia. I was in Croatia in June and met many far-sighted, good people there. The Croatian Government have invited Serbs back to Krajina and are standing up to the hard right. Even though they are a fragile coalition Government, they are doing their very best. We need to encourage those forces.

That requires the United States to be engaged in Europe, not to withdraw its forces unilaterally from Bosnia or the Kosovo area—contrary to what George W. Bush seems to want. We need both wings of NATO—its European pillar and the United States—to work together with the Russians to rebuild security in the Balkans region. Those issues are fundamental to the future of the defence policies that we, as a Government, bring forward during the next few years.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford referred to gratuitous United Nations involvement. I do not believe that our involvement in the UN is gratuitous. I do not believe that those unarmed British military observers whom the Select Committee met on the Iraq-Kuwait border, the UNSCOM mission, protected by Bangladeshi troops under an Irish commander, and including Senegalese, Russians, Americans and Canadians, are gratuitous. This country should be proud of that important international security and peacekeeping role.

Similarly, what we are doing in Sierra Leone is vital. We should be proud that we are saving black African children from having their arms mutilated and their heads cut off. We should be proud of the fact that when the UN has difficulties it comes to us and says, "Please help." It knows that we have professional armed forces and brave people who are prepared to put their lives at risk to provide international peace and security.

We need to talk not about "gratuitous" UN involvement, but about how to strengthen the UN. We need to talk about how we as a permanent member of the Security Council can work to strengthen the UN bodies that deal with such matters, so that we do not have to rely on NATO or regional alliances or coalitions of the willing, but can build permanent international structures for peace and security. The UN is important. The European defence capability initiative and the ESDP are important. Above all, none of that would be possible without the men and women of our armed forces and their families who support them.

4.46 pm
Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

I am afraid that, like the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes), I, too, have to apologise for the fact that I was not in the Chamber yesterday. I was attending an important meeting in my constituency, which was called to consider some of the lingering consequences of world war two which still affect our part of Kent.

I want to take this opportunity to place on record the enormous pleasure that my constituents and I have had in recent months in welcoming the Gurkhas to their new quarters in Shorncliffe in my constituency. That welcome has been warm and genuine, and the Gurkhas have made an outstanding impression, as the House would expect. I have no doubt that they will be continue to be much valued members of our local community for a long time to come.

Next week, the United States will elect a new President. It is almost inevitable that the new Administration, whoever heads it, will want to review the United States contribution to the defence of Europe and the role of NATO. That review will take place at a time when the Atlantic partnership is under strain. That partnership has not only been good for Europe and north America but has been one of the greatest forces for good in the world as a whole during the past 50 years. It continues to have the potential to be a force for good during the next 50 years, but there are forces at work on both sides of the Atlantic that are tending to drive Europe and north America apart. Those forces of geography, demography and trading rivalry are deep-seated. If they are not to prevail, a considerable effort of political will needs to be mobilised.

We must seek to minimise the points of friction, not to add to them. Yet at this critical time, the Government of the United Kingdom—which, under Governments of whichever political party has traditionally been the strongest promoter of that partnership—have embarked on a defence initiative that will, in my view, inevitably exacerbate the strains and increase the risks. The reasons for that adventure, which involves a complete Government U-turn, have never been explained.

After the Amsterdam Council, in June 1997—although my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) referred to this in yesterday's debate, it is important and bears repetition—the Prime Minister told the House: getting Europe's voice heard more clearly in the world will not be achieved through merging the European Union and the Western European Union or developing an unrealistic common defence policy. We therefore resisted unacceptable proposals from others.—[Official Report, 18 June 1997; Vol. 296, c. 314.] I do not think that, when the Prime Minister said that, he was being hysterically Europhobic or rabidly Eurosceptic—to use the phrases just used by the hon. Member for Ilford, South. The only difference is that Conservative Members still think that what the Prime Minister said then was right. We think that he was being sensible. It is the Prime Minister and his Labour colleagues who now think that he was wrong, although they have yet to explain the reason for the change.

What we are now faced with is precisely what the Government resisted in 1997. The European Union and the Western European Union are to merge; the unrealistic common defence policy is to be developed; and the proposals which were unacceptable at Amsterdam and were to be resisted have now been embraced. We can only speculate on the reasons for the volte face. By far the most credible explanation is that the Prime Minister, frustrated by his inability to smuggle the United Kingdom into the single currency, and desperately casting round for some other way of establishing his credibility as a good European, identified defence as the only way forward.

Therefore, the Prime Minister signed up at St. Malo to defence co-operation "inside and outside" NATO. He also signed up to the Cologne declaration which calls for the European Union to have the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces and the means to decide to use them. Since then, the Prime Minister has signed up to further agreements at Helsinki and at Feira in Portugal. At Helsinki, it was decided not only to develop autonomous European military capabilities, but to set up new European security institutions. Since Helsinki, we have seen the establishment of an interim political and security committee, an interim military committee and a military staff. All those are explicitly and deliberately set up outside the framework of NATO. They will duplicate structures that already exist in NATO. To what end?

Mr. Gapes


Mr. Howard

I hope that the hon. Gentleman can provide an answer.

Mr. Gapes

Is it not a fact that, as the Select Committee concluded, all those new initiatives are about effective crisis management, and that they do not in any way duplicate or replace the continuation of work in NATO? Is not the main issue how we increase the ability to deploy 50,000 to 60,000 of the 2 million members of the forces in the European countries? That is what the initiatives are about.

Mr. Howard

All that can be done, and should be done, within the framework of NATO. There is absolutely no reason whatever why it cannot be done within the framework of NATO. That was what the Prime Minister told the House in 1997. I am wholly in favour of a more effective European defence effort. The European members of NATO should do much more than they do now to shoulder the burden of the alliance.

By far the most effective thing that most of the European members of NATO could do is to spend more money on defence and to spend it more sensibly. The majority of European Union countries now spend less than 2 per cent. of their gross domestic product on defence. Eight member states, including Germany and Spain, spend 1.6 per cent. or less on defence. The United States spends 3.2 per cent. of its GDP on defence. The very last thing that is needed in this set of circumstances is to fritter away those scarce resources on an unnecessary new set of bureaucratic arrangements that duplicate what we already have in NATO. Why is that being done?

Let us be clear about the logic behind the developments. The only set of circumstances in which the new capability could need to be used outside NATO and without recourse to NATO's assets would be in a situation in which the United States refused to allow those assets to be used, and not simply in a situation in which the United States itself did not want to get involved. In such a situation, the European members of NATO would be perfectly able to act within NATO and would be able to use NATO's command structure and NATO's relevant assets, but without the direct involvement of the United States. The only situation in which all those elaborate arrangements would be necessary is one in which the United States not merely did not wish to take part, but was prepared to veto any NATO involvement.

In the past 50 years, almost all our differences with other NATO members have been with other European members of the alliance, not with the United States. It was some of the other European members of the alliance who had difficulties over the Gulf war. It was the Belgians who refused to sell us bullets. It is with other European members of the alliance that we now—now—have differences over Iraq.

I have been trying to think of occasions in that period when we and other Europeans have wanted to take action that the United States might have wanted to veto if we had wanted to act through NATO. It may be that my memory has deceived me, but I can think of only one such example—Suez. Are the Government, with their European partners, going to all this trouble so that Europe could mount another Suez campaign without the involvement of the United States?

Mr. Wilkinson

My right hon. and learned Friend has taken that question out of my mouth. His exposition is most cogent. Surely the great deficiency of Suez was that it was not squared with the Americans before the operation was undertaken, and that, without their wholehearted support throughout, it was doomed to failure from the start.

Mr. Howard

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Gapes

I was also going to refer to Suez, but shall refer instead to the other example—the United States early sabotage of the Carrington-Cutileiro proposals, which might have led to a different outcome in Bosnia.

Mr. Howard

That is a matter of considerable controversy, and the interpretation that the hon. Gentleman puts on it is by no means universally accepted. I think that Bosnia could well have been an example of an instance in which the United States did not itself want to be actively involved, but would not have wanted to veto any involvement by the European members of the alliance. That is the way in which we could, and perhaps should, have proceeded in Bosnia.

The truth, of course, is that what is happening is the creation of a European army. It is all part of the drive towards a single European state. I am going to quote the President of the Commission. My hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green was too restrained to quote him yesterday, but I do not think that this debate would be complete if we did not place on record the view of the President of the European Commission—who was hand-picked by the Prime Minister for the job. The Prime Minister's candidate for the job has memorably said: When I was talking about the European army, I was not joking. If you don't want to call it a European army, don't call it a European army. You can call it Margaret. You can call it Mary-Ann. The United States has, so far, reacted to these developments with dignity and tact. We all know that there is deep disquiet in private, but, in public, the comments have been measured. In the past, that has led to somewhat arid exchanges across the Floor of the House—some of which we saw earlier today. In the past, I myself have taken part in such exchanges, in which one speaker quotes one part of a speech from a senior American, and another speaker quotes another part. I do not want to engage in that type of terminological analysis today; I do, however, want to ask the Minister some very specific questions.

In his much-quoted speech of 10 October, quoted again by the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), United States Defence Secretary William Cohen proposed unifying the EU and NATO systems under a European security and defence planning system. He said: It would be highly ineffective, seriously wasteful of resources, and contradictory to the basic principles of close NATO EU co-operation that we hope to establish, if NATO and the EU were to proceed along the path of relying on autonomous force planning structures. Thus it is hard to conceive of any agreement based on logic, practicality, or effectiveness, that European Allies who are also EU members shall proceed along separate defence planning tracks—one within NATO, the other within the EU—to prepare for the same range of crisis response operations. Yet that, surely, is exactly what is being done. Autonomous force planning structures are being set up, and separate defence planning tracks are being established. What is the Government's response to the reasonable concerns expressed by the United States Defence Secretary?

