HC Deb 30 October 2000 vol 355 cc503-5
11. Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

What is the current percentage of the Army (a) committed to, (b) preparing for and (c) recovering from operations. [132995]

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

Some 22 per cent. of the trained Army is committed to operations. This figure includes units preparing for, deployed on and recovering from operations. Of these, 15 per cent. of the trained Army is currently deployed on operations.

There has been a significant reduction in commitment levels over the past year, particularly since the height of the Kosovo campaign in July 1999, when the commitment level reached a peak of 44 per cent. The current level of commitment is below that inherited from the previous Administration.

Mr. Bradshaw

I am pleased to hear it. However, what would the impact be if the United States were to withdraw its forces from Kosovo and Bosnia, as George Bush junior has threatened to do in the unhappy event that he becomes President?

Mr. Spellar

Certainly, any new Administration—whichever candidate wins in that election—will obviously wish to review their foreign and defence policy and have discussions with their allies in that regard. NATO has been ensuring that there are adequate forces in both Bosnia and Kosovo so that we can maintain a stable situation in those societies, as demonstrated by the very welcome elections in Kosovo over the weekend.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Given the high strike rate of operations at the present time, which I regard as unavoidable, will the Minister assure the House that, even though the Ministry of Defence cut back on the training programme last year, there will be no such cutback in the high-intensity battle training for the year coming and the year after that?

Mr. Spellar

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about the level of operations and his understanding of the requirement for those. He will also understand that we try, wherever possible, to avoid any cuts in significant training. Last year, on balance, although there were one or two highly publicised events, very little training suffered cutbacks.

Of course, we will be acquiring greater flexibility with the increase announced in the comprehensive spending review—the first planned increase, I remind the House, since the cold war.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

In the context of single people, in particular, who are preparing for and recovering from operations, what progress has been made in improving accommodation for them in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Spellar

The answer is, significant but not yet sufficient. The Secretary of State, the Under-Secretary, who is responsible for the accommodation programme, and I are working with the Ministry to improve that programme. We take the point that, over a number of years, housing has been used as the balancing item, which has had a significant effect on deteriorating conditions. Public focus has often been on married quarters, but having visited a number of those quarters, we are very aware of the inadequate provision for single living accommodation and we intend to do something about it.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

The Government have to deal with those who are preparing for operations. Will the Minister accept that 1,000 drivers being trained to help bust any sort of strike may well be included among those, as they are being prepared and are ready to be deployed on an operation? As and when they are deployed on that operation, will those military drivers be under the command of the Home Office or the Ministry of Defence?

Mr. Spellar

First, let me be quite clear. I am not aware of a proposal for a strike anywhere in terms of national supplies. I am aware of threats to blockade, disrupt, barricade—in other words, of threats potentially to conduct illegal action. In the event that such action took place—I stress that it would not be a strike-and that the civil authorities and the civilian organisations were unable to undertake action to provide those supplies, there could be a request to the military to provide that equipment and also, therefore, that service.

In answer to the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), there is no requirement for any legal authority to undertake training. The legal authority comes on deployment of forces. Therefore, the forces would be under the command of the armed forces. The request would come from the civil authorities and—to clear up any misapprehension that there may have been in the press—the maintenance of law and order is the responsibility of the civil authorities.

I find it quite extraordinary that there is no Conservative comment deploring proposals to disrupt national supplies as a way of changing public policy. Other Members of the House and the public will have noted that.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Now that the Minister has had his rant, perhaps he would answer the question exactly and specifically. Why would the Government, in the form of the Ministry of Defence, be training 1,000 drivers? Who requested that that be done? If those drivers are deployed, will they be under the command of the Home Office and, thus, will there be a state of emergency? Who asked for it?

Mr. Spellar

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman does not understand how government works. There is collective responsibility, with a lead from the Home Departments. In the event of a breakdown in vital supplies to the nation, the Home Departments could make a request to the military authorities to provide military aid. Therefore, we have to make contingency arrangements so that we could respond to such a request if it were made. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman does not understand the rules, regulations and laws relating to military aid for civil authorities, but that is probably because Conservative Members have been busy supporting those who were barricading the refineries rather than defending law and order.