§ [Relevant documents: Defence Policy 2001; MOD Policy Papers—Paper No. 1—Defence Diplomacy; MOD Policy Papers—Paper No. 2—Multinational Defence Co-operation; MOD Policy Papers—Paper No. 3—European Defence; The Future Strategic Context for Defence; The Strategic Defence Review: A New Chapter—Public Discussion Paper.]
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Caplin.]1.25 pm
§ The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)
Today's debate on defence policy is the first of a series of one-day defence debates planned for this Session. This marks a change from our previous practice of having a two-day debate and three one-day debates. It is part of a wider effort to improve the arrangements for allowing the House to debate defence issues.
This is an agreed change, building on helpful advice from the Defence Committee with regard to concerns that two-day debates were becoming less effective. We plan, therefore, to retain the three one-day debates on procurement, personnel and defence in the world, which have worked well. The two new one-day debates on defence policy and defence in the UK will provide a better opportunity for hon. Members to raise particular concerns.
It is appropriate that this debate on defence policy should be the first under the new arrangements. Defence policy underpins all that we do, including, most obviously, the involvement of our armed forces in Afghanistan. We also had to re-examine aspects of our defence policy in the light of the appalling events of 11 September and the continuing campaign against international terrorism.
Today's debate coincides with the release of a public discussion document on a new chapter to the strategic defence review. I shall say more about that in due course, but we would like to stimulate more debate about defence policy. Rather than producing one large and rather indigestible defence White Paper every year, we have undertaken to produce annual memorandums on defence policy—shorter, crisper and, I hope, more readable documents that set out our current policies more clearly. These memorandums will be supported by a series of stand-alone policy papers on specific subjects, aimed at an informed and interested audience, and available at no charge to the media, academia and members of the public.
Three of these policy papers have already been produced—on defence diplomacy, multinational defence co-operation, and European defence. We have also published a more detailed paper entitled, "The Future Strategic Context for Defence". Our defence policy is set against this strategic context. It sets out how we propose to respond to changes in the international strategic environment, and how we hope to shape it.
The period since the fall of the Berlin wall has been one of significant change. Before the end of the cold war, it seemed unlikely that a potential adversary would risk a direct military confrontation with the United Kingdom or with NATO. Since then, we have been forced to recognise other risks and sources of instability in the world, with environmental, demographic, economic and social changes becoming ever more likely causes of conflict.
330 Multinational peace support operations have become an increasingly important feature of international security. The operational demands on our forces are not diminishing. Almost a whole generation of British service men and women has become accustomed to operations in the Balkans, for example, where we have seen continuing instability right on the border of western Europe.
In this rapidly changing world, NATO remains the cornerstone of our security and defence policy, and our instrument of first choice for managing crises. It has proved its worth across the Balkans—most recently in Macedonia—and in supporting the continuing operations in Afghanistan. The Prague summit later this year will give us an opportunity to ensure that NATO is even better placed to face the challenges of the foreseeable future and to maintain its efficiency and effectiveness.
However, our common membership of NATO alongside the United States, and our experience of operating alongside US troops, have demonstrated the size of the gap between the military capability of the United States and that of Europe.
It is a gap that is growing. The United States is willing to invest substantial new sums in defence capabilities and military technology. With technology developing at an increasing rate, the capability gap with Europe could grow still wider.
That is why we have emphasised the need for European nations to work together to strengthen their military capabilities. Instead of simply pursuing narrow national agendas, we must co-operate so that, together, we can play a more effective role in the modern security environment. Only through such co-operation will we be able to make a more effective contribution to the alliance and undertake military crisis response operations where NATO as a whole chooses not to be engaged. That is why the UK has supported the EU's headline goal so strongly.
This is about ensuring that Europe makes better and more effective use of its resources. It is about co-operating to deliver increased defence capabilities. It is not about Europe competing with the United States. That is why we have been so insistent about avoiding the duplication of capabilities, through ensuring that the European Union has access to military assets—such as operational planning and command and control—that NATO can already offer.
We will also continue to work closely with the United States—our closest ally—to enhance our military capabilities. It makes perfect sense, for example, for us to invest jointly with the US in technology development and acquisition; our co-operation with the US on the joint strike fighter provides an excellent example.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)
Before the Secretary of State leaves the European dimension, will he tell us how persuasive he has been in getting his European counterparts to increase their defence expenditure? They have not been doing that and the United States is feeling increasingly dismissive about it.
§ Mr. Hoon
Of course it is important that European nations should increase their defence expenditure, but it is equally important that the product of that expenditure should be effective. European nations need to co-operate more effectively to deliver military capabilities where we lag behind the United States. The hon. Gentleman needs 331 to think through the implications of that. I know that he thinks deeply and seriously about defence, but in so doing he must recognise that to contribute to the alliance, European nations need to work more co-operatively, rather than less—which I suspect is his political position.
§ Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)
If, as my right hon. Friend says, the European defence project is not about competing with the United States, why should it compete with the US on costs and spending?
§ Mr. Hoon
There is a huge discrepancy in spending—even between the United Kingdom, which has a good record on defence spending, and the United States. The size of the current proposed increase in US defence spending is rather higher than the entire UK defence budget. The project is not about competition in that sense; we are playing in a different division. It is certainly about ensuring that we have military assets and capabilities that can be useful, especially when operating alongside those of the US.
§ Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)
Can my right hon. Friend explain why the cost of the Eurofighter has ballooned to more than £20 billion?
§ Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)
The Secretary of State's rather bland answer to the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) reveals nothing. Presumably, Eurofighter was a world-class aeroplane when it cost £16 billion. The figure announced this morning is £21.5 billion. The cost of Eurofighter has gone up by £5.5 billion and the aircraft has been delayed by a year. Why is that?
§ Mr. Hoon
As I said before, there is a range of explanations. Many of the delays occurred when the previous Government were responsible for Eurofighter—as did many of the cost increases. The hon. Gentleman would be the first to rise to his feet if, as a result of cost constraints, there were difficulties with the performance or effectiveness of Eurofighter. He cannot have it both ways: he complains either that the aircraft is not sufficiently capable for the purposes for which it was designed, or that we are not spending enough money on it. He cannot argue in both directions.
I have focused on our military capabilities, but we have also recognised that military solutions can only go so far. Many challenges to international security problems can be effectively tackled only by a long-term approach that incorporates the full range of civilian and military means at our disposal. We need to devote more attention to managing conflict—preventing it from occurring in the first place, reducing its impact, and developing strategies to remove the underlying causes of tension.
It follows that no current debate on the United Kingdom's defence policy could be complete without addressing the complex issue of international terrorism and our part in the international community's response to 332 that threat. It is five months since the appalling events in New York and Washington. British forces have played an essential part in the coalition military action in and around Afghanistan. The United Kingdom has steadfastly supported the United States in the campaign against international terrorism, providing military assistance that I have described to the House on several occasions. That support continues. The Royal Air Force continues to provide reconnaissance and air-to-air refuelling support to coalition actions against remaining Taliban and al-Qaeda elements. British troops are still on the ground in Afghanistan, participating in these operations, and the Royal Navy continues to participate in interdiction operations in the Arabian sea to prevent the escape of al-Qaeda members.
§ Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)
On over-commitment and the deployment of service personnel overseas, does the right hon. Gentleman share the view of the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, who is peddling the idea of using mercenaries as an alternative? Most hon. Members are horrified by that suggestion, and would be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman would clarify the position of the Ministry of Defence.
§ Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)
My right hon. Friend mentioned the fact that we have troops on the ground in Afghanistan, but we are getting very little information about what is happening there. Professor Mac Herold from the university of New Hampshire has estimated the death toll of civilians in Afghanistan from October to 6 February as 3,600. What is the Government's estimate, and when are we going to have a debate solely on what is going on in Afghanistan?
§ Mr. Hoon
It has proved extraordinarily difficult to make any accurate estimate of the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan; obviously, we regret any casualties. Certainly I do not recognise the figure that my hon. Friend has suggested as being anywhere near the reality, but it has proved difficult to make any precise estimate at this stage. I assure my hon. Friend that if we can do so, we shall report those estimates to the House in due course.
While the United States has shouldered much of the burden of the military campaign, my American colleagues have made no secret of how much they value our support and the invaluable experience, talent and skill of our armed forces. I once again pay tribute to the soldiers, sailors and air force personnel who have taken part, and are still taking part, in operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
§ Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)
As my right hon. Friend knows, I supported the war, but I remember that he told me in an answer—I am sure that it was not his intention to mislead me—that the prisoners of war would be treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva conventions. A lot of nonsense has been talked about the Geneva conventions, but article 5 makes it clear that any dispute 333 about the status of prisoners must be determined by an independent tribunal. Is that my right hon. Friend's understanding, and if so, why are not those Geneva conventions being upheld by the people with whom we fought the war?
§ Mr. Hoon
I do not want to get into a technical and legal argument with my hon. Friend, who has looked at this subject in detail, but as soon as she uses the phrase "prisoners of war" she is already generalising about the position of a number of prisoners who are not in fact prisoners of war. For example, there is little doubt that al-Qaeda terrorists do not, under any definition, qualify to be prisoners of war; in those circumstances, the position that has been taken by the United States Administration is the one recognised and agreed to by the United Kingdom.
§ Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)
In support of what the Secretary of State has just said, it would have been absurd if Carlos the Jackal had been arrested and claimed protection under the Geneva convention. That would have been a manifestly ludicrous claim, but people could have argued, like the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), that until the claim was resolved, he had to be afforded such protection. Intelligence must be got from these prisoners, and that is why the protection under the Geneva convention must not be inappropriately applied.
§ Ann Clwyd
I would respectfully say to my right hon. Friend that it is not a technical argument. The Geneva conventions were framed to cover issues of this kind, where there is a dispute about the status of the people taken prisoner. It is not up to my right hon. Friend, Donald Rumsfeld or anyone else to determine the prisoners' status; it is for an independent tribunal. They may or may not be prisoners of war, but it is for that independent tribunal, under the Geneva conventions, to determine.
§ Mr. Hoon
We are getting into another technical debate. I do not recognise my hon. Friend's interpretation of how the Geneva conventions operate in this case. It is for the determining authority to decide on the status of prisoners. In the circumstances, it is proper for the United States Administration to be that determining authority. The Geneva conventions were framed against the background of war between states. That cannot apply to alleged al-Qaeda terrorists. I am confident that the US Administration and the UK Government are taking the right approach.
Many of the campaign aims that we set out at the start of military action in Afghanistan have been met. The ability of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda to pose a continuing terrorist threat has been severely limited. We have seen a change in the leadership of Afghanistan, which is no longer a state that supports or sustains international terrorism. One of our longer-term aims in 334 the campaign was to end Afghanistan's self-imposed isolation and reintegrate the country as a responsible member of the international community.
The Bonn agreement is being implemented successfully. A key part of that is the deployment to Kabul of the international security assistance force, for which the UK is currently the lead nation. I saw that at first hand last week when I visited British troops in Afghanistan and met members of the Interim Administration. Hamid Kaarzai and other members of the Interim Administration deserve real credit for all that they have achieved.
In addition to the enabling force of 250 that we sent to support the early stages of the deployment, there are now some 1,700 British troops in Kabul as part of ISAF. In total, ISAF numbers around 3,600 troops, with forces from 13 of the 17 other troop-contributing nations now in place. ISAF is on course to achieve full operating capability later this month.
Hon. Members will have seen the media coverage of the joint patrols conducted by the ISAF and the Afghan police. Those have been well received. I went on patrol with a considerable number of members of 2 Para last week, so I know from first-hand experience that the reception from the local people is excellent.
§ Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)
I am not sure whether the Royal Air Force TriStar is used in Afghanistan, but I regret that the Government have not awarded the maintenance contract to Marshall's, which is likely to cause the loss of 80 to 100 jobs in my constituency. Marshall's works to high standards and provides high-quality services to British Airways, Lufthansa and KLM.
§ Mr. Hoon
TriStar is not being used in Afghanistan, but I appreciate my hon. Friend's concern for her constituents and for Marshall's. I have visited that company several times and it is an admirable example of excellent British engineering. However, it has not been maintaining TriStar for about five years. Notwithstanding the quality of its bid, it was not successful in a competitive process with others that are engaged in maintaining TriStar.
It is clear that ISAF is making a difference on the streets of Kabul, and not simply by providing security. It has also been working with the Department for International Development to identify useful projects to help to restore Kabul as a functioning modern city. I saw, for example, efforts that British soldiers are making to bring a school that was badly damaged in the civil war back into use.