Mr. Donald Anderson

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is falling into his own trap in the matter of selective quotations. Mr. Cohen's starting point was a very warm response to the European developments that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is now dismissing. He quite properly said that there should not be duplication of planning staffs but he agreed that there should be a strategic planning staff at European level. That is precisely the policy that the Government are following. There is a debate within Europe, and others will want to go further, but it is surely wrong to dismiss those who voice a different opinion. We have made it clear that we do not want duplication, but the Americans themselves assume that Europe should have a planning function at a strategic level.

Mr. Howard

But it could all be done within NATO. If we do not want duplication, why have a political and a military committee, and a military staff outside NATO? They are, in essence and inevitably, duplicating functions that should remain in NATO. There is no need for them.

Mr. Anderson

The right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the Balkans. Miss Rice has made it clear that it may not be in the US strategic interest to be involved in the Balkans, but because of migration flows and the turbulence across frontiers, Europe certainly does have an interest there.

Mr. Howard

I accepted that a few moments ago. I accept that there may be situations—the Balkans may be an example—in which European members of NATO would want to get involved but the United States would not. That could all be done within the framework of NATO.

I have not quite finished with Mr. Cohen's speech. He went on to say that the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe—DSACEUR—should be at the heart of EU-NATO relations. In this, he was echoing our Defence Committee, which proposed that DSACEUR should have the right to attend all meetings of the European military committee. The Government's response to that proposal was typically disingenuous. They said: The Government agrees that DSACEUR's attendance at the EU Military Committee will, in many cases, be essential, not least to ensure transparency between the EU and NATO. Of course, that was not agreement with the Defence Committee's proposal. It was not even an answer to it. I should be grateful if the Minister could listen for a moment, because I want an answer to this specific question: will DSACEUR have the right to attend all meetings of the European military committee, as proposed by the Defence Committee, and if not, why not?

Is it the case, as reported in The Sunday Telegraph this week, that the Government have conceded that the holder of the post of director general of the military staff should be French? Would not that symbolise the way in which the Government now dance to a French tune on these matters? Given France's history of ambivalence towards NATO and the growing stridency of the anti-American rhetoric indulged in by French leaders, would not that give the clearest signal to the Americans of the real nature of this enterprise?

The Sunday Telegraph also suggested that Pentagon chiefs have made it clear that they would be unwilling to share intelligence data with the new EU alliance—another point touched on by the hon. Member for Swansea, East. I do not expect the Government to comment on intelligence matters, but is there not a real danger that that will indeed be the American position if these events proceed, especially given recent history, including what happened in the Kosovo campaign?

These are serious questions. I hope that we can have some answers. My charge against the Government is that they are jeopardising the relationship that has always stood our country, our continent and the world in good stead, by committing themselves to a wasteful, pretentious and ill-thought-through European enterprise. It may yet turn out to be their greatest act of treachery.

5.7 pm

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)

First, I apologise for my absence yesterday. I was listening to the debate but began to feel unwell, so I had to leave halfway through the opening speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Let me make it clear how much I admire our British forces. Like the majority in Britain, I am very proud of their action and I believe that they make an outstanding contribution on our behalf throughout the world. I am more than pleased that the Government are acknowledging that and spending billions. This is the first time for many years that so much has been spent, and it is long overdue.

I want briefly to express my pleasure and pride in the fact that two of the amphibious landing craft are to be built in my region, in the north. That, alongside the order for tanks, has made people feel that they have a proud future in Great Britain in which they, too, will be seen as supporting the activities of our armed forces. I am pleased, of course, to have the opportunity to contribute to a debate on defence and the armed forces for the second time in a week. That gives me real pleasure.

My intention today is to welcome, although with great caution, the clear support that the Government are now giving to the principle of equal opportunities in the armed forces' selection and recruitment policy. At long last, that approach will give all people the right and opportunity to serve their country in many roles, although not 100 per cent. of roles are open to people in that way. I hope that, by the end of this Parliament or the beginning of the next, women will have the right to apply for selection for 100 per cent. of roles, and that fewer exclusion clauses will be put in their way.

I believe that people with the necessary talent and ability should be recognised and, if they are able to pass the rigorous selection criteria, they should be given the opportunity to serve. I am more than pleased that the Royal Air Force should have opened up 96 per cent. of all roles to women. The figure for the Army is 70 per cent., and for the Navy 73 per cent. That is a valid beginning to giving all those who choose to do so the opportunity to serve their country.

I am pleased that some people—although only some, as yet—are consigning to the dustbin the belief that only men can or should fight on the front line. The implicit belief has been that women are only able to care. I want to persuade the House that everyone, to varying degrees, is able both to fight and to care, and that recognition of that is long overdue.

Women were involved in active service in world war two. That fact has conveniently, been forgotten, by those who want to exclude women from 100 per cent. participation in the armed forces. It is shameful that only now is a formal commemorative statue to be built in remembrance of all the women who served in that conflict. Many women served on the front line in the second world war and many died, proud to give their lives for their country

Some hon. Members might claim that women are the weaker sex, that they must be protected, and that they represent a gender problem and a weak link in a combat team. They should read the accounts of those women who fought on active service between 1939 and 1945. If they did, they would be ashamed their wish to consign women to a secondary role rather than a primary one.

Convincing evidence of women's physical ability and dextrousness is evident in the work that women did in the munitions factories of the 1940s. The cosy, rosy picture of the little woman at home is also blown away by the history of the land army. The stereotypical perception of women is also called into serious question when one reads the history of mining. Women were miners and dug coal alongside men, and they participated in industry, education and politics. Despite their full achievement in all roles, women have been defined by some, conveniently and for far too long, in terms of the support given by "the back-room girl".

I remind the House—seriously but not entirely without humour—that behind every successful man there is often an even brighter and more convincing female. I am sad to say that successful women have to be twice as capable—and often twice as bright and determined—as the men with whom they compete.

The armed forces of tomorrow must not accommodate the stereotypical beliefs that I have described. Although I do not doubt that such beliefs are well meaning and serious, I know that women consider them to be patronising and undermining.

I am proud of the British armed forces, so I find it sad that sexism is writ large in the ethos of much of those forces. That sexism is perpetuated by the many who persist in regarding the forces as a man's world, where front-line combat—the acceptance of commands or roles that might cause one to die in action for one's country—is considered to be the right and prerogative of the male. My contention is that the approach of the armed forces should be that all people have the right and prerogative to choose to serve in roles that they fit and can accommodate. It is, of course, the right of the armed forces to select, without prejudice, people who have the talent, ability, suitability and the desire to serve. However, I believe that only when the selection process is fair as well as rigorous will the best be chosen.

There are, of course, changes taking place. The serious questions that impact on whether a woman should be allowed 100 per cent. participation in the armed forces are at last being asked. The Army is carrying out a study of the effects on combat effectiveness of opening all roles to women. I warmly welcome this. I would not want any person to be selected for a role in the armed forces that they could not accommodate. I am assuming that the study will test and assess the extent to which combat roles are supported, disrupted or undermined by operating joint male and female forces. I believe that the tests used will assess whether mixed-gender forces will reduce the commitment of all in achieving the set target, which of course includes raising bayonets against an enemy or aggressor.

Valuable evidence—albeit not great in volume—from American studies and the Israeli army suggests that women in combat on the front line in action are as relevant to that action and show as much commitment to it as any male involved. That evidence is small in size but is a valued start with regard to providing evidence and information that will inform the debate on achieving equal opportunities in the armed forces. Inevitably, much is said about the training to achieve effective combat. Standards are set and they must be achieved if the Army is to survive any and all affronts.

People who participate in all parts of the armed forces have the talent and ability to do the job in hand. I am absolute in my belief that a commitment to equal opportunities must in no way compromise the performance of the force. Equally, I believe that a commitment to equal opportunities will not compromise the performance of the force. It is emphatically the case that when on active service in the Gulf or Kosovo, whether on a rescue or other mission, the whole team must be able to meet the standards required. There is no room, and there can never be any room, for a weak link. That fact is absolute. However, we must have knowledge about women's capabilities to judge whether they can maintain their combat roles under pressure. It is only when the roles are open to women and they are given a chance to prove their capabilities, to perform in training and under pressure, that we can assess accurately whether they should be selected for all front-line combat roles, such as in the Marines, in submarines or elsewhere.

The research provided for the Equal Opportunities Commission clearly states that equal opportunity becomes a valued tool when we recruit personnel. We must ensure that we define appropriate talent and select people of appropriate talent and standards, establishing effective training to ensure effective activity. The EOC believes that if we ensure appropriate selection, recruitment and training, the armed forces will get women who are capable of performing under pressure, and will, of course, also get men who are capable of performing under pressure.

The debate on equality and opportunity clearly turns on the requirement to select people who want to serve, who have the ability to do so and who, after training, prove that they are capable of doing so. When selection is approached in that way, women and men will serve alongside each other in the armed forces. My overwhelming hope is that many women will be given the right to command.

It saddens me to have to end on what I consider to be a note of some disdain. I was not in the House yesterday, as I explained, but I watched the monitor and I have read Hansard, and I am thoroughly unhappy about the comments of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). Much of what he said was not explicit, and I suggest to the House that that is cheating. We should say to each other what we mean, and mean what we say to each other. In his comments, many of which were implicit, he made statements that I found thoroughly offensive. One comment—

Mr. Wilkinson

On a point of order. Is it normal for an hon. Member to make criticisms in that way? Perhaps the hon. Lady notified my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) that she was going to make critical remarks about him. He served in Her Majesty's armed forces for a long time, and his point of view was valid.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

First, I remind the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) that points of order should be addressed to the Chair.

I hope that the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) will assure the House that she was not accusing the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) of being a cheat, which would be unparliamentary use of language. I underline the point that was made by the hon. Member for Ruislip—Northwood: strong criticism of an hon. Member should be preceded by a notification that it will be made.

Ms Taylor

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did not inform the hon. Member for Blaby of my intentions. I saw him in the House this morning but, sadly, assumed that he would be here this afternoon. I am sorry about that. I most certainly did not use the word "cheat" in the way you feared.

I point out, with sincerity and concern, that yesterday the hon. Gentleman said that few of us had any real experience of war. In opening his remarks, the hon. Gentleman referred to the second world war and said that he regarded that as the real war. I am seriously concerned about that, and I shall send him a note about it. What is his perception of the Gulf war, the Falklands or the Balkans, especially the situation in Bosnia and Croatia during the early 1990s? The men and women in those conflicts believed that they were fighting in real wars. In our communities, the families and friends of those who died in those conflicts believe that those people fought in real wars.

The hon. Gentleman referred to women in ways that I found unfortunate and insulting. His speech implied that to allow women on to the front line and into the infantry would lower standards, and that involving women in those ways would help to undermine the ability of the infantry and fundamentally alter its capabilities. I should like to know—indeed, the House deserves to know—the source of the evidence to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I know of no such evidence. The House has been a victim of prejudice that was personal and patronising.

Mr. Blunt

The hon. Lady is entitled to her point of view, but I share the opinion of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) about the involvement of women in the infantry and the fighting echelon which, in extremis, have to close with the enemy. I agree that it would be deleterious to the performance of the men if women served alongside them. We are entitled to our point of view. It is unfortunate that the hon. Lady should describe my hon. Friend's views as insulting to women. Both my hon. Friend and I are interested in the optimal performance of the armed services. I should be grateful if the hon. Lady would not suggest that we believe anything else.

Ms Taylor

I made no such statement. I would not for one minute imply that the hon. Member for Blaby does not have the optimal interests of the armed services at heart. However, it is important that we all understand the impact of what we say—in this case, that women are seen as an undermining force.

I am pleased that the Ministry of Defence is beginning to address issues of talent and opportunity by participating in the equality debate. I am absolutely convinced that in future people will be selected to command and serve on the basis of their talent and ability. Now that the equality debate has been opened, that should be the focus of tomorrow's armed forces. I hope that it will be and that the House will support women who want the opportunity to serve their country in 100 per cent. of the roles performed by our armed forces.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I want to share some simple arithmetic with the House. There are 63 minutes left for Back-Bench contributions and seven hon. Members seeking to catch my eye. I hope that hon. Members will use the time as equitably as possible.

5.27 pm
Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor). Equality and ability are obviously important to her, but she should also recognise the importance of suitability. I was a gunner in the armed forces. Many gunners manned the anti-aircraft sites, or ack-ack sites, outside the main cities. Although I was never in such a unit, I suspect that few women would have found such a role suitable. If they were rejected for such a job, that should not be regarded as discrimination. That would be unfair to people who take a professional view of the suitability of people of different sizes and abilities to handle the awful job of fighting on the front line. That has to be taken into account. The hon. Lady does not seem to have grasped that issue.

I am aware that other hon. Members want to speak, but I want to cover a little of the old ground and clear up the matter of Europe. I am an Atlanticist. I have lived in America and know that it is vital to this country in terms of trade—and the way in which it came to our rescue in the first and second world wars and again during the cold war. It is important that we should all see the American influence as part of the democratic way in which we, as a democratic nation, serve the cause of peace.

There are those involved in European security and defence who wish America to keep away and gradually disappear from playing a role in the defence of Europe. I notice that as an active member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. I have been a member of the Assembly for some 20 years, so I have seen it through the cold war. I have seen the initiatives that we have needed to take with the Russians both in the cold war and in peace. Some people may think that we can remove the American presence by creating a European security and defence identity. To do so would have the effect of decoupling us from the United States, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) said. New methods of command and control and a new bureaucracy would be established. My right hon. and learned Friend quoted some of the comments made by French politicians, such as the Prime Minister and other senior officials. Their ideas would lead to the exclusion of the United States. That would be folly.

We still have an uncertain world to deal with. Wilfully to exclude America on the ground that we do not want it to dominate us would be wrong. One phrase was quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) yesterday. The French European Affairs Minister said: We do not agree with the Americanisation of the world…We are saying that together we can build a new superpower…and its name will be Europe.—[Official Report, I November 2000; Vol. 355, c. 743.] It is not only people like that who speak in such terms. Some of my French colleagues whom I very much admire would disown such a statement, but the French have always been an unwilling partner in NATO. More recently, they have been more active and have played a useful role, but they have long wished to play some role that would strengthen Europe and, so they think, make Europe more independent and get rid of the American influence.

There are those who, because they want Great Britain to play what they regard as a more constructive role in the European Union, go along with those views. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe said, the Prime Minister has altered not only the tone but the words of his language. I do not believe that he or we ever contemplated that we would be playing some grandiose role in creating a new organisation that would ultimately distance Europe from America for political reasons and make it a political power—a big new European state.

It is not good enough for Labour Members to regard my comments as an example of Europhobia. I believe more than some of my hon. Friends that we should play a constructive role in Europe, but to me Europe is an economic organisation, not a political organisation that deals with defence in such a way that it rules out the sorts of co-operation to which we have been used.

Europe can obviously play its part in bringing together the disparate parts of Europe. Some countries are members of the European Union, some are not, and some are not involved in any of the western European organisations. The EU can perhaps help to coalesce the interests of the countries of Europe. It can do something that it has not yet grasped. If it wants to preserve the peace and stability of Europe and play its part in the world, it must rise to that responsibility by providing the money to fulfil those obligations.

The United States may get rather tired, fed up and critical of some of the things that we are doing. I am bound to say that some European countries have a lot more work to do in terms of security and defence. That is why my right hon. and learned Friend was right to quote the new setting of the decision to discuss the various organisations that would cut across the existing arrangements that have worked so well. The establishment of permanent political and military structures as soon as possible after the Nice European Council is on the agenda. If that goes too far, it will not only create another bureaucracy but widen the gap between ourselves and the United States.

I hope that we will not hear in the Minister's reply or in Labour Members' speeches that the sentiments that I express are Europhobic. They are not. They are designed to face the reality of some of those influences in Europe who believe that a federal state with a European army is the way to guarantee the peace of Europe. There are countries in Europe that do not want to touch heights of commitment that we in Britain have. They want a security umbrella, but not necessarily in the form of a federation. In some countries—our own is one such—it would not be believed that, in this day and age, it is right that military command should be put under the umbrella of a federal government.

Federation is not an unworthy objective. After the US war of independence, the Americans tried to establish a federation; they failed, because the various states wanted to run their own affairs. It took almost 100 years to develop a federal state. With the differences that exist—in language, in history and in our systems of democracy—why should we assume that the only true path to security is increasingly to develop institutions that gradually undermine the sovereignty of individual nations?

Obviously, we can try to develop trade, common laws and so on to work for our mutual benefit, but to put under federal control foreign policy and its handmaiden—defence policy—with the consequence that all decisions on sending service personnel to fight would cease to be taken by national Governments, is to live in cloud cuckoo land.

We should learn from the American experience. If we want to develop a federal society in which such decisions are taken by a federal government and not by individual states, perhaps we should wait 100 years—we would be the better for it.

5.36 pm
Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

Like many hon. Members, I follow my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence in paying tribute to the service and sacrifice of our armed forces in such theatres as the Balkans, Sierra Leone and Northern Ireland, where we have been fighting for peace and in defence of human rights and human life. I chose those three theatres because it is pleasing to see that there are better prospects for peace in them. I am sure that the whole House hopes that those prospects will flower.

I am sure, too, that all hon. Members will support the comments of the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), who paid tribute to the former prisoners of war of the Japanese. We welcome the Government's indication that, at long last, they will receive compensation.

In his speech yesterday, the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), concentrated on two issues that he suggested would split NATO: the European security and defence identity and what he called BMD—ballistic missile defence. The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) focused on the ESDI; I shall focus on BMD.

I was sorry to miss the speech made yesterday by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), because I had to chair a meeting. As ever, his contribution was impressive and comprehensive. He made eloquently many of the points that I wanted to raise, so I shall abbreviate some of my remarks by referring to his.

The whole House agrees that national missile defence, or BMD, will have a massive influence on Britain. Although that will apply whoever is elected as the US President, there will be differences according to which of the two main candidates is successful. As neither has spelt out a detailed policy on the matter, I deduced what such policies might be. I relied in particular on articles written by their supporters and advisers and on discussions held by an all-party group that visited Washington. We spoke to members of both main parties and to people who held a broad spectrum of views on defence. I made use of a seminar convened by the Heritage Foundation, at which the shadow Secretary of State spoke and which was attended by several Conservative Members.