As lead nation of ISAF, the UK played a major role in establishing the force. We plan to maintain that role until late April when we expect to hand it over to one of our partners. We are working with Turkey to encourage it to turn its expression of interest in becoming the lead nation into a formal offer.
§ Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)
I am interested in what the Secretary of State says about the reconstruction of Afghanistan and other improvements. What is being done about the quantities of unexploded ordnance, especially cluster bombs, that have been found in 335 Afghanistan? Can he make it clear whether British, American or any other forces used depleted uranium at army stage during the conflict?
§ Mr. Hoon
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the problem of unexploded ordnance in Afghanistan. That has been a significant problem for many years, and the ordnance dates back to the occupation by the Soviet Union, the civil war and the range of conflicts that have taken place in that country. Members of ISAF are certainly engaged, day by day, in clearing parts of the city. I saw some of that work myself and heard still more of it. It is an enormously difficult and potentially dangerous task, and they are going about it with considerable skill.
§ Mr. Hancock
Bearing it in mind that we are now told that there are more than 7,000 prisoners of one form or another in Afghanistan, has the Secretary of State been approached by his American allies with the suggestion that British troops be deployed in holding those prisoners securely? Have any negotiations taken place on the repatriation of the British prisoners currently held in Afghanistan to the United Kingdom?
§ Mr. Hoon
On the hon. Gentleman's first point, that has not happened. On his second point, as has been said already, what is important is that those held at Guantanamo bay are questioned on their likely involvement in the events of 11 September and on other offences that they may have committed against United States law or, indeed, against international law. Thereafter, there may be circumstances in which those prisoners are brought back to the United Kingdom, not least if there are allegations that they may have committed offences against United Kingdom law.
ISAF's task is to assist the Afghan Interim Administration in maintaining security in and around Kabul, to provide the conditions in which they can pave the way for the interim Loya Jirga in June and, ultimately, the full Loya Jirga 18 months later
§ Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)
Part of Mr. Hamid Karzai's appeal when he came here was that ISAF's remit be extended beyond Kabul. Clearly, it is in everyone's interest that the four other major cities in Afghanistan also have the same degree of law and order as Kabul. What has been the British Government's response and that of the international coalition generally to Mr. Karzai's appeal?
§ Mr. Hoon
I had the privilege of discussing that issue with Mr. Karzai, not only in the United Kingdom but when I went to Afghanistan last week. Obviously, the Interim Administration is concerned to provide security elsewhere beyond Kabul, but that has not been possible so far, not least because of the terms of the original UN Security Council resolution and, indeed, because of practical constraints on the number of forces available. It is obviously something that the international community will continue to consider, but real practical constraints face any country that would want to be involved.
ISAF has also begun to train 600 members of the Afghan armed forces to form a national guard. The United Kingdom is also committed to playing its part, with other 336 coalition partners, in helping the Afghans with the reform of their security sector. That is essential to create lasting stability, which, ultimately, of course, must be a matter for the Afghans themselves.
Much still needs to be done, by the international community and the Interim Administration, before Afghanistan is restored as a completely stable and peaceful country, but we are well on the way towards ensuring that Afghanistan will never again provide a haven for international terrorism.
I have already mentioned the outcome of the strategic defence review. That review and our further work on the changing strategic context put us in a strong position to respond to the appalling events of 11 September. The review placed particular emphasis on capabilities relevant to the new circumstances in which we find ourselves—reconnaissance, surveillance, rapid deployment, precision strikes and more effective command and control. That is why the United Kingdom has been able to play such a significant role in the military operations in Afghanistan. The acquisition of equipment such as the Apache helicopter, the joint strike fighter and the future carriers will enhance those capabilities still further.
The appalling attacks on 11 September highlighted the need for us to consider whether we should make further adjustments to our armed forces to take account of the threat from international terrorism and the growing likelihood of asymmetric action. So, as I announced to the House in October last year, I have set in hand work to re-examine our own defence posture and plans to ensure that we have the right defence concepts, forces and capabilities to defend us against the threat from international terrorism.
We have underlined from the outset the need to keep a sense of perspective in that work. Not everything has changed. Nor, just as importantly, does everything need to change. I emphasise again that we are engaged not in a new strategic defence review but in a new chapter to that review. However, it would be complacent not to adjust capability when that is needed, and not to address how we can prevent or deter attacks of the kind seen on 11 September. Since October, we have undertaken a great deal of work, involving other Departments and outside experts, to consider that issue.
§ Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)
The Secretary of State said that it would be complacent not to take account of the attacks on 11 September. The American national security review specifically identified that kind of asymmetric threat to American lives in its first conclusion and a Select Committee of the House unanimously pointed out that issue as a gap in the strategic defence review. Does not the Government's approach resemble that of allowing the people who predicted that the Titanic would not sink to determine how many lifeboats it should have?
§ Mr. Hoon
No, it does not. The strategic defence review included a reference to asymmetric warfare, and the issue has been considered by Government in the past. Certainly, the events of 11 September have required us to consider such threats again and in more detail. I wish any Government had been in a position to anticipate what happened on 11 September. The truth, however, was that 337 we were not in such a position. We must now ensure that we have the right kind of military capabilities to face the challenges posed by those events.
Our thinking so far is set out in a public discussion paper which the Ministry of Defence published this morning and which has already been made available to hon. Members. It considers a range of issues and seeks to answer a number of basic questions. How much has the strategic context changed since 11 September? How should we engage with the symptoms and causes of terrorism? What balance should we strike between home defence and countering the threat abroad? What range of effects do we want to be able to achieve abroad? How might we enhance the effectiveness of our military contribution at home and abroad? What role should international organisations—particularly the UN, NATO, and the EU, but also others—play in that? How can we build on our regional and bilateral relationships?
The discussion material sets out the key issues that we face, and some of the ways in which we consider that the context in which we operate may have changed. It does not seek to reach firm conclusions at this stage. We want to obtain views from Members, from the public, from outside experts and from allies and partners before we take final decisions.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth
The Secretary of State rightly says that this document does not offer solutions at this stage. Indeed, it poses questions that he put to the Select Committee last November. When will he come forward with concrete proposals that the House can consider? He promised the Select Committee that a detailed set of proposals resulting from the review would appear in the spring. Will he tell us when he expects to bring forward firm conclusions arising from the consultation process?
§ Mr. Hoon
The purpose of the discussion document is not only to indicate the nature of the questions but to set out some of our preliminary thinking. As the hon. Gentleman will find when he considers the document in more detail, there are already indications of the direction in which we propose to go. I hope that he will give the Government credit for at least allowing right hon. and hon. Members the opportunity of setting out their views. I know that he would have criticised us if we had proceeded too quickly. We are trying to strike the right balance between soliciting ideas and views and trying to move quickly. I hope that we shall move quickly towards reaching some conclusions.
I shall set out some of the first results of our opening thoughts on these difficult questions. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said last week when he was in Sierra Leone, there is a close connection between our domestic interests and what happens on the international stage. Emerging threats in Africa, the middle east, the Gulf and central Asia can come to affect us directly, sometimes with little or no warning. Therefore, a closer link now exists between ensuring the adequate defence of the home base and our ability to undertake deployed operations.
The United States, for its part, has made it clear that it will not be deterred from operating abroad by terrorists or others who threaten the US homeland. Our position must be the same. The United Kingdom will want to continue to play a leading role in promoting international security 338 and stability. Our role, as set out by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, is to be a pivotal partner, using our global influence, connections and friendships as a force for good in the world. We need to play to our strengths, including, where appropriate, participating in and leading initial short-duration peace support operations in higher-risk environments and participating in strike operations as part of a coalition effort.
We need to put more emphasis on being proactive and, where possible and justifiable, pre-empting problems rather than simply waiting for problems to come to us. In that, we should use the whole range of responses that the Government have at their disposal—not simply military means.
We need to examine the number, size and nature of the operations that we may be called on to undertake—perhaps simultaneously or in quick succession. That may involve both offensive find and strike actions, and prevention or stabilisation operations. We will need to judge whether we are likely to encounter other situations where key national interests mean that we need to engage further afield than the core regions of Europe, the Mediterranean and the Gulf, which were the focus of our thinking about our force structures during the strategic defence review.
§ Mr. Brazier
Although I strongly welcome what the Secretary of State has just said, does he not accept that the threat that has now been identified to the home base means that, in one important respect, we are departing from a central strand of the strategic defence review's overseas elements? It is much more likely that we will have to participate in operations without having any choice about it. The thrust of the SDR was that most of our expeditionary operations would be the result of choice, but we may find ourselves committed to operations on the very edge of our capabilities and we will have no choice about that if there is a threat to our home base.
§ Mr. Hoon
I certainly think that the key change that the events of 11 September have brought about is an end to the assumption that we face no direct challenge to our territory here in the United Kingdom. Successive Governments have made that assumption and it underpinned a number of the reviews that they carried out. However, that assumption no longer applies and, as I will say in due course, we need to think through the implications of that for the future organisation of our armed forces.
§ Jeremy Corbyn
The Secretary of State will appreciate that many of us are disturbed by the statement that he has just made, which did not include any reference to causes of conflicts, to legal solutions to conflicts or to the role of the United Nations. He appears to be looking at a military solution to most problems. Will he assure the House that there are no plans to increase military activity against Iraq or, indeed, to engage in any military activity in Somalia or Sudan? Many people around the world now feel that Britain and the United States make their own decisions to take whatever military action they think is appropriate wherever they think it is appropriate.
§ Mr. Hoon
I am sorry that my hon. Friend was not listening to my speech with his customary care and 339 attention. I specifically said that we needed to operate within the generally recognised rules of law and that there were a range of responses other than the purely military ones for dealing with the causes of conflict. My hon. Friend will find those points set out more clearly in the discussion document. I hope that, when he has the opportunity of reading my speech carefully, he will realise that I referred to both those points.
On Iraq, my hon. Friend knows that British forces are engaged in operations over the no-fly zones where they regularly come under fire and where they regularly respond. However, there are no plans that I am aware of for any substantial action against Iraq at the present time. The matter is obviously kept under review, not least because of the way in which our aircraft come under attack on a regular basis from the armed forces of Iraq.
I want to turn to some of the key areas that we are considering and in relation to which we are seeking views. In the United Kingdom, the Home Office is, of course, responsible for counter-terrorism and is in the lead for domestic security, particularly in relation to the police. There is an important constitutional principle involved and it is one that can quickly be forgotten in the wake of events such as the attacks of 11 September. Any support provided by the armed forces—especially the use of force—must be at the specific request of the civil authorities.
That said, the armed forces have always played an important part in the defence of the homeland. The Royal Navy ensures the integrity of our territorial waters and the Royal Air Force defends our airspace. Immediately following 11 September, elements of the armed forces, including air defence aircraft, were placed at increased readiness. They have been scrambled to monitor suspect aircraft on more than one occasion since. Command and control arrangements have been enhanced to allow more rapid decisions about how to respond to potential threats. We are considering with the relevant civil Departments and international bodies whether permanent changes in the posture and capabilities of such forces are required.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
Will the Secretary of State explain why in the present circumstances Her Majesty's Government have decided to stand down 5 Air Defence Squadron at RAF Coningsby?
§ Mr. Hoon
From his long interest in the RAF the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the shortfall in the number of pilots, which is a direct consequence of decisions taken many years ago by a Government whom he from time to time supported. In the circumstances, it has been necessary for us significantly to increase the number of pilots in training, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the effect of that will take some time to filter through the system. However, I assure him that there will be no reduction in the number of an aircraft patrolling, and therefore no less protection for the United Kingdom.
§ Patrick Mercer (Newark)
A few short years ago, I witnessed a superfluity of officers under training in the RAF—so many were there that they were sent on infantry courses to pass their time. Now, at RAF Cranwell, RAF 340 officer cadets are being used to guard the gate in the absence of policemen. Is that the right way to set about training our fighter pilots and redressing those grievances?
§ Mr. Hoon
I was referring specifically to pilots. There has been a long-term problem with the number of pilots available for our aircraft, which was caused specifically by the fact that it takes several years to train a pilot to fly a fast jet, and not enough people were entering training to produce the number that we ideally require today. That is a problem of long standing, and not one that the hon. Gentleman can blame on the current Government.
Beyond the specific roles that I have outlined, there are well-founded and tested procedures whereby the armed forces assist the civil authorities. We saw what an important role they had to play when members of the Royal Marines boarded a suspected rogue ship in the English channel just before Christmas. But such support is about more than responding to the threat of terror. In the past 18 months, the armed forces have responded to requests from the civil authorities for assistance with fuel strikes, major floods, and, of course, the foot and mouth crisis.