The rationale for NMD is the perceived threat that rogue states could obtain weapons of mass destruction and the missile delivery systems for them. The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs report records that the consensus of the expert evidence that it received was that both the extent and the immediacy of that threat had been massively hyped in the United States. The Committee suggested that political and commercial interests had perhaps been more important than a strategic, objective assessment. One contribution to the Heritage Foundation seminar seemed to imply that, as it used phrases such as "protect our cities" and "protect our families", appealing to the American frontier spirit—to which the gun lobby also tends to appeal—suggesting that the other party would be "weak on defence", and asking why anyone should object to the system, as it was purely defensive. People who use that last argument are rather like the person who says, "If I go out wearing a flak jacket wherever I go, I am not really being aggressive", and does so while carrying a sub-machine gun. However, I digress.

To return to my main argument, the perception is that the threat from rogue states has been gravely exaggerated—that the United States should not underestimate the enormous deterrent effect of its vast nuclear and conventional forces. As the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife said, even the most unpredictable and ruthless tyrant can have a very strong sense of self-preservation. However, I repeat what I have said previously in this House—that I do not underestimate any of the threats that face us. I realise that there is always a possibility that weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems could fall into the hands of a maniac who was simultaneously genocidal and suicidal.

On the rogue states situation, it must be a source of relief to us all that the political and diplomatic situation has improved to the point where, as a result of the improvement in North Korea and other states, our US allies are talking about "states of concern". The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife enumerated that more fully.

The impression is that the Clinton presidency was perhaps largely pushed on NMD by the political factors that I mentioned earlier. It indicated that a decision on NMD would largely depend on objective criteria—such things as technical feasibility, the perceived threat, effects on arms control and diplomatic relations, and costs. One must assume that a Gore presidency would probably work on the same basis.

I hope that, when the new presidency sees the reduction in the threat by other means, it recognises that even limited national missile defence would have an effect on the anti-ballistic missile treaty, on the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and on arms control generally, and that it assesses the feasibility of such a defence—which ties in with cost, because so far we have had one dubious hit out of three—and reconsiders the whole idea of missile defence.

The failures of the tests so far are one of the reasons why supporters and advisers of Mr. Bush have given for going along with ballistic missile defence—by which they mean something more extensive than NMD—and I believe that that is why the shadow Secretary of State uses that particular phrase. This is a BMD that might be sea-launched, space-based and land-based, and could cover boost-phase, mid-phase and final-phase interception.

The first thing to recognise is that to develop such a system would be a total abrogation of the ABM treaty. Some of those who support such a course of action claim that that treaty no longer exists because the Soviet Union no longer exists. However, we are not talking about only one treaty. It should be remembered that when we reached the agreement, which Britain played a major part in achieving, at the end of the 2000 negotiations on the NNPT, part of what was agreed to by all states present was preserving and strengthening the ABM treaty as a cornerstone of strategic stability and as a basis for further reductions in offensive weapons. The Russians—or some Russians—have suggested that there could also be a connection between the ABM treaty and both the strategic arms limitation talks and the strategic arms reduction talks. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) said, there is a real risk that we could undermine the whole arms control regime.

In a similar vein, even limited nuclear missile defence could have the danger of encouraging Russia to update its nuclear weapons or China to expand its. That would hardly be surprising, because extreme advocates of BMD already argue that it should be used against China. As the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife pointed out, if missile defence were up and running, who is to say that that lobby would not become increasingly vociferous? The right hon. and learned Gentleman also pointed out that if China were to expand its nuclear weapons capability, there would be a grave danger of a knock-on effect on a series of other countries in south-east Asia.

Some extreme exponents of BMD discount Chinese concerns—and the most extreme of them even discount Russian concerns—on the basis that neither country can afford to rival the US if it decides to expand its arsenals. However, the economic destabilisation—or, in one case, the further economic destabilization—of a major nuclear weapons state is extremely dangerous in itself and must also increase the dangers of the export of nuclear and/or missile technology at state or private criminal level.

Proponents of BMD talk about protecting US cities and families, but some of their rhetoric suggests that they would take a gung-ho adventurist approach to dealing with present or future nuclear weapons states in the confidence that the US had an impenetrable missile shield. Unless the technology were infallible, those US cities and families—and US allies—might find themselves in greater jeopardy.

I am particularly concerned at the suggestion of boost-phase interception—sea-based or otherwise. That has been proposed not just by the Republican right—the former Defence Secretary, Harold Brown, and others have proposed the same idea in Foreign Affairs. The technical feasibility of firing from a ship is questionable, but it is undoubtedly true that to try to intercept in the less than five minutes of the boost phase is easier because the target is larger, slower, hot and no decoys can be used.

However, missiles would be dispersed around the world and in close proximity to nuclear weapon states. The boost phases last less than five minutes, so within how many seconds of suspected detection of the launch of a missile would a decision have to be taken to fire and intercept a missile? At what level of the chain of command would the decision be taken and how many seconds would there be to take it? If an intercept missile were accidentally fired towards a nuclear weapons state and the act were misinterpreted, what would the consequences be? Are we really suggesting that our safety for future centuries could be within a few seconds of such an accident? The sword of Damocles would seem rather safe by comparison.

To try to reduce a comparatively remote threat that can be reduced by other means, our US allies are in danger of increasing far greater threats—regional nuclear war, nuclear terrorism and nuclear weapons fired by accident or through misunderstanding—with the horrific possibility of an uncontrolled situation resulting in a holocaust.

The shadow Secretary of State suggested that the Government should lead Europe in discussions with our US allies on this issue. I agree with his suggestion, but I fear that he means that we should lead Europe in trying to persuade everyone to accept unconditionally whatever the US decides. That is not a good way to be an ally. I hope that, whoever becomes American President, the United Kingdom Government will—not necessarily publicly or by megaphone diplomacy—follow the suggestion of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that we articulate our strong concerns about missile defence and encourage the US to seek other ways of reducing the threats that it perceives to exist. I hope that we shall consider seriously the suggestion made by Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala, the UN Under- Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, which is supported by Kofi Annan. We should think about taking an initiative to get an international conference of all countries, including those nuclear weapons states that do not involve themselves in the present treaty negotiations, on the issue of weapons of mass destruction. The issue is of such vital importance that we cannot afford to waste time.

5.50 pm
Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

The fact that I was able to speak on defence procurement a week ago on 26 October, at column 454, reconciles me to the fact that my time now, if I am to give colleagues a chance to speak, is tight. That being so, I shall restrict myself to one point.

I take as my text the report of the Select Committee on Defence, entitled "Lessons of Kosovo". There is much to be learned, and the report is a mine of learning. In paragraph 66, the report makes the obvious point that working in co-ordination with other allies has advantages in terms of politics and in terms of military advantage. The rest of the report points out the difficulties and disadvantages of working as an alliance.

I shall quote from paragraph 281, which deals with alliance unity. It reads: Unity was, in the end, the Alliance's greatest strength. At the same time it was NATO's weakest point. The perceived need to defend NATO's credibility was, in itself, a major factor in driving the process whereby the Alliance found itself painted into a corner by March 1999 from which its only way out was to pursue a military campaign against Serbia. Yet the maintenance of its unity was the factor which most significantly restricted the military options open to the Alliance to pursue an efficient and successful coercive strategy against Milosevic. General Naumann, the former chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, put it well when he said that we did not have the consensus in the Alliance when we started to threaten the use of force…that is my lesson learned for crisis management. I am saying this openly and frankly, since I am certain the next crisis will come. The lesson of Kosovo is that NATO is not the sum of its parts. It is far less than that. An operation such as Kosovo is full of false starts, blind alleys, contradictory actions, internal politics and sectarian passions. One lesson of Kosovo is that joint operations are infinitely complicated and that we in the United Kingdom need to be on our guard.

The second lesson of Kosovo is that we must maintain the Atlantic alliance. In Iraq, Kuwait, Bosnia and Kosovo, the situation was rescued by the United States. It was only when the United States became involved that those issues were resolved.

The third lesson is that Europe must strengthen its defence contributions for its own sake and for the sake of NATO. There are too many nations taking a cheap or a free ride. I shall refer to a document produced by the general rapporteur of the Economics and Security Committee of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, Mr. Paul Helminger. He points out that the United States contributes about $290 billion a year to defence whereas all the European countries together contribute only $180 billion.

Some nations—notably Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg—are very weak in their defence contributions. They are weak also in the sense that much of the money that they put in goes into conscripted forces rather than equipment. That is why the figures that I quoted last week—those of the European allies contributing only 60 per cent. of the resources of the United States but receiving 15 per cent. of the effect—are so important.

We must do more. We must do more in the House to draw attention to these items. I am happy to be a delegate to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. Two of my colleagues there, who are both in the Chamber—my right hon. Friends the Members for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) and for East Devon (Sir P. Emery)—make important contributions to the assembly. It is an assembly of the 19 NATO countries, with 17 associate countries. We work in five committees. I believe that the assembly is able to make a major contribution in the understanding of the problems and the ways in which NATO can co-operate more as we move forward.

There is much more that I could say, but in the interests of brevity and to allow my colleagues to contribute to the debate, I conclude on that point.

5.54 pm
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Sixty years ago, the battle of Britain was coming to its conclusion. I am not sure that the country quite realised that we had won, but my constituents in Ruislip-Northwood are most appreciative of the commemoration that took place during the autumn of this year.

For us, that was particularly important as Royal Air Force Northolt was in the front line in the battle. It commemorated its 85th anniversary this year, and 600 Squadron the Royal Auxiliary Air Force—that is, the City of London Squadron—was a battle of Britain squadron and celebrated its 75th anniversary.

For the 60th anniversary of the battle, we had the moving ceremony of the freedom of entry to the borough of Hillingdon commemorated by a march of personnel from RAF Northolt into Ruislip. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) wants to be associated with these remarks, inasmuch as headquarters of No. 11 group of Fighter Command was at RAF Uxbridge and played a crucial part in the battle.

The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) said that the risk to Europe of a great power invasion such as that posed by Hitler 60 years ago and by the Soviet Union during the period of the cold war had come to an end, and that we must adapt our institutions to meet the new challenges and the new realities in a highly unpredictable continent.

The hon. Gentleman also referred, as did many hon. Members during the debate, to the importance of parliamentary scrutiny of our joint activities as parliamentarians to ensure that our alliance as a whole makes a good and effective effort, and he said that the European security and defence initiative should have a parliamentary dimension.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the work of the assembly of the Western European Union, on which I serve. I take this opportunity to say how valuable that institution has proved, not only through the cold war, but in adapting to those new realities. In particular, it has expanded its membership in a highly commendable way, so that we now have no fewer than 28 member countries, with various gradations of membership beyond those of the 10 full members.

Now that the WEU is to be amalgamated within the European Union, the institution is coming under close and careful scrutiny. We in the assembly have had various reports, not least from Mr. Richard, the French Defence Minister. The French view, which is important because the French, like us, are a nuclear power and a key element of the defence of our continent, seems to be that article 5 of the Brussels treaty, which is a mutual security guarantee, should remain within the WEU, and so should the role of armaments co-operation.

That is a field in which we have great experience, as does the North Atlantic Assembly. With so many joint projects under way and planned, everyone understands the necessity of national parliamentarians putting pressure on their national Governments to vote the requisite budgets and to make sure that those joint programmes work and are forthcoming on budget, to time and to specification. That makes sense. I do not regret that the security institute in Paris should go to the European Union, or that the satellite reconnaissance and processing centre at Torrejon should also go to the EU.

However, I urge the Government to realise the significance of the assembly. It is important because it provides a bridge between those members of the alliance that are members of the EU, those that are members of NATO or members of both, and the other European partners of various kinds. Just a few days ago, we had a visit from parliamentarians of the Russian Duma—something that happens frequently in the North Atlantic Assembly, where there is a good dialogue with them as well.

We had a fascinating exchange of views about ballistic missile defence, to which the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) made a learned contribution, and on the Russian parliamentarians' attitude to Europe's acquiring a strategic identity of its own, with its own common defence policy and, in a sense, its own armed forces under its own control.

In an important speech in Warsaw, the Prime Minister suggested that the European Union could become a super-power. That was an unfortunate use of language. Europe has no more need of super-powers; what it needs is a community of interests among like-minded democratic states working together for their common good and mutual security. If the EU's acquisition of its own defence identity gave it the characteristics of a super-power, that would be a thoroughly retrograde development.

The Prime Minister also suggested that the European Parliament could have a second chamber consisting of national parliamentarians. The European Parliament is an institution that fulfils a function of its own in its own particular way, but it should not have a defence function. That is clear to me, for the reasons that I adduced earlier: for as long as national Governments are responsible for the composition of their armed forces and for procurement decisions, and for as long as national parliamentarians vote the requisite funds and are answerable to their electorates in ensuring that their military forces remain under democratic control, the European Parliament—which in any case has not the full treaty competence to assume a defence responsibility—should assume no such responsibility.

If the European Parliament assumed that responsibility, its action would accentuate the divide to which I referred earlier between those within the European Union and those who share similar aspirations for mutual security, and who for a long time to come will be outside the EU. In other words, it would be a thoroughly divisive development. I urge the Government to bear my comments in mind, and ask the Minister to reach a conclusion and give the Government's view.

Let me return to my original point. As one who spent his formative years in the Royal Air Force, I immensely appreciated Her Majesty's Government's commemoration of the battle of Britain in such a fitting way. As the Minister will remember, I asked him a question at the end of July, in response to which he gave me a list of events. We were proud that so many of those events took place at Royal Air Force Northolt and at Ruislip, in my constituency.

6.2 pm

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

I thank my hon. Friends for their forbearance in allowing me to catch your eye towards the end of the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I hope that the Minister will bear in mind what has been said about European defence, notably by my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) —the shadow Secretary of State—my right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith), my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). They expressed seriously held concerns about the development of the future alliance between the United States and Europe.

We have now entered a dangerous phase in the development of defence in Europe. I believe that the Prime Minister has made a fundamental mistake, and I hope that the Government will heed the warnings that senior Members have given—warnings that are echoed in the United States. The Government should bear in mind the fact that in view of the institutions that are currently being created, there is—we hope—still time to protect the current position, and to sustain defence within NATO. If the pass continues to be sold, as it began to be at St. Malo, we shall rue the day.

In debates such as this, it is possible to deal with a number of issues. Because of my professional background in defence, I find many of those issues enormously fascinating. I was particularly interested by what the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) said about the role of women in the armed forces. She is right: that will be an important subject of debate, certainly over the next year, as the Secretary of State has instructed the armed services to look at women's role in the fighting echelons.

The hon. Member for Stockton, South and I hold profoundly different views on that subject. I hope that the Secretary of State will simply take the advice that I expect him to receive from the armed forces, and that there will be no further progress in that respect. However, I hope that if we debate the matter in the House, the hon. Lady will show proper respect for our views, especially the views of those of us who have experience in the fighting echelon. I refer not least to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), who was in the Special Air Service and the infantry, and saw active service in Northern Ireland and in the Gulf. He speaks with recent authority on those matters.

One of the reasons why our armed forces are special may be our traditions and the way in which our regiments have been equipped, served and staffed. There are important questions about our future military effectiveness. Ultimately, the crux of the matter is not equal opportunities but military effectiveness. It is fine if an equal opportunities agenda can support that, but if not, serious choices must be made. I shall always choose the future military effectiveness of the armed forces, given that the primary duty of any Government is security.

Yesterday's debate began with an inelegant spat about the evidence that Air Marshal Sir John Day had given to the Select Committee on Defence earlier in the day, and about whether he had been volunteered, or told, to author or put his name to an article that appeared in a Sunday newspaper and rebutted the opinions of the Select Committee's excellent report on Kosovo.

The Minister for the Armed Forces referred to my intervention, and said that my behaviour at the beginning of the Kosovo crisis, when I called for the resignation of the Chief of the Defence Staff, had been despicable. I shall return to that matter shortly. He said: Frankly, he will never be taken seriously on defence in this House until he apologises for that despicable behaviour.—[Official Report, 1 November 2000; Vol. 355, c. 807.] The comment about being taken seriously is absurd. One should be taken seriously if one has informed views that are expressed honestly and with integrity. I believe that I did that.

Who actually behaves despicably? I want to focus on the use of the military to support politicians and political policy. The Government have a record of doing that. In yesterday's debate, the Secretary of State was properly incensed by the suggestion that he had instructed Air Marshal Day to write the article. I am glad about that, because it showed a sensitivity to the issue of using the military to put forward Government policy positions. The Secretary of State has not been associated with the worst aspects of that practice, which occurred during the conduct of the Kosovo crisis. However, it is part of a wider pattern of behaviour by the Government.

That behaviour began with the appointment of Alastair Campbell as the Prime Minister's press secretary, with an Order in Council to enable him and Jonathan Powell to give instructions to civil servants. They were therefore special special advisers, and a new status was created. In the Administration's early days, several heads of Government information departments were dismissed or removed, not least Gill Samuel, who was press secretary at the Ministry of Defence. I had the pleasure of working with her when Sir Malcolm Rifkind was Secretary of State for Defence and I was his special adviser.

Most disgraceful of all has perhaps been the appointment of John Williams as head of the news department at the Foreign Office. Anyone who read the bilge that John Williams produced as political editor of The Mirror knows that he should not head the news department of the Foreign Office, a post that requires a proper neutral presentation of Government policy rather than a presentation of Labour policy. It has been reported that the appointment was made in the teeth of opposition by Sir John Kerr, permanent secretary to the Foreign Office. That is highly regrettable. The Minister must understand that the Government have a record, and I hope that he will pay careful attention and give careful consideration where the military are involved.

We discussed the article by Sir John Day yesterday. I shall not say anything more about that, but instead draw the Minister's attention to another occasion during the Kosovo crisis when General John Drewienkiewicz, who headed the British contribution to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe monitors in Kosovo, had got out of Kosovo and was trying to establish his mission in Macedonia. He had an enormously difficult task to do when he was summoned back to London to appear on a press platform with the Foreign Secretary and support his views on what had been happening in Kosovo.

If it was merely information that was required of General Drewienkiewicz, that could have been delivered by a number of methods from the field in which he was operating. Instead, operational priorities were subordinated to the Government's need to present their policy and have a uniformed figure who was able to speak with the authority of his military experience, his uniform and his rank in support of the Government.

There are occasions when that is the right thing to do, because uniform and experience in the services gives spokesmen authority and credibility. The Army and other services have experienced that for some time. However, the authority with which people speak is not necessarily related to rank. The most effective advocates of what the military are about and the missions in which they are involved are sometimes junior non-commissioned officers. Hon. Members may remember the graphic account by a corporal and a sergeant who took part in the recent raid on Sierra Leone. They may also remember the lance-corporal from the battalion who appeared on television explaining what the training team were doing with the Sierra Leone army. Those soldiers made very effective advocates of what the military were about. Indeed, it was standard practice in Northern Ireland to use section commanders to explain what was happening, because they spoke with simple authority about the tasks that they had done.