We have good reason to be grateful to the armed forces. They have unique capabilities on which the civil authorities can call—an obvious example is dealing with explosive devices. The Ministry of Defence is therefore working with other Departments to review the arrangements and degree of co-ordination between the civil authorities and the armed forces to maximise the armed forces' ability to respond to any future requests. That work is to build on the forces' particular strengths in planning and co-ordinating operations, command and control, their nationwide footprint of people, infrastructure and communications, and their specialist capabilities.
§ Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that post-11 September it is important to reassure the public? In the United States, President Bush's appointment of Governor Ridge clearly demonstrates that there is someone in charge of homeland defence with wide-ranging powers to co-ordinate state-wide activities. I am comparing that with what the Select Committee on Defence has heard so far, which suggests that our response is to hold committee meetings of civil servants. What can my right hon. Friend do to reassure the public and members of the Defence Committee that our response does not reflect the typical stiff-upper-lip approach of the civil service, and to curb the apparent lack of co-ordination and excessive departmentalism?
§ Mr. Hoon
My hon. Friend is right that reassurance is important, and—I am sure that this is what he was driving at—that there should be effective action if necessary. It is perhaps a little unfair to talk about committees meeting: those committees reflect a wide range of effort throughout Government to ensure that we are in a position to act should we face a threat similar to the one faced by the United States on 11 September.
One matter that we are considering in detail is the potential further contribution that the reserves can make—perhaps by building on their wide geographical spread across the country and their associated local knowledge. Our reserve forces are integrated with the Regular armed forces. When deployed, they carry out many of the same 341 tasks as our Regular forces. Again and again, they have proved their worth and professionalism on operations, for example, in the Balkans, where reservists have consistently represented around 10 per cent. of our commitment.
With the Home Office and other Departments, we are looking at whether any new tasks required by the new scenarios can be encompassed within the existing role and capability of the reserves. We will also consider the volunteer ethos of the reserves, as well as their availability and their training. Any changes that we decide are needed will involve supporting the civil agencies that have primary responsibility for these matters. Should we decide that changes to the role of the reserves may be necessary, we will naturally consult existing members of the reserve forces and their civilian employers first. We are scheduling this for the coming weeks and will then make public more detailed proposals.
Turning to what we can do overseas, it is a tenet of British military doctrine that it is usually better to seek to engage an enemy at longer range—before they are able to mount an attack against our interests. Our preference will therefore be to continue to place our emphasis on deployed operations, so we must continue to be ready and willing to deploy significant forces overseas to act against terrorists and those who harbour them. Our determination to do that, where necessary, should be absolutely clear from the actions that we have taken to date.
It is in the very nature of terrorist groups and those posing asymmetric threats that they will be hard to find and may be vulnerable to attack for only fleeting moments. So in many circumstances we will need to be able to strike very rapidly, and we need adequate reach. The strategic defence review set in hand a range of measures to give our armed forces the right posture and capabilities, which have stood us in good stead since 11 September.
§ Mr. Brazier
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way to me again. He rightly referred to the importance of consulting the reserve forces themselves. Does he accept that, for many in the reserve forces, an absolutely key decision is in his gift at the moment? That is whether to continue as a part-time appointment the critical military adviser's post, director of reserve forces of cadets. The initial decision was made five years ago and was welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It means that the post is filled by someone who has a civilian job which, to use the words of one of the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues, means that he has empathy with reservists. That decision will come up very shortly. May I urge the right hon. Gentleman to keep a part-timer in that post?
§ Mrs. Mahon
I thank my right hon. Friend for his patience in giving way to me again. The NATO Parliamentary Assembly was told recently by Interpol that a connection had been established between al-Qaeda, the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Bosnian Muslims. What 342 investigations are the Government undertaking into the leadership of the KLA and the Bosnian Muslims both in Bosnia and in Kosovo?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
Order. Before the Secretary of State replies, I say to the House that there is a very long list of hon. Members who are seeking to catch my eye, and if there are multiple interventions from certain hon. Members, it may affect their place on the list.
§ Mr. Hoon
I shall take your warning into account, Mr. Deputy Speaker, next time someone invites me to give way.
In answer to my hon. Friend's question, certainly a number of links between different organisations have been identified, each of which has been thoroughly investigated, including the one that she mentioned.
We need now to look at whether the new circumstances make new demands on us. We want to assure ourselves that we have the right shape and balance of rapidly deployable forces and that we are able to integrate them with intelligence assets and the command and control that is needed to mount effective precision operations. So we are looking closely, for example, at whether we need more of our forces at high readiness, and we are considering the enablers required, such as command and control, intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, reconnaissance and transport.
There are broadly five ways in which we can seek to counter threats abroad. We can try to prevent the conditions that allow international terrorist organisations to operate, and help less capable states to build better capabilities to counter terrorism themselves. That is similar to what the United States is doing in the Philippines at the moment. We can seek to prevent problems recurring by undertaking peace support operations, usually in coalition with others, to prevent instability or assist in stabilisation.
We can deter would-be attackers by ensuring that our range of military options and our readiness to use them are clear. We must also be able to coerce those who harbour or support international terrorism if other means have not dissuaded them. If that fails, we can try to disrupt activities that support international terrorist groups, for example by closing off sources of materiel, finance and freedom of movement. We might ultimately need to destroy active terrorist cells with military action, such as find and strike raids on key terrorist facilities. Of course, whatever action we take in response to a particular threat will depend on the nature of that threat. In some cases, defence diplomacy or peace support may be enough. In others, a robust military response will be required. We want to be able to contribute to a range of responses. We need to consider where the emphasis should lie. In all that, we will remain very conscious of the need not to place unsustainable demands on members of the armed forces and their families.
We are also examining the roles played by international organisations of which we are a member, principally the United Nations, NATO, and the European Union, but also others. They all have unique responsibilities and offer different capabilities. They have all already acted decisively against international terrorism. For example, NATO made its first ever invocation of article 5. But we need to make sure that the right organisations take the 343 right initiatives without duplicating what others are doing. We must be able to convince potential terrorists that the international community as a whole, rather than ad hoc coalition of states is willing and able to act quickly and decisively.
We also need to build and sustain our military relationships with other nations. Defense diplomacy was one of the major themes of the strategic defence review. The education and training of foreign armed forces is an area in which the United Kingdom has developed proven skills. In Sierra Leone, for example, our short-term training teams have trained a total of 9,000 soldiers. We are already building on our activities and relationships in that area, but we may need to do more.
During the strategic defence review, the Ministry of Defence actively sought the views of those outside Government. We recognised that Members of Parliament and peers, local authorities, academics, industry, interest groups, non-governmental organisations, the media and members of the general public may well have ideas and opinions. Within the constraint of a tight timetable, we are seeking to emulate that approach in our work on the new chapter of the strategic defence review. So, today, I repeat our invitation for views and ideas from as wide an audience as possible. We are distributing discussion material to every library in the country; it has also gone to every local authority and is available on the internet. The armed forces are a vital national asset and I want to hear views on what their role and contribution should be in this new environment. We are working to a tight timetable, and have provided just over a month for comments, to ensure that contributors have the chance to influence our thinking. I plan to publish some conclusions from the work in the spring or early summer.
Those matters are of direct interest to us all. There have been those, certainly since the end of the cold war, who have seen the armed forces as an optional extra, and the contribution that they have made abroad as a favour that we have been able to offer to the international community. And some have perhaps taken too comfortable a view of the so-called peace dividend and the fact that an external threat to the United Kingdom seemed so unlikely. We cannot afford to think like that any longer. The military capability on which we spend the defence budget is not an optional extra; it is absolutely essential to our part in maintaining international security. We must not take that security and stability for granted.
We need to see defence as a public service—something as crucial to our freedom and our quality of life as health and education. The events of 11 September have cast a long shadow over our world. Our strategic environment has changed, not beyond recognition, but certainly significantly. That change must be built into our defence planning and policy. With the work that we have in hand, we will ensure that our armed forces will reflect the new challenges that we face so that we are better placed to defend the United Kingdom, our people and our interests, and to strengthen peace and security world wide.
§ Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)
I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests; I remain a serving member of the 344 Territorial Army. I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), who is in Washington. I understand that he has written to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Secretary of State.
It is a great privilege to be called to speak immediately after the Secretary of State. As he pointed out, our armed forces are on operations and in action. During the short time that I have served in the House of Commons, they have continued to distinguish themselves on land, in the air, and at sea. Will the Secretary of State convey my thanks to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) and his staff for their work in enabling me to visit many units, which has been a great privilege?
Last Friday, I visited the Infantry Battle School at Brecon, and observed the platoon sergeants' course. When I arrived, they had already been in the field for five days in filthy weather, and they had another five days to go. They were thoroughly wet and covered in mud and so were all their possessions. They had not slept in 72 hours as they had been driven out of a position the night before and had had to tab through the night with all their kit. When I met them, they were planning an assault to retake that position at 4 am the next morning. It was exactly the sort of time when one would expect them to have a serious sense of humour failure, but not a bit of it. When I spoke to them they said, "No, sir. This is what training for war is all about, sir." No finer body of men could be found in any armed service throughout the world. As President Chirac said:We must make our armed forces more like the British. They are the best in the world and must be the model for ours.That must be the starting point of our debate. How do we deploy and preserve this enormously precious asset?
I have read the document provided by the Secretary of State, the excellent second report of the Select Committee on Defence in respect of the role of the reserves and what the Secretary of State said in paragraphs 25 and 26 of the report before us today. I have had an amount of lobbying from members of the Territorial Army concerned about guard duties at key points. It does not sound a particularly attractive role, but if the intelligence estimate is that key facilities have to be guarded, or protected in order to provide reassurance to the public, somebody has to guard them and it is a proper role for the Territorial Army.
§ Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West)
Does not the fact that the hon. Gentleman is both a serving member of the TA, so presumably he has lobbied in that capacity, and here debating Government policy on the TA give rise to some inconsistency with his comments some years ago of which I have some recollection?
§ Mr. Swayne
No. I suffer no discomfort at all. The TA is familiar with its role in homeland defence. Although the larger part of the TA was tasked to reinforce the British Army of the Rhine during the Soviet threat, a distinct and significant element of the TA was tasked with home defence to counter the threat of Soviet special forces attacking key points and of assassinations and to keep main supply routes open. So the TA is already familiar with this role and I am absolutely sure that it will have no difficulty carrying it out. My only concern is that the TA also has other roles to which I shall return in a moment.
345 Let me say something about the need for flexible forces to which the Secretary of State and the Select Committee drew attention. The Select Committee report states:We will need more forces which can be available at short notice; more forces in other words with the training and skills of the Royal Marine Commandos, the Parachute Regiment and the Special Forces.That is absolutely true, but we should be aware that we do have additional forces with those capabilities now. It is not a common misconception in this House, but the public believe that the 3rd Commando Brigade and the 16th Air Assault Brigade are all about Royal Marine commandos and parachutists. They are not. There is a significant infantry regiment of the line input into those brigades. We fall into a grave mistake if we have the mindset that there are specialist forces and ordinary forces. Our ordinary forces are themselves specialist forces and can do the job. We must avoid the problem that will arise with respect to morale if we categaorise the infantry regiments of the line as available only for what might be called ordinary duties instead of the new, highly deployable, flexible duties which are so necessary. The infantry has been working on that ability to deploy flexibly and quickly for some time. When I visited infantry headquarters in Warminster some weeks ago, I picked up its visitors' handbook. Its first page sets out "the infantry vision". I am not sure whether we should encourage vision among infantrymen. I suspect that the phrase has more to do with the management-speak of Arthur Andersen than with soldiering. Nevertheless, the vision is:That by 2020, the infantry must be equipped, structured, manned, trained and sustained to fulfil its mission in accordance with its manoeuvrist doctrine.I put a little research into what that doctrine might be. If I may be technical for a moment, much of it turns on what is now called the rule of four. Under the doctrine, to deploy with maximum flexibility, maximum fire support under command and effective use of reserves, a battalion should have four companies, a company should have four platoons and a platoon should have four sections. That differs from the order of battle as it has been hitherto, which has only three of each of those elements.
That begs the enormous question of whether manpower will be forthcoming to sustain that important new order of battle. Those additional resources can come from one of two places. First, we could start to scrap cap badges and amalgamate regiments. However, I am certain that there is no appetite on either side of the House for that approach, because it kills off the goose that lays the golden egg—the very core of our regimental system. Secondly—this is what the Army believes—the additional resources can come, in time of war, from the Territorial Army. After all, that is not dissimilar from the TA's traditional role of filling out the British Army of the Rhine's order of battle.