I now turn to the demand from the Minister for the Armed Forces that I should apologise for asking General Sir Charles Guthrie to resign. The one area in which I feel that the Defence Committee report is lacking relates to the military advice that was given to our politicians at the outset of the Kosovo crisis and during the run-up to it. I was on the Defence Committee when we set up the terms of reference for the inquiry, and I made sure that that was included. I am sorry that it did not result in any paragraphs in the report—perhaps for the perfectly understandable reason that the Government were not prepared to disclose any of the military advice that they received.

One reason—perhaps the main reason—why I found myself asking the then Chief of Defence Staff to consider his position was the fact that every military commentator and every independent defence commentator outside the Government was saying that the conduct of the Kosovo operation was misconceived if it was an attempt solely on the basis of air power to bend President Milosevic and the Serbian Government to the will of NATO. Everyone was saying that what was required was the prospect of a ground invasion to follow up the use of air power. Indeed, when we reached the end of the crisis, the evidence that the Select Committee took revealed that we were within weeks, if not days, of mobilising the armed forces and the Territorial Army for that ground invasion in order to carry out our military objectives.

In response to an oral question from me in the House, Lord Robertson, who was then Secretary of State, said that the military advice that the Chief of the Defence Staff was giving contradicted the military assessment being made by everyone else outside the Ministry of Defence. We shall not know whether that was the case for 30 years, because that is when the papers will be released.

However, I put on record the fact that I do not believe that the Chief of the Defence Staff was at variance with every other military commentator. The issue turned on the fact that the Chief of the Defence Staff and all the other military chiefs in Europe and NATO had to plan within the political constraints put on them in 1998, which ruled out the use of ground forces. Attention is drawn to that in the Select Committee report. Of particular concern to me at the time was the fact that the Chief of the Defence Staff was used, or chose to allow himself to be used, to promote the Government's policy, which was controversial both in this House and outside. That was ill advised and, indeed, wrong.

The Chief of the Defence Staff allowed his name to appear over an article in The Sun which said: Slobodan Milosevic has been wiping out the population of Kosovo. His secret police, special forces and paramilitary thugs murder anyone in their way. I have to say that from my time working alongside General Guthrie as a special adviser in the Ministry of Defence, I do not recognise him from the choice of language in that article. I like Sir Charles Guthrie as a man, which is why it was difficult for me to do what I did, and why I approached the issue seriously.

In articles in The Sunday Times and the Evening Standard, General Guthrie put forward the policy position of his political masters. In a phrase redolent of the Prime Minister, he said: To govern is to choose and Nato's political leaders chose the third option with the aim of curbing Milosevic's ability to bully and murder the innocent people of Kosovo by hitting the key points of his command chain and curbing his forces on the ground. General Guthrie went on to say: Does our chosen course contain risks? Yes, but after months of analysis we have concluded that these risks are less than those presented by the other roads we could have chosen. It is wrong that the Chief of the Defence Staff put himself forward to explain and defend Ministers' highly controversial policy.

Like me, defence commentators with a military background were most concerned about the potential politicisation of the armed forces. Francis Ponsonby, who covers defence issues in the House better than anyone else, and is a retired naval officer, said: Mr Blunt was, however, right to draw attention to the astonishing defence of Government strategy which CDS allowed to be published over his signature in a national newspaper. Permanent Secretaries of Departments of State, to which CDS is equivalent, do not write to newspapers except, rarely, to correct glaringly inaccurate reports affecting their departments: public presentation of current policies and strategy is the province of Ministers which members of the present Government from the Prime Minister downwards have not been reluctant to employ. It is surprising that General Guthrie allowed himself to be used as he was, and Mr Blunt was undoubtedly right to draw attention to it, even though he seems to have made few friends by doing so. To be fair to Francis Ponsonby, he questions whether I was wise to ask for the resignation of Sir Charles Guthrie. When my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) congratulated me on my political courage, I realised that perhaps I had gone a step too far regarding my personal position, and had been a little too courageous.

Following the comments of the Minister for the Armed Forces, I reviewed the matter last night and this morning, and asked myself whether I was right to do what I did. Like those who were Ministers at the time—and, no doubt, Sir Charles himself—the Minister for the Armed Forces saw my action as a stab in the back at a difficult time. That is a perfectly proper point of view, and when I said what I did, I realised that it might be seen in that way. However, I was speaking solely for myself, not for my party. Indeed, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe was going to go on the record and make that clear to the House.

I was speaking for the constituency which I served, and into which I was born as the son and grandson of serving officers. It was the serving and retired military who felt disquiet at the way in which the Chief of the Defence Staff allowed himself to be used to present what were properly policy issues. He should not have been put in that position. I still believe that as an informed Back Bencher, I was entitled, and right, to come to the conclusion that I did.

I note that after my letter was published in The Times, the Chief of the Defence Staff desisted from publishing further articles during the Kosovo conflict. I think that that was to do with the disquiet that I had expressed. I would like to place on record the fact that since then, I have had no cause to query the performance of the Chief of the Defence Staff. In the past 18 months he has been particularly effective. Perhaps what he should be most proud of is the political action that he had to carry out privately: rescuing the defence budget before the last comprehensive spending review. He did the job that Ministers and the Secretary of State failed to do to get increased resources for defence.

The one conclusion that I hope Ministers will bear in mind is that they should take the greatest care about using serving service men to promote what is properly a matter of policy. It causes great disquiet to those of us with a service background. The armed services should not be politicised, and special care should be taken that they are not.

6.21 pm
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

This has been a remarkable two-day debate. I suspect that, at the end of the debate this time last week, we had no idea—certainly none of us on the Conservative Benches had any idea—that we were facing another two days of debate. When we all heard that we were having another two, there was not only a mixture of elation and delight that at last we were going to have our head, but a few inner groans about how we were going to fill the time and what the quality of the debate was going to be. All I can say is that, after more than 17 years in the House, my view that this has undoubtedly been one of the best two-day debates that we have had. The quality of individual contributions on both sides of the House has been very high.

I recall my visit to the Italian parliamentary defence committee. I think that I am right in saying that there are some 60 members of it, 14 of whom have ever been known to turn up to a meeting, and the meetings are usually extremely brief. That is about it in the Parliament of one of our major allies. Therefore, we should take seriously the Defence Committee's role in meeting parliamentarians from other defence committees.

Having said that, I must start on a light note and I will end on a serious one. The light note is to record that the MOD websites have still not been updated. I shall check regularly to see if the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), is still a recently arrived addition to the team.

Also on a light note, having listened for two days to some of the delusions of Labour Members about what the Conservative party does and does not believe, and why the Prime Minister has completely changed his mind on our relationship with the European Union, I am drawn to Lord Robertson's 12 rules of opposition. I found one that I thought explained what might be in the minds of some Members. Item 3 says: Don't pretend you are the government. This delusion, beloved of opposition politicians being self-important (and I confess to the affliction at times) is time consuming and unproductive and a real waste of energy. One of the few minor benefits of opposition is that occasionally you do not have to agonise like the government on tough decisions and can enjoy not being in the hot seat. He then says something revealing: I recall in the early 80s a colleague of mine coming from a Shadow Cabinet meeting shaking his head, "Usually we spend hours discussing matters as if we were the government. Tonight", he went on, "it was much worse, they were pretending to be the American government. Before I turn to the debate itself, may I say how much I shall miss the cheery countenance opposite of the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal)? I congratulate her on her appointment as First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means. She has taken a serious part in our defence debates for some years. Although we shall miss her contributions, we shall look forward very much to seeing her in the Chair.

The only point that I should like to pick up in what the Minister for the Armed Forces said is his remark about cadets. I welcome almost everything else; I am very pleased that some of the ideas that I raised two years ago and more have been taken on board. Yesterday, we heard a remarkable and informed speech by the hon. Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins). I have not informed him of my intention to refer to him because I am going to compliment him. I spoke to him today, and he told me how worried he was about the cadets. He said that there are still schools in his constituency that will not allow the cadets—let alone Army recruiting teams—anywhere near them. I know not whether that is the case; I simply report it. If it is true that some education authorities or schools will still not let either Army recruiting teams or cadet forces near them, I hope that Ministers will take the matter very seriously.

Mr. Spellar

I have done more than that: I have asked the Department to notify me of any such case so that I can take it up with the relevant Member of Parliament or education authority. I am more than delighted to take this opportunity of extending that invitation to hon. Members. I am more than happy to take up such cases.

Mr. Key

I thank the Minister very much indeed for that generous offer, which I hope will be taken up.

The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) made a remarkable and well-informed speech, as one would expect. However, it should be read alongside the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), whose remarks would act as a foil to some of the hon. Gentleman's more extraordinary views.

As usual, the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) made an informed, helpful and constructive speech. I wholly concur with many of his ideas.

I can only thank the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) for his good humour under fire from the Opposition, which is typical of him. [Interruption.] Here he comes, just in time to hear the tribute that I am paying him for his good humour and serious contribution to defence matters in the House.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe made a remarkable speech, which stands alone; it does not need my endorsement or praise. His was a landmark speech, which I hope will be widely quoted in the weeks, months and years to come.

The hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) made a passionate speech. She always makes passionate speeches, which is a very good thing indeed. However, I draw her attention to two issues that arise from what she said. She cited with approbation what has happened in the United States of America, but she is mistaken. She will find that the US military is suffering terrible crises of ethos precisely because of the policies that she recommends us to adopt here. She mentioned Israel, which is often cited as a state where women fight in the front line and as the state of equality for women in the services. I fear that nothing could be further from the truth. Israel tried that policy, but it did not work for many reasons which are well documented—and easy to pull off the web. It simply has not worked there and, in 1995, Israeli supreme court judgments changed the situation somewhat. Moreover, there is another factor—public opinion—with which I shall deal later. Nevertheless, the hon. Lady made a courageous speech.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith), who is a supreme Atlanticist, made a very fine speech indeed. I hope that it will be widely read for its sheer common sense and the long view that he takes, based on many years of experience.

The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) made a very serious contribution, as usual, to the debate—in this case, on ballistic missile defence. He is right that we need to hear more about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) was so right to speak of the certainty of the next crisis, and about what our reaction to it should be.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) quite rightly stressed the parliamentary dimension to whatever replaces the current system. His decision to stress that dimension is born of long experience in the House and, indeed, in Europe. I congratulate him on that decision.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) made a speech which I am quite sure will be remembered for its courtesy and the very great personal conviction with which he expressed his views.

This debate really needs to be about reassuring members of the armed forces and their families that we understand what their life is all about. We have heard many speeches in which we—Ministers, Labour Members and Opposition Members—have lectured the armed forces on defence, but it is time that we did a lot more listening. I suspect that the Government and the Opposition are at one on the need to do precisely that.

The challenge that we face is one of internal communication within the forces—the military machine—the Ministry of Defence, and the House of Commons itself. Internal communication must be led by organisations such as—to give but two examples—the Army Families Federation, and its equivalents in the RAF and the Navy, and HIVES—Help, Information and Volunteer Exchanges. Tri-service wide, there are more than 80 such remarkable organisations, providing an enormously and increasingly important resource for Army, Navy and RAF families.

The importance of those organisations is recognised in, for example, "Armed Forces Overarching Personnel Strategy"—which is a hugely important document, with an incredibly boring title that is enough to put anyone off. However, the document recognises the new world into which the armed forces have moved, having experienced not only a contraction in numbers but a completely new world of relationships that are perhaps best characterised as inclusive.

It is also hugely encouraging, I am convinced, that the Adjutant-General clearly understands what is going on and what needs to be done to achieve the internal communication objectives. However, I am not so sure that the Treasury understands what needs to be done. The question that the Opposition must ask is, what is the Government's real commitment to people in our military community? Given that the Government—and certainly Defence Ministers—understand what is needed, will we see a financial commitment to that internal communication, which will be the mortar that binds together the military's family and personnel strategies?

It is, as ever, all about priorities. The first priority has to be operations. Operations are what the British military is very good at, and operations are what the British military enjoys doing. However, perhaps operations have had too much of a priority over personnel. Now, people must come a very close second to operations in the priorities of the Ministry of Defence, and politicians must start listening and learning very much more carefully than they have in the past.

There is just one document that people should be encouraged to read—the "Future Army Concept Paper", which says it all and is a mine of information for questing politicians. Instead of indulging our own fantasies, perhaps we should spend a little more time understanding the military point of view—which is all in this document. The "Future Army Concept Paper" is updated every few years, and a very great deal stems from it.

The first thing to recognise in the document is its identification and flagging up of the first-order issues, the first of which is the nature of conflict. The paper states: The fundamental character of conflict will continue to present an enduring physical and moral challenge for the soldier: a combination of extreme danger, rapidly changing circumstances in conditions of chaos and uncertainty, and severe physical demands. The capability and mental outlook to conduct aggressive close combat operations and to overcome the friction inherent in war will remain essential. The paper goes on, very helpfully, to talk about asymmetry—which is the increasing probability of conflict that is not quite the conflict that we are used to. What we need to understand as politicians is that the military have to get inside the minds of their enemies. Perhaps Governments and Oppositions do that, too, but it is a bit different when it is a matter of life and death.

The asymmetric process explained in the document embraces the perceived weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the military, such as multi-national fault lines, the sensitivity of public opinion to casualties, cultural constraints (eg the use of women or children), legitimacy, and the rules of engagement. The document says that those could apply throughout the battlespace from the front line to the home base. We need to understand that more clearly, then we would begin to understand why there is resistance in the forces to having women in the front line. The question of the future soldier is also of a high order of priority. The military paper says: Account will need to be taken of future legislation, financial and other expectations, and the social environment (eg family unit, work patterns, urbanisation). The collective impact of these "people" trends on Future Army Capability is a key area for further work. I should say so! That is absolutely crucial to the whole future of our armed forces personnel strategy.

The Armed Forces Discipline Act 2000 has been extremely controversial. We were originally told by the Lord Chancellor that it would not impact on the military, but that was gradually eroded in Committee and the Government rowed back and said that, yes, we would have to change the system and add appeal courts, and we ended up with something that will be extremely difficult for the military to operate; but the military will recognise that and do what they are told to do by the Government of the day. That is clear, and it can be very dangerous.

On enabling capabilities, the document calls for a more flexible approach to the use of the reserves. That is absolutely right. It calls for a more productive approach to the integration of full-time and part-time components. We know all about that.

The paper also includes a section on nuclear, biological and chemical warfare and speaks of the need for an integrated approach, with a defence and decontamination capability in theatre…and at home. I have always thought that the strategic defence review neglected that. It assumed that there was no point in a home guard. Defence of the homeland did not appear once in the review document, as far as I recall. The Army recognises the need for ballistic missile defence. The paper says: The Future Army must monitor closely defence thinking in this complex area—including any impact for Future Capabilities. The annexe to the paper sets out the Chief of the General Staff's vision for the Army in the 21st century. It was published only last month. Its final bullet point says: We will develop, educate and reward our officers and soldiers so they have a true sense of their worth. They and their families must be provided with the care and support needed at home, in barracks and on operations as well as resettlement into civilian life. Careers and advancement will be based on equal opportunities and merit, but will also reflect the way we fight and organise. The Government must set the political constraints. They are responsible for the personnel policy of the armed forces and for finding the money to pay them and buy the equipment. The Government are responsible for our role in the international world of defence. In the end, everything is down to the military—to the men and women of Her Majesty's forces—as well as to their families, to the scientific, industrial and administrative civil servants, to the private sector contractors who support them and to the vast work force in the defence industries of this country.

The greatest challenges facing the military are the human challenges imposed on them by the Government of the day, such as women in the front line and other human relations issues. Our firm conviction is that those decisions must be taken by the chiefs of staff and the military themselves. What matters is military capability, not what we think is politically correct. That is the message that the Conservative party must send out tonight.

6.39 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie)

I shall preface my remarks with a short statement, which I have agreed with the spokesmen from the two main Opposition parties, about something that happened earlier today.

In the early hours of this morning, a fire occurred in the engine room of HMS Fearless, which is currently in the Mediterranean. As a result of tremendous work by the crew, to whom I pay tribute, the fire was put out rapidly. There were 11 minor casualties, all of whom have fully recovered and are again available for duty.

The full extent of the damage and the cause of the fire are being investigated. We have decided to withdraw HMS Fearless from the amphibious taskforce deployment announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on Monday. That deployment will still go ahead, however, with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel Argus and her embarked helicopters joining the group to support HMS Ocean. The fact that we have been able to integrate Argus at such short notice demonstrates the flexibility of our maritime forces, and our rapid reaction capability.

Mr. Duncan Smith

I thank the Minister for his flexibility in coming to the House to make that semi-statement. Will he, on behalf of Opposition Members, represent to members of the crew our hope that all has gone well and that our thoughts are with them in these difficult times? However, will he assure the House that that ship will not be out of service for too long? Has he any idea of the extent of the damage to the vessel and of how long it will be out of service? Will he be able to let the House know those details as soon as possible?

Dr. Moonie

I shall certainly pass the hon. Gentleman's remarks on to the crew. As to the extent of the damage, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the ship is sailing under its own power to Malta, where attempts at repair will be made and the extent of the damage inspected. At present, we are uncertain about how extensive the damage is, and about how long the ship will be out of service. However, I can assure the House that it will be brought back into service as soon as possible.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

May I associate myself and my party with the expressions of sympathy uttered by the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith)? Will the Minister say whether the effect of replacing HMS Fearless with RFA Argus and its complement of helicopters will be to strengthen the taskforce rather than weaken it?

Dr. Moonie

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right: the presence of the Argus and its three Sea King helicopters will provide the taskforce with an enhanced capability.

Before I reply to the debate, I should tell the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State regrets that he cannot be present this evening, as a pressing engagement has meant that he cannot stay to the end of the debate.

It is a privilege for me to draw this defence debate to a close after two excellent days. However, a truly adequate reply would require that the debate be held over three days. I therefore regret that many hon. Members may be disappointed with the brevity of my remarks, and I hope that those to whom I do not manage to refer will recognise that time is limited.

Over the past two days, we have heard how the Government are investing in defence to make sure that our forces remain the best in the world. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State began by announcing another important decision about equipment that has been widely welcomed by hon. Members of all parties. The announcement of the engine choice for the type 45 destroyer is good news for Rolls-Royce, for jobs and for this country.

In replying to a debate such as this, one has to recognise certain priorities. I was intending to reply only to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), but my remarks are so extensive that I think that I shall post them to him—without a stamp.

A couple of minor housekeeping announcements give me some satisfaction. First, with the agreement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, I shall henceforward be taking over responsibility for cadets and reserve forces. I hope that I will be able to maintain the focus that has been placed on them and to give them the attention that they deserve. Many references have been made to them today, and I am looking forward to the challenge of trying to reverse some of the problems that we have had. I want to ensure that they are given the respect, and the status in society, that they deserve.