However, if the TA is earmarked for homeland defence it will be difficult to sustain that new order of battle for the infantry in addition to the existing requirement on the TA to fill the gaps in the regular Army by providing what I described in last week's Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall as the 3,000 or so "serial mobilisers" who constantly go from one mobilisation to another to sustain the regular Army. The whole concept of homeland defence—or home defence, as we used to call it—raises serious questions about the proper establishment of the reserves.
346 We were wholly opposed to the cuts in the TA. That is not a party political point, because several Labour Members, not least some of those who serve on the Select Committee, have a distinguished record in that battle. The TA suffered significant damage as a consequence of the strategic defence review. If the Government are to make use of the asset of the TA in the way that the document describes, that damage will require substantial repair. It is evident in the problem of undermanning, in the dearth of junior officers and in the fact that short courses are 40 per cent. undersubscribed. Potential officers are turning up at the Royal Military college, Sandhurst untrained by their battalions, with the result that the course has to be changed from a testing course into a teaching course. One course per year has to be cancelled owing to the shortage.
The debate on the use of the reserves must go beyond the TA. For example, we could consider using the Royal Auxiliary Air Force to provide strike flying formations. That would be comparable with the way in which the National Guard operates in the United States.
Flexibility is vital, but I want to sound a note of caution. The axes—I use the plural advisedly—of evil in the world, be they rogue states, failed states, or whatever, have plenty of conventional armaments. There are 255,000 tanks out there, only 386 of which are ours. The Soviets alone exported some 80,000 T72 tanks. Twenty-nine countries have more than 2,000 tanks; we would be 45th in any league. There must be a balance between firepower, protection and mobility. Given the current state of technology, that balance comes out at about 70 tonnes.
§ Mr. Swayne
The hon. Gentleman will recall that it is not long since this country was at war with Iraq, which has many tanks. We might find ourselves in conflict with failed states not entirely dissimilar to Afghanistan as part of the war against terrorism. Infantry set against their armour without our own armoured support would take enormous casualties. One day, we will develop technology that can replace the tank, but not yet. I suspect that when we have it, it will be fiendishly expensive.
§ Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent)
Few individual pieces of military equipment are of any use in a terrorist attack—that is why such attacks are so dangerous. Individual pieces of military equipment are used when we carry out our response.
§ Mr. Swayne
My hon. Friend's point is well made. It is not only a question of high-intensity war fighting—we have found armour to be extremely useful in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans. I am sure that Ministers will confirm that.
I want to move on to an area of defence policy on which I am tempted to congratulate the Government almost unreservedly. [Interruption.] Wait for it. The position that they appear to be taking up as regards ballistic missile defence suggests that they have taken a quantum leap. Only two years ago, speaking on "Newsnight", the Minister for Europe said:I don't like the idea of a star wars programme.347 We can recall the debate in Westminster Hall in which many Labour Members assured Us that the ballistic missile defence programme was the greatest threat to global security. Now, the Foreign Secretary declares himself to be "open to new thinking" about it. I read with unalloyed pleasure the speech that he gave on 6 February at King's college. The soundness of his argument was matched only by its familiarity.
Just over a year ago, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) wrote a pamphlet about ballistic missile defence in which he stated thatit needs to be recognised that the shortcomings"—of arms control agreements—are inherent".In his speech, the Foreign Secretary acknowledged thatit would be foolish to overlook the shortcomingsof arms control agreements. My right hon. Friend noted in his pamphlet that the "Cold War mindset" of the anti-ballistic missile treaty required its abandonment. That is almost uncannily similar to the phrase that the Foreign Secretary has used. I do not criticise the Foreign Secretary for that; his conversion is a matter of great satisfaction to Opposition Members. Our concern is whether the Government will confirm their position on this policy issue, to show that this is not just evidence of another lurch in policy.
Another item on which I am not so sanguine about the Government's stance—although I share the Secretary of State's preoccupation with it—is the European security and defence policy. The Secretary of State made it clear in November 2000 that that was all about capability. In December 2000, the Nice conclusions stated thatthe main challenge for member states is to develop military capabilities.However, figures issued by the House of Commons Library on 13 February 2002 show that EU average defence expenditure has fallen by 5.5 per cent. in each year from 1997 to 2001. In that context, we must bear in mind that the St. Malo agreement was signed in 1998. It is no wonder that Lord Robertson sounds increasingly exasperated in his speeches. On 21 January, in Sweden, he said that Europe was becominga military pigmy.I urge the Secretary of State to pay considerable attention to the report produced by the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union entitled "The European Policy on Security and Defence." It states that it is not clear what could be done with a European force, and warns againstthe temptation, if the political need for an operation arises, to conduct an EU-led mission for symbolic purposes, before the EU is ready to do so.My concern is that that might end up happening in Macedonia this summer, and I hope that the Secretary of State is alive to that concern and will be able to address it in the fullness of time.
The European security and defence policy adds nothing to military capability. It is, therefore, all the more astonishing that the EU should continue to develop 348 political and military structures as though that capability existed and, indeed, as though 11 September had never happened.
§ Mr. Hancock
Will the hon. Gentleman explain what would happen if Europe did not adopt the policy that it is currently embracing, and if the Americans decided not to take part in any action if a problem arose here? What would be the Conservative response to that? Would Great Britain alone take on the responsibility of sorting out a European conflict?
§ Mr. Swayne
It strikes me that there is perfectly adequate provision in NATO to make available the resources on an ad hoc basis. The coalition of the willing can happen as easily in NATO—in fact, I suspect, rather more easily—as within the European Union.
§ Dr. Julian Lewis
Is not the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) singing from a different song-sheet from his friends on the Labour Front Bench? They constantly tell us that the purpose of the European force is crisis management and not war-fighting or conflict. Now, however, the real danger is of a war breaking out in Europe and people from European states blundering into it without the Americans being involved. That is what we have been warning about all along.
§ Mr. Swayne
I acknowledge the force of my hon. Friend's point. My concern is that, if we go back and look at the declarations—the summitry—behind this issue, much of the rationale for the security and defence policy is the need to project the European Union on the world stage. I would have no practical problem with that, if the desire to do it would generate the capability, but it has not done so.
§ Mr. Swayne
I have given way to the hon. Gentleman once, and I do not want to fall into the trap that was laid for us by the Deputy Speaker.
That brings us to the subject of the war against al-Qaeda, and the whole subject of asymmetric terrorism. What is our policy in terms of pursuing al-Qaeda beyond the Afghan front? Notwithstanding the highly useful specialised forces still being deployed, we have been content to contribute to the international security assistance force. How far into the future are we prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder, as the Prime Minister described it, with our principal ally, the United States? If we are to continue to do that, should we not take on more of the burden of pursuing the rump of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, as the Canadians are doing? Or are we content to take the largely peacekeeping role in the ISAF?
I ask those questions because, earlier this week, HMS Ocean sailed with two companies of 45 Commando for the Indian ocean. We are told that they could be involved in combat operations in support of American forces, perhaps pursuing al-Qaeda in Somalia. Can the Minister throw some light on that? We have to know exactly what our policy is on this issue, and what it will be.
I shall conclude by referring to the Secretary of State's description in an interview last weekend of our armed forces being stretched but not overstretched. 349 On 17 December 2001, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, described the situation as being "dangerously over-committed" and the current chief, in his Royal United Services Institute lecture last year, used the rather chilling phrase, "something will have to give."
My starting point in analysing the problem, as I said at the beginning of my speech, is that we have the best armed forces in the world and of course we want to use them. That is what they are for. There is no point in spending more than £21 billion a year on our armed forces if we are not going to deploy them whenever we need to do so. Of course, we hope that their mere existence will be a significant deterrent, but failing that, their purpose is to deliver lethal force wherever it is required in pursuit of our foreign policy, in conjunction with our allies.
The armed forces want to be deployed. I cannot believe that many service men join up without the hope that they will see action. No one wants to spend their career back at the depot. The fact that we deploy our armed forces so often creates a virtuous circle. More than ever before, I suspect, in the British Army, any gathering of soldiers, officers or NCOs—be it an orders group or a conference—will benefit from the fact that a majority of those present will now have operational experience and a significant minority will have combat experience. So, having a busy Army is a good thing for defence policy, but there has to be a balance. There are suggestions, and there is evidence, that we have now become too busy.
§ Mr. Hancock
I was disappointed to hear that the hon. Gentleman was coming to the end of his speech, because I was hoping that he would say something that would keep the Secretary of State awake long enough to listen to the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch). I should be grateful if you would confirm, as you have not mentioned any policies apart from the return to the tank and the better use of the Territorial Army, which you are happy with everything else to do with defence policy—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman is meant to be addressing me when he uses the second person, but I do not think that that was his intention.
§ Mr. Swayne
That intervention does not do the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) justice. I acknowledge that the Secretary of State was generous in giving way, but many Members want to speak today, and the brevity of my remarks—although it may disappoint the hon. Gentleman—was a necessity, and a courtesy to the rest of the House.
Over-busyness, as I described it, was perhaps strongly evidenced in answers to written questions tabled by the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), which show a worryingly high differential between military and civilian divorce rates. It was useful to see those statistics. At a reception hosted by the Royal British Legion yesterday, I was told about a worrying statistic. On the return to Bovington of an armoured regiment of about 210 men, the Royal British Legion had to deal with some 76 divorces. That worrying statistic forms part of the evidence of over-busyness.
Further such evidence is available in the form of the stretched budget. This year, some budget-holder—units—have not allowed fully for the effects of Pay 2000.
350 The same was true last year, but that was an allowable overspend then. Budget-holders do not know whether such overspend is allowable this year, so what are they to do? Will the whole process simply grind to a halt?
Budgetary worries are also expressed in the detail of the 31st report of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. On reading beyond the headlines, one discovers some very worrying figures. The body expresses "dismay" at theappalling…standard of much Service accommodation.I know that the Secretary of State is alive to the problem and I am glad that he has acknowledged it, but on visiting fusiliers in Dungannon, I saw some quite shocking accommodation. I realise that they are there for a short tour of only six months, but those young men know what is available in civvy street. As the Armed Forces Pay Review Body says,poor…standards give rise to a strong sense of not being valued by their Service.Evidence of stretching and over-busyness is clearly available in manning statistics that have appeared regularly throughout this Parliament. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body describes the position asfragile and unlikely to improve in the…future.If my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) is lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will want to dwell on that problem, which he believes can certainly be remedied. None the less, it is a measure of the difficulties that an over-busy Army faces.
Perhaps the most worrying evidence is the effect on training. Infantry battle school course statistics for last year show that mortar courses were under-subscribed by 40 per cent. Sniper courses and milan anti-tank courses were under-subscribed by 46 per cent. and 20 per cent. respectively. The reason is obvious. A busy battalion that has to deploy to Northern Ireland does not need milan anti-tank support, so there is no need to send its busy soldiers on such a course. The reality is that a time will come when we will need those skills for high-intensity warfare, but they will have faded. There is a vicious circle, in that courses have be lengthened to take account of the fact that skills are not of the required standard when they begin. That is a very worrying element of the evidence that the Army is rather too busy.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said on Monday, the Secretary of State must persuade the Foreign Secretary to reduce the commitments—I think that unlikely—or persuade the Chancellor to fund them.
§ Mr. Swayne
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall continue as I am drawing my remarks to a close. As the Defence Committee's second report points out, if there is to be another chapter in the strategic defence review, the Chancellor must be prepared to pay for it. The report's conclusion is very important to us and to defence policy. It says:We must not lose our sense of the urgency and importance of this task in the months ahead. We must not hesitate to take the necessary steps to protect the UK and our interests.That must be the essence of the debate on defence policy. It is so easy, as 11 September recedes in time, to forget the urgency and importance of the task. However, we can 351 be sure that we face an enemy that has neither natural sense nor natural conscience. There is no natural sense in the absurdity of a belief that Allah the merciful would lavish the attendance of 72 maidens on someone for having done no more than slaughter innocents. There is no natural conscience in the fact that the attackers, as the Prime Minister pointed out, would have multiplied the innocents slaughtered by 70 times seven, had they had the ability to do so.
We received "a wake-up call", as Mr. Kissinger described it. We can either be alive to that call or hit the snooze button and slumber on.
§ Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne). I thank him for his brevity; he took 35 minutes, and with your approval, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall be equally brief. I also thank him for his compliments on our report on terrorism. I shall reciprocate by quoting an earlier Defence Committee report that was produced just after the strategic defence review. The hon. Gentleman's speech was not vitriolic and he did not seek to score too many political points. When he did seek to do so, they were administered gently.
I encourage the hon. Gentleman to read the previous 20 or 30 Defence Committee reports. I have been in the novel position in the past few years of supporting my party's policy on defence, and I still feel a sense of exhilaration at the realisation that our views match closely. However, the problems of overstretch, which are severe, did not begin in 1997. I simply refer the hon. Gentleman to a 1996 report from the Committee, which then had a large Conservative majority. The report stated:We do not accept the proposal to drive defence expenditure below 2.8 per cent. of GDP…We cannot recommend the 1996 Statement on the Defence Estimates to the House unless Ministers make clear in the debate that this year's Statement will not again be undermined by further defence cuts in the 1996 Budget or by any other means.The defence budget was grossly inadequate then, as was pointed out very fairly by the large Conservative majority, led by the late, lamented Michael Colvin.
Just before the dissolution of the Parliament that preceded the 1997 general election, the Committee produced a further report on the implications of the last Budget from the then Conservative Government. It concluded that, despite some adjustment, the plans represented a standstill for the defence budget. The report stated:We insist that the defence spending plans set out in the 1996 budget must at least be maintained in real terms in future years. Any further reduction would jeopardise the defence of the realm.Before we receive too many lectures on the inadequacies of the current Government, I respectfully suggest that many of the problems that they face—some have been remedied and some have not—can be seen in the historical context of failure to undertake a proper defence review and a continuing downward spiral in defence expenditure. It is necessary to seek to remedy those deficiencies over a period of years. I do not feel guilty about what the Government have done on defence. In fact, I could deliver a strong eulogy on that score, but the 352 Defence Committee is critical because it is not our job to deliver eulogies to any Government; certainly the last Committee did not deliver eulogies to the Government of the day, and the tradition is being continued.
Although the document in question is not "Gone with the Wind" in terms of length, being a rather brief introduction to a complex problem, I welcome it. I also welcome today's debate and the review of the strategic defence review. Of course, it is a review of only a small part of the SDR and will take the form of a new chapter. There will be no significant evaluation of the rest of the SDR.
§ Syd Rapson
I intervene with trepidation, but we must be fair. The implication from the Conservative Front Bench was that more must be spent on defence; all that was said about lack of facilities implied that more expenditure was necessary. What we did not hear—perhaps my right hon. Friend can pursue this point—was how much the Conservatives expected to have to spend on defence. It would be useful to know that.
§ Mr. George
I do not want to project my thinking too far into the future by predicting what Tory Government might do about defence and defence expenditure. None the less, I do not wish to keep the Minister in suspense with regard to my conclusions. I welcome the small increase in defence spending that we saw two years ago. In fact, the announcement was made on board a frigate near Sierra Leone by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when I accompanied him on a visit to that troubled country. However, that increase should be just the beginning. One of the conclusions of the Defence Committee's report on the SDR was that it would be almost impossible—quite a charitable assessment—for all the Government's intentions to be achieved on the basis of the projected budget.
On 10 September, I would have argued—indeed, I did so—that the budget was overstretched. The events of 11 September will impose further demands on additional activities to be undertaken not only by the armed forces, but by intelligence, the police, local authorities, ambulance services and a range of other statutory authorities. The idea that the existing budget or an incrementally increased one could somehow sustain those additional functions is a fallacy. I hope that that idea will not be espoused and that Ministers will resist it. Indeed, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is already banging on the Treasury door yet again and saying that a substantial increase is needed.
If the Prime Minister wants British forces to play as significant a role in future as they do now, there is no way in which our armed forces can respond without a considerable increase in spending. If that is not forthcoming, we must adjust to the fact that we will slip down further and perform as inadequately as some of our European partners. The opportunity exists for the good work to be continued. The need is there, and the threat is more than there. Our armed forces desire, expect and should receive more money: that is certainly clear to me.
§ Mr. David Laws (Yeovil)
As the right hon. Gentleman probably knows, it is likely that the comprehensive spending review bid will have to go to the 353 Treasury some time next week. What would be his advice to the Secretary of State about the scale of the increase in the defence budget that is now necessary?
§ Mr. George
I cannot give a figure, but I trust that it would be a minimum of 0.5 per cent., which would bring the level up to 3 per cent. I will not even begin to discuss the difference between our defence expenditure and that of the United States, which of course we cannot match. I hope that when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke about Britain being in a different division, he was not subliminally indicating what might happen to his local football club, Derby County, which is very likely to end up in a different division. I hope that my local team will not do so. Anyway, I think that the figure will be around 3 per cent. It should not be beyond the Treasury's capability to grant that amount—and, as I said, we are talking not only about the Ministry of Defence, but about intelligence services, police forces and local authorities, which are largely responsible for emergency planning.
Mention was made of our report "Threat from Terrorism". What happened on 11 September was clearly very different from the terrorist acts of the past. It was appalling in terms of its scale and the evident determination to inflict mass casualties among innocent civilians—an appalling example, but regrettably neither the first nor, I suspect, the last. There is a danger that a new benchmark of horror has been established. We must provide not only a deterrent, but also the capability to respond. Perhaps, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) suggested, we should make a bit more effort to deal with the causes of terrorism, but we should not think that that will necessarily eliminate the problem.
We have, in fact, a broad agenda. The Select Committee—I am pleased to note that many of its members are present—has a strenuous programme. We were in Washington recently, a punishing experience but a valuable one, as my colleagues will testify. On 18 December we produced our report on the threat from terrorism, and we are undertaking a major series of inquiries into defence and security in the United Kingdom, the new chapter in the SDR, missile defence, the future of NATO, European security and many other issues. Our numerous inquiries deal with much of what is in the document that we are discussing now.
The Secretary of State told us that the new chapter demonstrateshow seriously we take the views of this Committee, even though it may take longer than perhaps you would like to get around to dealing with the points you raise.I hope that the new chapter will take the Committee's points on board; after all, its judgments stood the test of time rather better than those that the MOD made in its original SDR. Before a new chapter can be considered, however, it is necessary to look at the old chapters. The Government's SDR and also the Defence Committee's review must be revisited. The Committee criticised the Government's review on the ground that it did not take asymmetric threats seriously enough. We said:We are not convinced that the SDR process has initiated this interdepartmental discussion on how to respond to asymmetric threats on a consistent basis.354 We also said—rather prophetically, given that this was 1998—A terrorist attack could, conceivably, give rise to an Article 5 commitment for NATO… Any approach to the UK's security which tries to do justice to the challenges posed by the more asymmetric nature of modern conflicts must consider the UK's external resources as a whole and judge how the military instrument can maximise its comparative advantages and achieve the greatest effect when used in combination with other instruments of policy..
We said, very seriously, that in the SDR the Government were considering expeditionary warfare and were not paying sufficient attention to a threat of which they should have been aware—the threat to the United Kingdom's home base.
Our Committee said:The SDR may … be too led by foreign policy and the commitment to the UK being a force for good in the world",which is important. We continued:We welcome the Strategic Defence Initiative, but we are still awaiting the strategic security review.We pleaded for such a review. Perhaps 11 September has precipitated what we called for four years ago. We said:We cannot afford to allow the SDR to be a one-off experiment in inter-departmental co-operation. The process of developing a government-wide security policy must go on.The Government produced a consultative document on contingency planning before 11 September. I could find not one reference in it to the Ministry of Defence, which shows that its focus was too narrow. We emphasised the many threats that will be faced. The idea expressed by the Government that there is no serious threat to the UK home base proved, at best, premature. We concluded that missile defence was not a subject of consideration in the SDR. It is certainly being considered now.
I suppose our most critical comments related to the cuts in the Territorial Army infantry, engineers and yeomanry, which we said were "shortsighted". Cuts have been made to the TA over many years; they did not begin in 1997. We said:The TA are still a valuable resource as long term insurance against the unexpected, and re-roling should be considered before cuts…In an asymmetric contest it is quite possible that, in addition to other 'asymmetric weapons', the UK homeland could be targeted by terrorist action designed to disrupt civil society directly, using high technology instruments such as chemical and biological agents, electronic attacks on computers and command and control systems, and attacks on major public utilities. The SDR does not address the capacity to deal with such a threat, especially at a time when our regular forces are already fully committed.The point I make not too brutally—I am pulling the leg of a Minister, whom I admire greatly—is that before the Government start spending too much time on a new chapter, perhaps they could do us the courtesy of looking more seriously at our report on the SDR four years ago, which examined many of the items that are now under discussion.
I am deeply dissatisfied with the way in which the reserves have declined in importance. We said in our report that we welcomed the openness to reassessing the role of the reserves. Their role is now being reassessed.
I hope that the reserves and the TA will not be used just to trickle-feed the regular forces. I have always hoped that the time would come when an infantry battalion such as the 3rd Battalion of the former Staffordshire Regiment was used collectively, rather than single individuals going off to support the regular forces. That is very important. 355 Will they b e used any differently as a result of 11 September? Of course they will. If they are used in a crisis to defend a nuclear power establishment or Heathrow airport, they will not just be there for reassurance; they will perform a function of deterrence.
There is a role for the TA in guarding the many key military and economic sites in this country, but I would not want a person, man or woman, to join the TA thinking that its members were becoming armed security guards. If that is the Government's intention, other people would be prepared to do that for the money available, which would certainly be more than what the TA would get. The TA could perform that role, but it must be combined with other important roles.
I hope that people will join the TA in greater numbers than they have so far, but not to provide a supermilitary home service whose terms of responsibility are confined to a travel-to-work area. As I said some years ago, slightly changing the famous military song in the reign of Queen Anne, "Queen Anne commands and we obey, over the hills and as far away as Wolverhampton." We do not think that the purpose of joining the TA should be to extend one's vision from Walsall to Wolverhampton, or the other way round. There are many tasks that the TA could perform. I hope that that is given serious consideration.
The MOD mocked us when we compared our reserves to the United States National Guard and said that perhaps we should move a little closer to the National Guard model. We were pooh-poohed and dismissed.
One of the many things that worries me is how to ensure that if there is a major incident, the right people with the right skills are first on the scene. I am not referring to flooding, although that is serious, but an incident the like of which we have not even contemplated for the past 20 years, such as a nuclear, chemical or biological attack in a city outside London.
With a conventional bomb or an accident such as a tube crash the right people are the police, the paramedics and the fire service. The forensic experts come later to analyse what specific explosives were used. However, if there is a risk that the incident involves chemical or biological agents, it is essential that the first people to respond include specialists who can identify what agents may have been used and therefore what protective measures must be taken. Special clothing or breathing apparatus may be needed and the local area may need to be evacuated. The scale of the operation will depend not only on the potency of the agent, but on how it was dispersed and the prevailing wind speed and direction.
I doubt whether that work can be done by local authority officials, but it could be done by regular forces, if they are around. The Secretary of State mentioned the importance of the footprint of the Territorial Army. That footprint has got rather more sparse since the SDR began to be implemented. I hope that serious consideration is given to specialists trained in the TA undertaking that function, and to the need for qualified personnel to get to a disaster or emergency scene quickly once it has been confirmed that there is no threat from chemical or biological agents. I cannot think of any group that could provide more numbers, competence and bravery than the TA.
The discussion paper on the new chapter for the SDR, which was published this morning, asked whether there were additional or enhanced roles for the TA and the 356 reserves. The original SDR took expertise in nuclear, chemical and biological attacks away from the reserves and concentrated it in a regular unit whose function is the protection of deployed forces, who may be 1,000, 2,000 or 5,000 miles away. However, to quote the discussion paper, the reserves'wider geographical spread across the UKmay suggest that leaving the reserves without an NBC capability is another SDR decision that should be reconsidered.
I repeat what I said earlier. As a result of the ending of the cold war, naturally the defence budget has declined. I do not think that anyone would argue that defence spending should be at cold war levels: 5 to 5.5 per cent. of gross domestic product. In those euphoric years following the end of the cold war, many argued that an era of peace was about to emerge.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth
The Liberal Democrats asked the right hon. Gentleman, the Chairman of the Committee, how much extra should be spent and he has just suggested that resuming cold war expenditure is not appropriate. Given the phenomenal risk not just to our country, but to western society, exposed by events in New York, surely we should consider a serious increase if we are to give our people the protection that they seek and deserve.
§ Mr. George
Absolutely, but a 0.5 per cent. increase would take us substantially above the level projected by the Conservative Government. If the threat is so severe, one must argue that we should spend the amount commensurate with it. Even 3 per cent. in the short term may be inadequate. I was asked a question and I do not want to duck it. A not insubstantial increase is desirable, but it must be—
§ Mr. George
I am sorry, but Mr. Deputy Speaker will shortly cast his eye on me and the clock, so I dare not continue for much longer.
The figure that I gave is worthy of consideration, but, following 11 September, the House, the Secretary of State for Defence and other Secretaries of State must seriously analyse their responsibilities. No doubt the Government and the Defence Committee will recommend that the Department and this country's armed forces—Army, Navy and Air Force; regulars, the Territorial Army and reservists—play an enhanced role, but chronic departmentalism is a curse on the fight against the threat of terrorism and the emergencies of recent years. The matter is not only for the MOD.
It remains to be determined whether the structure is ideal, but the Cabinet unit that has been established must consider matters across the board, not as hitherto in terms of lead Departments with others not particularly interested or possibly subversive. These issues must be dealt with on a cross-departmental basis that involves all the structures of international, national, regional and local bodies.
In one, two or five years, the threat may have vanished, but I doubt it. The day after the bomb attacks in Washington, New York and Pennsylvania, I was about to go through security in my car when somebody 15 vehicles behind tooted their horn. I was told that one of our 357 colleagues was irritated by how long it was taking him or her to get through. The disaster of 11 September is not the only one that will occur. Nothing remotely similar has happened since, but that is due to luck, the action taken by the United States and others, good policing and good intelligence.
The House can be certain that organisations and individuals currently lying low are preparing for a repeat performance. Other organisations may consider what happened to be the baseline for their activities, because one that kills 1,000 or 2,000 people will be unfavourably compared to al-Qaeda, which killed 3,000. I am sure that private individuals and groups have nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, so, although I do not want to be alarmist, we should consider the possibility of a threat to 30,000 people or more. Reacting to that does not mean merely tinkering with existing structures.
Although people may be irritated by airport delays, higher air ticket prices or tax increases caused by enhanced security measures, the Government must keep a sense of balance, as the Secretary of State said. However, "keeping a balance" must not suggest that we will not go too far or that some people are upgrading the threat for their own political purposes. We are in a dangerous world, and there is a threat to the United States and to this country and many others. We can only minimise the risk—it can never be eliminated—by mobilising the Government, the public and the private sector in any way we can to reduce the possibility of an attack such as that on Washington.
The MOD will play a pivotal role in that, as will our armed forces. Although we are focusing on that this afternoon, let us be certain that the MOD is but one cog in a much larger wheel. I hope that the Home Secretary and other Secretaries of State will also initiate a discussion on the role of their Departments and what they need to do, because the reaction must be more than departmental. We must synthesise departmental efforts. Unless we create a governmental approach, I am afraid that the additional resources that I hope will be made available will be badly distributed and badly spent.
§ Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)
It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the Chairman of the Select Committee, who always speaks with great passion, determination and sense. The debate is interesting and I enjoyed the contribution of the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne). Later, I shall refer to a point that he raised.
I associate myself with the Secretary of State's tribute to our armed forces, which are a force for good. We see them on visits in this country and abroad. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge), who cannot be present, was recently in Sierra Leone, and she wants to express to the Government the admiration of people there for the work being done. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), who is with the Foreign Secretary in Kabul today, will also see our armed forces at work. They are highly trained for intensive combat, dispensing aid, peacekeeping and peace enforcing. They are a credit to us all.
The talk of specialisation for some of our forces is slightly worrying. It is right that they should be able to perform the tasks specific to them, but the loss of their 358 astonishing all-round training may represent an enormous risk. Our defence forces' primary concern is protecting our nation, but, beyond that, their posture should be clearly foreign policy-led. The document produced for the forthcoming Liberal Democrat conference in Manchester makes that clear.
We have also said:In the 21st century even the most powerful of nations cannot guarantee its security in isolation.Britain's defence policy must be flexible enough to respond to changes in the international strategic environment and yet underpinned by doctrines that allow for procurement decisions to be taken for equipment and related services that will be in use for decades to come.Our armed forces should be configured to give decision-makers the widest possible freedom of action when responding to challenges to national security or international stability. Defence planners must look at developing global trends that will affect international stability and their impact on the scale and structure of national armed forces and alliance structuresin which we are involved.
Our posture should be led by foreign policy, but more difficult to predict and plan for are the shock events that change the international environment and require the remodelling of international security structures. Such events might include the sudden unravelling of the Soviet empire and the end of the cold war, which transformed Europe and, consequently, the context for British security. Another example would be the terrorist attacks of September 2001, which required the reassessment of international capability. Events such as those mean that we must be capable of flexibility.
Rather than simply withdrawing our troops from the vital work that they do, we must reassess the structure of our armed forces for a new era. Before 11 September, the SDR provided a blueprint for a modern force with which almost all hon. Members agreed. However, I believe that the principles that underlay the SDR remain compelling, even after 11 September.
I pay tribute to the international security assistance force that has gone into Afghanistan. Liberal Democrat Members supported the Ministry's decision to send troops to Afghanistan, and we support the British lead in that force. However, the initial three-month period of British lead may be extended and the Turkish commitment has not yet been guaranteed. That is a matter for concern.
We believe that sending in a force such as ISAF requires us to be prepared to get the job done. Opposition Members should not complain about mission creep. British troops should be able to get home and spend time with their families, but that does not preclude them from fulfilling the peacekeeping duties that they perform so well. If we must maintain the British lead and involvement in ISAF beyond three months, Liberal Democrat Members will understand that, and support it.
It would be unwise to throw away or prejudice the success that we are achieving in Kabul by walking away. We must remember that ISAF operates under a UN mandate. It is for the Security Council, in consultation with the Interim Administration in Afghanistan, to consider stretching the mandate beyond six months, or undertaking a wider deployment beyond Kabul. However, such matters must be considered completely separately from the UK's involvement in ISAF. I repeat that ISAF must be made to work.
359 If we are to perform that role around the world, we must do so in conjunction with the UN, NATO, and Europe. There are flaws in the mechanism of pan-European defence, but that does not mean that we should discontinue the entire process. There is a vast European force, and it would be foolish and stubborn not to tap into it. If our allies can assist in deployment from Europe and help with international peacekeeping, it would be foolish for us to withdraw from that principle.
In the same way, I am committed to the principle that we can buy in bulk from the European Community, and that in so doing we can save money and create jobs. The system of pan-European procurement is complex and flawed, but we must not run away from the prospect. We must work to iron out the flaws and to develop closer co-operation to see how we can work more effectively together. If we can do that, we can save money, procure more smartly, create more jobs and begin to ease overstretch. To shun those possibilities would be foolish.
The Secretary of State has conceded that the British armed forces are stretched and operating at the limit of their capabilities. What is certain is that an ever-changing world is placing ever-increasing demands on our armed forces. It is a world in which our forces must be able to move at lightning speed, both in and out of conflicts.
We now have a modern expeditionary Army but, as the Secretary of State has conceded, our armed forces are stretched to their limits. The hon. Member for New Forest, West made some interesting points about the Army that we now have. When I talk to units lower down the order of battle, so to speak, I encounter concern that we are developing what amounts to a two-tier Army.
The forces that we use in conflict—the Paras, the Marines and the special forces—are the ones that undertake what might be called the sexy missions. There is no doubt that they are overstretched, but other units do not get their fair share of the sexy missions. Some of those units are beginning to be underused, and to feel undervalued.
Some 27 per cent. of the Army was committed to operations in January 2002. That is a vast improvement on the 44 per cent. committed at the height of the Kosovo campaign. However, the shortfall in trained strength means that some units more than others are bearing the brunt.
The SDR concluded that, for the Army, the optimum interval between tours should be at least 24 months, for operational effectiveness and retention. For the Parachute Regiment in 2000–01, however, the interval was only 18 months. for some units, such as field hospitals, the interval is down to just 12 months.
Ministers claim that, across the armed forces, the interval between tours is 30 months. However, for our special and elite forces and for other specialist units, the interval is far too short. There is therefore a danger that our armed forces will exist in two tiers—one overstretched, and one with morale problems because its personnel feel that they are not being used enough. For the members of some of those units, twiddling their thumbs can be just as demoralising as having to go from one operation to another.
The first way in which we must address the problem of overstretch is to look at its root cause, which we believe to be recruitment and, more especially, retention. We need 360 the right number and type of forces, and we must eliminate the shortfalls that exist in several areas. All hon. Members know about the shortage of pilots, which has been mentioned in the debate already. However, other shortfalls exist in mechanics, the defence medical services and elsewhere. We must have a coherent recruitment strategy.
The Government claim that their recruitment strategy is working. If so, they should be congratulated. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell)—who, sadly, cannot be present today—claimed earlier this week at Defence questions that the strategy was not working. If that is so, new policies must be introduced.
The pay increase proposed by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body of 3.7 per cent. was welcome. Ministers have claimed that the costs involved can be met within the current budget, but I fear that they cannot. We should also ensure that our forces have access to retraining, and that military qualifications are recognised in civilian life. In addition, we must provide our forces with higher-quality unaccompanied and family quarters.
Our armed forces personnel staff our most precious public service, and they are also the most important bit of kit that we have. The hon. Member for New Forest, West referred to statistics uncovered by Liberal Democrat Members showing that the pressure exerted on married life by service in the armed forces has caused a dramatic fall of 22 per cent. in the number of married armed forces personnel since Labour came to power. That compares with a fall of only 8 per cent. in overall strength. Given the severe recruitment problems that the forces are suffering, we cannot afford to lose those highly trained, experienced, mature and stable married members of our armed forces.
Why is a marriage in the Navy or the RAF twice as likely to break down as an Army marriage? In 2000– 01, the proportional change from married to other status in the Army was 1.8 per cent. That compares with 3.4 per cent. in the RAF, and 3.5 per cent. in the Navy. The disparity between the forces must be investigated. If best practice exists in the Army, it should be spread to the other forces.
I do not suggest that there should be marriage guidance counsellors on every base, but sensitivity to the concerns of families and partners is imperative for recruitment and retention.
§ Patrick Mercer
Might not it be significant that the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy have settled family policies? Largely, families in those services live in one set of quarters for a lengthy period. In contrast, Army families tend to follow the drum. Although we all welcome the increase in pay recommended by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, does the hon. Gentleman agree that we are yet to hear about the increases in accommodation charges that are bound to follow?
§ Mr. Keetch
The hon. and gallant Member makes a crucial point. However, although I may not have explained it properly, my point was that more marriages break up in the Navy and the Royal Air Force than in the 361 Army. Your point, which is absolutely right, makes that disparity even more surprising. As you rightly say, one would expect that marriage break-ups—
§ Mr. Keetch
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
It is not just the nature of war that has changed over the course of the 20th century, but the nature of our society. Our armed forces are primarily made up of young people. I was privileged to visit the London university royal naval unit the other night. Some 50 young men and women in their first, second or third year at the university are going through the URNU course. Although one or two of them might join another service, about 20 per cent. will join the Royal Navy. It was interesting to talk to them and find out why they wanted to join the Navy, and what they expected of the service.
Almost without exception, those young men and women wanted to enter the service for a relatively short period. They did not see themselves staying in the service for as long as many of us might have expected. Other people were interested in the Royal Navy and prepared to spend time with URNU but not to join any of the services because they did not like the effect that they expected service life to have on their family life. Those young men and women had spent time at sea with the regular Navy and had spoken to people in the service but they were voting with their feet.
Those people are not distinct from the rest of society. Their values are those of the modern world. The House must be cautious about disregarding their values. We must not believe that things were better in the old days and that policies that worked when some of us served in the armed forces will work at present. That is not always so. When President Bush announced his substantial increase in defence spending, I was interested in the fact that a large part of it was devoted to family issues—pay, quarters and retention. It was not all about smart weapons, but about making sure that US forces were treated properly.
The Ministry of Defence must reflect on—and reflect—the modern world in which we live. All too often, we fail in that task. We must look after our armed service personnel. Armed forces pensions are a source of serious concern. Will they be fully funded? My question relates not only to the recent problems with tax deductions—I sincerely hope that they will be funded by the Treasury and not by the MOD—but to what is often regarded as the MOD's penny-pinching attitude. That has to stop.
We need minimum welfare standards on every base and they must be adhered to. We must have a service families charter, requiring delivery of standardised welfare services with annual reporting mechanisms. There should be a family officer on every base. There should be a review of the support offered to the forces family welfare organisations.