I have already made my next announcement in the press because it was being made public from another source, so I shall deal with it briefly. After great difficulty, my staff have managed to source some of our lamb from this country. It amounts to some 20 per cent. of our total requirement—not as much as we would all have liked, but it is a good start. I certainly hope that we can do further work on that in future.

There were one or two points made in yesterday's debate that I will try to sweep up, because my hon. Friend the Minister promised that I would. First, the use of ID tags is an important point which, as the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) rightly said, has been in our domain for quite some time. It is currently receiving active consideration. Our aim is to address the entire information needs of the defence medical services. We were hoping to initiate procurement through a private finance initiative project but, as sometimes happens, the final bidder withdrew earlier this year and the procurement is now to take place under the smart procurement initiative. An integrated project team is about to be appointed to take the project forward, although it is not at this stage possible to say when it might be placed. However, it is active.

We recognise the importance of accurate medical information on our troops, particularly in the theatre. We are in fact using the theatre of operational medical data system, which can be downloaded on to laptop computers and used in the field. It has proved very useful in ensuring that we maintain accurate permanent records for our staff, particularly in view of some of the illnesses and the comments that have been made about them over the past couple of days. I hope that I will have time to return to that in the course of my reply.

Let me make some remarks about our proposals for the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. I am not simply replying to the points raised in the debate in chronological order, but right hon. and hon. Members will recognise that I must give them some sort of priority. I will respond to as many as I can.

I have spoken in an Adjournment debate on the subject of DERA, which has been raised on numerous occasions over the past year, and we have also announced to the House our intention to proceed with the implementation of the core confidence model for the DERA public-private partnership. This is our chosen solution. Under the core confidence model, two new organisations will be created, with 75 per cent. turned into a private sector company—new DERA—to be floated on the stock market once its potential is suitably developed, which has not yet taken place.

We will retain just under 3,000 staff in the Ministry of Defence, in what is now known as RDERA—or retained DERA—to carry out research in key areas to provide a high-level overview of defence science and technology, in-house impartial advice and management of international research collaboration. That is a different role that is in no way a second-best option for those who are retained in the public sector—quite the reverse. Both organisations will be viable and sustainable, adequately resourced to carry out the tasks expected of them.

We have always emphasised that new DERA, although a key supplier to the Ministry of Defence, will operate and be treated as a fully private sector company. Although a very important supplier, it will have no special or privileged relationship with the MOD. There will be a level playing field with industry which, frankly, I think is essential.

We are committed to ensuring that new DERA does not have an unfair commercial advantage and that all bidders for our future work are treated fairly and equitably. It is very much in the long-term interests of the MOD to encourage genuine competition, not only to maximise value for money but to open up our research programmes to new ideas from outside the Government. We are conducting a small pilot exercise to help us understand the issues associated with running competitions in a complex area that is difficult to define. Although there will always be some areas of work in which competition is not practicable, our goal is to ensure that as much as possible of the research programme is competed for.

I will not say any more about that—I think that I have given as brief but as full an explanation of the position as possible. I cannot say when our proposals will come to fruition; we have not yet decided on the exact mechanism to enable that to happen. When we do, I assure right hon. and hon. Members that they will be the first to know.

Mr. Duncan Smith

We remain in the dark. The joint strike fighter is a critical component of our defence strategy over the next 10 years, and issues such as those surrounding Boscombe down and the transfer of information lie at the heart of policy; yet we do not know where matters stand. Can the Minister not inform us much sooner of what is happening so that industry may know exactly what is going on and where things will fit in the structure?

Dr. Moonie

I accept that there is frustration among Conservative Members, but hope that they will accept that the issues are complex. We are well aware of decisions that must be taken in other programmes on which this matter has a bearing. As soon as we are aware of all the information, the House will be informed on what we intend to do.

Comments were made about Gulf veterans' illnesses and 400 deaths. There have been 400 deaths among the group of those suffering illnesses, not 400 deaths from the illnesses. It is nice to be able to claim expert knowledge on a subject, and I am an epidemiologist. As such, I have considered the advice that we have received on Gulf veterans' illnesses.

The major study was done by the university of Manchester to determine whether Gulf veterans were experiencing greater ill health than service personnel who did not take part in the conflict. The results of the mortality component were published in The Lancet on 1 July. The study found that the number of deaths and the causes of death in the comparison group that did not deploy to the Gulf were similar to those recorded among Gulf veterans. There was a very small excess of deaths among Gulf veterans, but that was due to road traffic accidents. Despite my many years of experience in medicine, I cannot come up with a credible hypothesis for how or why that should be, except to suggest that it is the kind of random finding that often arises from epidemiological data.

The university of Manchester's work on ill health and morbidity among Gulf veterans is complete. The manuscript is currently being prepared for submission to a fully peer-reviewed scientific journal. When it reaches the public domain, it will do so with the authoritative backing of whichever journal pays to publish it. Hon. Members will await publication with great interest.

I suppose that I should say something about European defence since so many Conservative Members mentioned it. No doubt it would disappoint and frustrate all the old Atlanticists among them and sundry others if I did not. I am sure that they would be happy to know that we continue to make good progress on the European defence initiative—[Interruption.] Have I rung the wrong note there, perhaps? The United Kingdom has played a leading role over the past year—[Interruption.] I note that Conservative delight knows no bounds at that. Our priority is to improve European military capabilities via the headline goal so that European nations may make a better contribution to NATO and take effective action when the whole alliance is not engaged. Kosovo has surely shown that Europe needs to pull its own weight.

The UK is pleased with the work done so far to flesh out the headline goal requirement into a detailed list of the forces and capabilities required for EU-led crisis management operations. Real capability improvements do not happen overnight—

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

The Minister said, reading further.

Dr. Moonie

Given the quality of reporting of defence issues in the Conservative press, such as in today's Daily Mail, one must read things out very carefully. No doubt many Conservative editorials have already been prepared following some of the speeches in this debate. I note that the journalists are not waiting upstairs with bated breath to hear what I have to say. Their minds may already be made up. At least, when the record is read, it will show exactly what I said, and nothing else.

Mr. Forth

The Daily Record?

Dr. Moonie

Perhaps even the Daily Record, although it is more than 1 dare hope that I might find a report of my speech in that paper tomorrow, unless I phone it in myself, which I have no intention of doing.

I can assure the House that NATO will remain the cornerstone of our security and defence policy. By strengthening the European pillar of NATO, we will strengthen NATO as a whole. We are not creating a European army, or a standing rapid reaction force. Individual countries will decide whether, when and how to commit their forces.

We hope by the time of the European Council in December 2000 to include certain commitments—a commitment to deliver the necessary capabilities to implement the headline goal; substantial progress towards permanent EU, NATO, and Berlin plus arrangements; definitive proposals for a functioning EU military committee and EU military staff in order that permanent bodies can be established soon after; and—

Mr. Howard

Why, if the only objective is to strengthen the European pillar of NATO, is it necessary to set up all these committees outside NATO?

Dr. Moonie

It is a fairly prudent step to take. One cannot see into the future, but there could be a result in the American election next week—unlikely, I trust—which might lead the right hon. and learned Gentleman to different conclusions in a few years' time. The future is not fixed and events may not turn out as right hon. and hon. Members think.

I have one or two minor points to make, but they are nevertheless important to our service men and women, who, as the hon. Member for Salisbury said, are at the core of the debate. The first concerns dog owners in Germany. Proposed legislation may affect some dogs owned by some service men and women, but it will mainly affect the import of such animals. They may be subjected to controls, but nothing worse than that. There is considerable opposition to the legislation within Germany and it is by no means certain that it will proceed.

Cyprus is a difficult problem. Those who went out to Cyprus on the present tour went in the full knowledge that when they came back their pets would have to enter quarantine. We had hoped to extend our proposals to Cyprus, but legislative pressures make that difficult. However, I am in contact with my colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and I shall do my best to resolve the matter. Not quite as many dogs are involved as were mentioned, but I recognise that they pose a problem for many, about which I hope that we shall be able to do something.

There was considerable misunderstanding about anti-malaria tablets. To set the record straight, most troops received anti-malaria tablets before deployment. Those who did not, because of the speed with which they were deployed to Sierra Leone, were provided with an appropriate tablet on deployment. As hon. Members know, there have been a substantial number of cases of malaria, but all affected have made a reasonable recovery. We have taken note of the lessons to be learned. We have not apportioned blame, but we have reinforced the advice given to all our regiments that their members should at all times be prepared for deployment to areas where disease is rife, so appropriate precautions should be taken.

With regard to the MOD internet site, for which I am probably responsible—

Mr. Spellar

My hon. Friend certainly is.

Dr. Moonie

I had a feeling that I might be. The active pages of the site are regularly updated. In fact, they were updated this afternoon—

Mr. Quentin Davies

I would not pretend that this issue has anything like the importance of dogs and the MOD website, but before the hon. Gentleman sits down, does he intend to say anything about the JSF and the future of our carrier-borne air force?

Dr. Moonie

I did not say—

Sir Peter Emery

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is most unusual for a statement to be made in the middle of a debate, particularly when the Minister has 21 minutes to reply and the statement took approximately four minutes—20 per cent. of the time. It is within your power to extend the debate for another five minutes, and I think that you should do so.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

It is not within my power to extend the period of the debate, and, in any case, I thought that the way in which the statement was made was generally accepted by the House.

Dr. Moonie

I apologise that I have not been able to reply to all the points that have been raised. We have not yet come to a decision on the joint strike fighter. There are two American proposals at present, both of which are being taken forward and in both of which we have an interest. We will continue to be closely involved, and the House will continue to be—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It is now 7 o'clock, and the motion lapses.

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.