Much has been said about the Territorial Army and its home-guard role. I have enormous sympathy with the comments of the Chairman of the Select Committee. Will people want to join the TA if it is merely to be some type of home guard? I suspect that they will not. The principle behind the suggestion is reasonable, but we must ensure that homeland security amounts to more than sentry duty. The TA could be trained to deal with terrorist attacks and 362 other civil emergencies. However, we must also maintain its specialist capabilities such as intelligence gathering, medical services and signalling.
We need a more co-ordinated strategy for our TA whereby we know the number of reservists who can be called up, rather than finding that only half of those called up are ready to be deployed. We need a co-ordinated, countrywide strategy to investigate where the addition of armed personnel would augment current security planning. That may not require enormous extra resources and might indeed save resources in other Departments, such as the Home Office. The TA could fulfil that role.
The SDR stressed the importance of flexible mobile forces. The new chapter repeats that. Under the SDR, the armed forces are expeditionary—able to move quickly and efficiently. We need procurement that is smart enough to give them the right equipment at the right price and the right time. I am deeply concerned that that will not happen with one procurement issue: the A400M.
I am a great believer in the project. I hope that it will work, but will the Minister of State answer these questions when he replies to the debate? Has the ability of the RAF to lease the four C17s been extended by two years as we have been told? Have negotiations been held with Boeing on leasing more C17s or indeed on purchasing the ones that we lease already? On what date will our ageing Hercules fleet cease to be significantly useful? Is he confident that the A400M will be ready to fill the gap? If he is not confident of that—whatever the reason—he should ensure that there will be aircraft to replace the Hercules fleet.
My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) asked the Chairman of the Select Committee a question about finance. The Secretary of State seems already to have fired his opening shots in the comprehensive spending review and if my hon. Friend, who serves on the Select Committee on the Treasury, catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will come back to that point. The Chairman of the Select Committee believes that an increase of 0.5 per cent. of gross domestic product is necessary. That would add between £ 4 billion and £ 5 billion to our defence budget, significantly increasing it above the rate of growth in the economy. If the right hon. Gentleman expects the Government to award that amount and will not be satisfied unless they do, there will be a significant increase.
Will the Secretary of State obtain that amount? Some people have talked about £1 billion. If the right hon. Gentleman does not obtain a significant increase, will we see tanks rolling from the MOD to the Treasury demanding funds before they roll into action elsewhere? Will the Minister tell us what amount is needed in the defence budget to enable our forces to operate not at the limits of their capacity—as the Secretary of State says—but within it?
The Government will soon have to take some difficult decisions. The provision of adequate resources for the defence of our citizens is the major responsibility of any Government. There is evidence that the programme outlined in the SDR may be unsustainable without an upward adjustment in defence expenditure or a reduction in capability. The efficiency targets of about 3 per cent. a year, which have been an annual feature of defence planning for more than a decade, will have to go. They are becoming progressively more difficult to achieve without reducing capability.
363 Schemes for a more rationalised approach to defence have offered economies. The outsourcing of defence activities has reduced costs. A series of initiatives have attempted to reduce the cost of equipment procurement. If the Government decide against real-terms rises in defence spending at the next CSR, they will have to initiate a future equipment programme, within an affordable cost profile, so as to meet the security challenges that we have heard about today.
We all agree that the MOD must adapt to a changing world. It must be prepared for substantial change; for example, there has been discussion in the media about the role of the main battle tank. Maintaining defence spending in real terms results in capability reductions each year unless clear savings are made through procurement. Will the Minister tell us whether—if he does not receive a boost in funding—he is considering reducing our main battle tank capability? Is he even considering not ordering as many Eurofighters?
A modern defence policy can involve modernising our defence capabilities. If the changes are for the benefit of our armed forces and of our nation, the Liberal Democrats will offer the Government our full support. If the changes do not offer those benefits, we shall oppose them. One thing is certain: our nation will face a threat at some time in the future—the problem is that we do not know where, when, how or why. It is the responsibility of the Government to ensure that, when that threat materialises, we are ready.
§ Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) who made several interesting points that were well worth listening to and studying. However, I want to caution him about one point as regards language. He equated war and killing with "sexy missions". That is an inappropriate attitude and it should not be encouraged.
The events of 11 September were a tragedy on an enormous—perhaps incomprehensible—scale. The culture of any country subjected to such an attack in peacetime would be jolted and shocked. Having suffered those appalling attacks, the United States Government took several significant decisions about their future defence policy. Those decisions will have major repercussions for Britain and the rest of the world.
The Americans feel vulnerable and they want to show signs of strength to make themselves feel more secure. However, it is a symptom of underlying weakness if the answer is to threaten all and sundry. One could also argue that many terrorists will feel a sense of victory that they have so rattled the American Government. I would not want to give such vicious thugs any sense of victory.
The increase in defence expenditure proposed by President Bush means that the United States will be spending more than the 15 next-largest defence expenditures combined. But that money is oddly spent. For example, the Americans can find funds to build a new dispenser for their cluster bombs, but not to design a new bomblet that will self-destruct or make it self safe if it does not explode on impact with the ground. The faulty bomblets become land mines in all but name so their use is morally reprehensible, yet the Americans do not find that a priority for funding.
364 The increased defence expenditure is paralleled by a new sense of US unilateral action. At present, Britain is America's strongest ally, but we should be careful as regards the extent to which we are willing to support America. The press is full of reports that the US plans a large-scale attack on Iraq. That would be an awful mistake and make the region less stable. It would also create grievance to an extent that could foster future terrorism. The Americans are also pressing ahead with national missile defence, a scheme that will eventually require British bases. The British Government should resist the temptation to approve the use of those bases, as NMD is likely to make the world less safe, not more so.
The US has also taken unilateral action on arms control—action that has undermined multilateral efforts. Controls on small arms and biological weapons have been weakened by American policies. Although arms control is not the whole solution to many of the problems, it is one of the most flexible tools available for promoting international security. It also sets international standards of behaviour. Without those standards, how do we assess what is right and wrong?
I do not say any of this out of a sense of anti-Americanism. Aside from the problems with certain weapons and tactics, the Americans have performed a valuable role in Kosovo and in Afghanistan, although I wish that they would do more for the humanitarian reconstruction there now. However, I have always regarded the fight against terrorism as having only a small military component. The major work has to be political and legal, including work to secure a peaceful, just outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and an international crackdown on money laundering and corruption. On the latter, Britain, with its connections with overseas territories and its wide range of trading partners, can play a key role.
More important, the Ministry of Defence can play an important part. There is an official British report that is reputed to include details of corrupt handling of funds in the biggest arms deal in which Britain has ever been involved. That report has been kept secret, one excuse being that the Ministry of Defence would want to keep it so. Perhaps it is time for the MOD to declare that it is happy for the report to be published.
That report was written by officials in the National Audit Office in 1992 and has remained secret ever since. It is said to be critical of the way in which commissions and kickbacks were paid as part of the Al Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Coincidentally, John Bourn became head of the Audit Office at about the same time—having just moved from the MOD, where his responsibilities included the Al Yamamah deal. I understand that it was Mr. Bourn's decision to keep that report secret. I do not allege any wrongdoing on his part as an individual, but I fear that that does reveal a conflict of interest.
Al Yamamah is said to have made many unnamed individuals in Saudi Arabia very rich. It is also said that many unnamed individuals in Saudi Arabia have given substantial funds to support bin Laden. I cannot prove that there is any overlap between these two groups of unnamed individuals, but that is due in part to the excessive secrecy surrounding that arms deal. Some people have asked why, given that the report has been secret for so long, it should 365 be released now. I would reply, "Because the truth deserves it, and because a Labour Government should not be covering up the Tories' dirty work."
I cheered at the news that the United States had declared Taliban captives in Afghanistan prisoners of war. Then it was soured for me by the insistence that that would not apply to the al-Qaeda captives. If it is deemed that they are a criminal gang, proper law should apply, with accepted legal rights afforded, and with transparent, fair trials. But the military action was proclaimed loudly as a war on terrorism, so I consider that the captives should be deemed prisoners of war and treated accordingly, with transparent custody arrangements in line with internationally accepted norms—in this case, the Geneva convention. In both cases, there should be proper prison arrangements without humiliating and degrading treatment or torture, and international inspection should be allowed.
In recent conflicts, the United States and the United Kingdom have not declared their military actions to be wars; indeed, they have specifically claimed that they are not wars. That claim, combined with the refusal of the United States to treat al-Qaeda captives as prisoners of war, has dangerous implications. UK and US troops in current or future undeclared wars, if captured, may not be afforded prisoner of war status and treated decently, and the current US precedent in Cuba could be cited.
I wish to make some points on defence costs. First, the fact that the United States is dramatically increasing defence spending does not mean that we should automatically follow suit. The last time that the US combined tax cuts with defence rises, under President Reagan, it went from being the biggest creditor nation in the world to being the biggest debtor nation in double-quick time. We should not follow that "going broke" route. Secondly, we should not indirectly subsidise the United States' NMD programme and its break with important arms control treaties by allowing it to shift some of its military objectives, which may not be our priorities, on to us.
Thirdly, the defence gap between the United Kingdom and the United States is now so huge that it can never be filled. Our defence spending comparator should be with other countries, not with the United States. Fourthly, with the ending of the cold war, and friendship with a far less military Russia, the "threat" is simply not there to justify spending on such a vast scale. Fifthly, we should not take part in a defence increases competition that triggers a new arms race.
I do favour defence increases in some specific areas, such as all-weather planes and equipment, better refuelling facilities, and more precision-guided weaponry as part of a process for ending the use of cluster bombs, but those increases must be justified, not generalised; otherwise—the public would say this too—the money is better spent on the national health service.
§ Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire)
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not follow him precisely, because although I always listen to him with deep affection, it is usually with deep disagreement as well. I did agree with some things that he said; I shall mention them later.
The Secretary of State had many interesting things to say about the future of the armed forces. We shall applaud some of what he says and we shall listen with critical 366 interest to many of the other things, but now that I am no longer on the Front Bench, and this is by way of being a sort of maiden speech, I can speak freely, without committing my party, on a view that I have increasingly held in recent years. That view is as follows.
As the Secretary of State said, the end of the cold war encouraged us to take what was called the peace dividend. Essentially, that meant spending less on the armed forces because the threat had reduced. In fact, the threat had changed, but in a way that should have encouraged us to spend not less but more on the armed forces, because while the cold war continued, it allowed us to rely very heavily on the highly cost-effective deterrent of nuclear missiles. The end of the cold war made it increasingly unlikely that we or anyone could rely heavily on that. If a nuclear bomb goes off in London tomorrow, does anyone seriously imagine that we will immediately press the button? That would not happen without a great deal of thought and hesitation. After all, at whom would we aim the weapons? I am not suggesting that we should get rid of our nuclear weapons, but it is obvious that they no longer work as the all-purpose deterrent that they once were.
We need to rebuild our reliance on conventional forces. That means spending lots more money. We need to pay our armed forces lots more so that they can recruit and retain more personnel and buy better and more modern equipment, if only so that we can operate with the United States. The world is not safer as a consequence of the end of the cold war; it is less certain and more dangerous. The west is not reacting to that danger, with the noble exception of the US, in the right way. Instead, we are reacting in precisely the wrong way. Although the Secretary of State had many interesting things to say about the armed forces, none of what he said matters while we give the defence of our country and our values such a low priority in spending terms.
I want to devote the rest of my contribution to the treatment of our armed forces as exemplified by the 1994 Chinook crash. A dark cloud hangs over the credibility of the Ministry of Defence as a result of its handling of that crash, and that will affect recruitment, retention and morale. I remind the House that because the pilots died and were unable to defend themselves, RAF rules required that they could not be found negligent unless there was absolutely no doubt whatever.
In July 1995, I became Minister of State, and in a debate on the RAF on 6 February 1997 I defended the decision by the RAF board of inquiry that the pilots had been grossly negligent. I have since discovered, to my considerable shame, that I was wrong to have done so. I have apologised to the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill), who campaigned on the issue, and I repeat that apology to the House. A more important consideration, however, is that the Secretary of State for Defence at the time of the crash, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, has also seen the new evidence and has called for the verdict to be set aside.
The 1996 fatal accident inquiry in Scotland, working on the basis of a standard of proof much easier to satisfy—the balance of probabilities—was unable to come to a conclusion about the cause of the accident. In November 2000, the Public Accounts Committee investigated the incident and concluded:The finding of the RAF Board of Inquiry into the crash of Chinook ZD-576 does not satisfy the burden of proof required".367 Last week, after an exhaustive inquiry into the evidence, a Select Committee in another place concluded unanimously:It is not our role to determine the likely cause of this accident, and indeed on the evidence which we have heard and read it would be impossible to do so. We are nevertheless satisfied, on the evidence before us and against the standard of 'absolutely no doubt whatsoever' that the Air Marshals were not justified in finding that negligence on the part of the pilots of ZD 576 caused the crash.So that highly distinguished Committee, including four experienced lawyers—one of them a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary—and an engineer, have decided not just that there is a doubt, but that it is impossible to determine even the likely cause of the accident. One could not ask for a more definitive analysis of the incident than theirs.
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
I know that my hon. Friend strongly disagrees with me, but I give way to him with great pleasure.
§ Mr. Wilkinson
The flying experience of the two air marshals was considerable and was gathered over many years. In the course of their careers, they would have had much experience of bad weather and other difficult circumstances. Members of the Committee in the other place were mainly lawyers and spent their formative lives and careers in different circumstances. I put my money on the air marshals' judgment.
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
My hon. Friend is right, but the station commanders at RAF Aldergrove and RAF Odiham also had many years of flying experience. They were part of the initial investigating board and did not find that the pilots were negligent when judged against the standard of proof required.
What is it that makes the Ministry of Defence, alone in the world, cling stubbornly to its discredited findings? It cannot be that it thinks that changing its mind will make it look bad because it knows perfectly well that the longer it clings to the verdict, the more unfair it looks. I hate it when that Ministry of all Ministries looks foolish. I obviously do not mind the Government looking less than perfect, but I am attached to the Ministry of Defence and it carries the reputation of this country with it.
So what is it that makes the Ministry of Defence stick to the verdict? I will run briefly through its arguments. First, it says that there is nothing new in the other reports. Clearly it is wrong about that. What is "new" for these purposes is what we know now that the board of inquiry did not know then, and on that basis there is much new information. The board of inquiry apparently did not know that there were problems with the full authority digital engine control system—FADEC—and that the Ministry was successfully taking Textron-Lycoming, the manufacturers in the USA, to arbitration. The board apparently did not know that the Boeing simulation that it relied on to tell it what had happened did not model FADEC. According to Tony Cable of the air accidents investigation branch, the Boeing simulation would have had "really quite different characteristics." It apparently did not know that the leading technical aircrew specialist on Chinooks, Squadron Leader Burke, had had recurring 368 experience of engine problems with the Chinook, but he had been ordered—we do not know why—not to take any further part in the investigation, so he did not tell the board of inquiry about it.
All of that is new, but the Ministry of Defence has taken on itself the task of defining what is new, which it takes to exclude everything that I have just mentioned and everything that might make it change its mind. It is beginning to look stubborn and foolish. In any event, the Ministry of Defence's insistence on new evidence is wrong in principle. It is wrong to insist on new evidence or new considerations if that leaves in place a verdict that is manifestly not supported by the old evidence.
So why is the Ministry sticking to the verdict? Its next argument, strongly made over the past few years, is that the pilots should not have been where they were: they were flying too fast and too low for the weather conditions and the terrain. It is the Ministry's view that even if there were problems with the engine or FADEC, had the pilots turned earlier or slowed down or climbed they would have been able to deal with those problems and would not have hit the Mull of Kintyre.
All of that, of course, assumes that the pilots were in control of the aircraft and able to turn, slow down, or climb. The air marshals assert that they were. The Ministry's standard letter says:they should by this time already have chosen an alternative course. But given that they had not done so, they could and should immediately then have either turned away from the Mull or slowed down and climbed to a safe altitude.However, there is no evidence that they could have done that.
The report of the Select Committee in another place tears that theory to pieces. It states:We consider that Sir John's conclusions on this matter must be weakened by his reliance on matters which he treated as facts but which had been demonstrated to our satisfaction to be not facts but merely hypotheses or assumptions.The air marshals had no evidence about the course or speed of the aircraft at any time before the impact, nor of the time of the way-point change or the height of the aircraft at which the change was made.
In other words, we are awash with things we do not know, even now, and the board of inquiry did not know those things, but made the mistake of thinking it did. So in a case where there has to be absolutely no doubt whatever, there is masses of doubt. Even in the early stages, there was so much doubt that the investigating board and the station commanders at RAF Aldergrove and RAF Odiham did not find the pilots negligent.
The doubt is not confined to those matters raised in front of the Select Committee in another place. We do not know, for example, whether either of the pilots was ill. We do not know whether they had a disagreement between themselves about the course to take. There was no cockpit voice recorder and no black box. The fact that there is no evidence of illness or disagreement does not mean that it did not happen. The mistake that the air marshals made is that, because they thought they knew what had probably happened—although we now know that they did not—they translated that into absolutely no doubt whatever.
§ Mr. Joyce
Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can enlighten me about something. My understanding is that, 369 if the weather was bad, the helicopter should have been flying at about 10,000 ft, but it was not; it was flying too low. So regardless of any problems with equipment—FADEC or anything else—the helicopter should have been flying high. If it had a massive problem, it might have plummeted from the sky, but it would not have hit the Mull of Kintyre. That is the crux of the issue, not the technicalities that the right hon. Gentleman and the Select Committee in another place have mentioned. Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on that fact?
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
I am happy to do so. The question of how bad the weather was is crucial to the board of inquiry's finding. Mr. Holbrook, the skipper of the yacht who saw the Chinook flying over and saw sunlight glinting on its side and guessed that it was flying at about 80 or 90 mph, said that he could see bits of the Mull from his yacht. He was asked three questions by the board of inquiry, and it constructed from his brief answers to those questions a view of the weather pattern, which, as the Select Committee report from another place shows, is simply not borne out by what was said then or by what Mr. Holbrook believed. I invite the hon. Gentleman please to read the Select Committee report from another place, which examines the evidence of the weather and what the pilots may or may not have been able to see from the height and at the speed at which we think they may have been flying.
I have just used the word "mistake". The air marshals made a mistake in thinking that they knew things that they did not know. I still believe that that was a mistake. I agree with the Public Accounts Committee report, which stated:We believe that the reviewing officers in the case of ZD576 reached their conclusions in good faith".In fact, I believe that I can even pinpoint where the mistake took place. In paragraph 2 of part 4 of the RAF board of inquiry's findings, Sir John Day says:The Board and the Officer Commanding RAF Odiham postulate various factors and scenarios, including possible distraction or disorientation, in attempting to explain why the crew might have failed to make a safe transition to Instrument Flight Rules. In my judgement, none of the possible factors and scenarios are so strong that they would have been likely to prevent such an experienced crew from maintaining safe flight.But, in using the word "likely", he is applying the wrong test. Because the pilots have died, the proper test is one not of the likelihood, but of having absolutely no doubt whatever. I do not attack or belittle Sir John Day for applying the wrong test—I merely point out that he has done so. He is not legally qualified and he did not have any legal advice.
§ Dr. Julian Lewis
I know that my right hon. Friend is coming to the end of his speech. Before he finishes it, will he comment on the fact that—I believe that I am correct—the RAF has now altered its rules so that, if anything similar were to happen again, deceased pilots could not be blamed in that way? If as a result of this case the RAF has decided that it is an injustice to blame deceased pilots in that way, surely it would only be justice to absolve those pilots?
§ Mr. Arbuthnot
I believe that that is so. My hon. Friend is right to say that the MOD has changed the rules and has decided to leave the attribution of blame for 370 Negligence. to the civil courts, and it is right to have done that. I am aware of no other case in which deceased pilots have been found negligent. This is the only case in which that has happened.
Given that, as a result of the air marshals' remarks, the RAF board of inquiry applied the wrong test, what are we to do? The MOD says that it requires new evidence, but that is wrong. All we need is the new realisation that the old finding is unsafe and always has been because, while an evident injustice remains, to leave it in the records is a dishonourable thing to do. It no longer dishonours the pilots because the world now acknowledges that their reputations have been cleared. They have died in the service of their country, and we can be proud of them. The people whom the present situation dishonours are those who have stubbornly, foolishly and unfairly refused to do the right thing. This issue is never going to go away until it is put right.
§ 4.7 pm
§ Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)
I want to speak about Britain's involvement in the United States national missile defence programme, particularly the work that is going ahead at Fylingdales, the satellite tracking station in Yorkshire, not far from my constituency. Fylingdales is integral to NMD, but I first want to consider the international framework in which Fylingdales operates.
President Bush's state of the union speech set a framework of permanent global military intervention by the United States. That should give us all reason for concern. He said:far from ending"—in Afghanistan—our war against terror is only beginning.It will encompass the whole world. He went on to say that, to handle the terrorist threat, we mustdevelop and deploy effective missile defences to protect America and our allies from sudden attack".
As has been said many times inside and outside the House, even if an NMD system had been in place, it would have contributed absolutely zero to stopping the terrible events of 11 September. The Bush Administration has never explained the logic of connecting 11 September to the star wars programme—quite simply, they are not connected. However, the emotions that that terrible terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre understandably evokes in ordinary Americans have been exploited by the Administration to push through the enormous increase in military spending that developing NMD requires. I shall come to that in a moment. By including North Korea as part of his so-called evil axis, President Bush is blatantly seeking to justify his harmful and destabilising star wars programme.
As many hon. Members are aware, much of Europe has reacted unfavourably to President Bush's speech. There are still considerable reservations worldwide about NMD. Hubert Vedrine, the French Foreign Minister, has described Bush's world view as simplistic and unilateralist, and I agree with him, as does European public opinion, as a growing number of polls in Europe show.
The permanent global intervention that President Bush's speech foreshadows will also include a new and even broader out-of-area role for NATO. It will therefore affect this country directly. Speaking at an international 371 conference in Germany last weekend, the US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said that NATO neededa military transformation agendato developits capacities in counter-terrorism".He also warned European allies that, if America does not get its way on this issue, it is ready to act outside its traditional alliances. He said:The mission must determine the coalition, the coalition must not determine the mission.That is an alarming development.
A report in The Guardian today should also cause us great concern:The Pentagon and the CIA have begun preparations for an assault on Iraq involving up to 200,000 US troops that is likely to be launched later this year with the aim of removing Saddam Hussein from power, US and diplomatic sources told the Guardian yesterday.[Interruption.] I am glad that that prospect draws a cavalier response from Conservative Members. I hope that they will be just as happy if that scenario occurs and there are many deaths as a result. What concerns me is that, in spite of much opposition from the French, the Germans and other European allies, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have refused to join in the public outcry about such blatant warmongering. In fact, a Foreign Office official said yesterday that military action, although not imminent, could happen in "a question of months." A Foreign Office spokesman later added:The prime minister has made it clear from the outset that the campaign would have two phases: the first focusing on Afghanistan and the second looking at different aspects of international terrorism.Will the Minister tell the House whether we will acquiesce in and support such a worldwide extension of warfare?
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth
If the hon. Lady were faced with overwhelming evidence to her satisfaction that countries such as Iraq or Iran not only had the capability to attack this country and her constituents but had every intention of doing so, would she be content to wait until they attacked her constituents, or would she support her Government if they decided to make a pre-emptive strike?
§ Mrs. Mahon
No evidence has ever been produced that Iraq wants to attack this country, although, as a matter of fact, we attack Iraq almost weekly. I shall raise that issue at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Brussels this weekend. If the Americans repeat their desire to extend the military action, the House should have further debates on the matter.
If we are America's best friends—we are the American people's best friends, as we share language and culture—as true friends, we should tell them that the escalation of military action will simply bring about another arms race, which will be devastating for the rest of the world.
I want to refer to the effect of national missile defence on military spending. As we know, the US military budget will climb to $360 billion this year and to $396 billion in 2003. US military spending already accounts for 17.8 per 372 cent. of the Federal budget. By 2003, it is calculated that it will reach more than 30 per cent. in nominal terms—almost a quarter of the total budget in real terms. The United States already spends more than a third of the world's total military expenditure. That is more than the expenditure of the next nine biggest spenders combined and more than three times the amount spent by all its potential enemies. The budget increase is the biggest in military spending in two decades and military spending will rival that at the height of the cold war.
National missile defence accounts for a large chunk of Pentagon spending. A recent report by the Congressional Budget Office puts the cost of such spending at $238 billion over the next 15 years. We all know that such calculations—especially official calculations—are usually notorious for underestimating the eventual real cost. When I consider the poverty and despair in much of the developing world, I believe that such expenditure is an obscenity.
We have heard calls this afternoon for much more military spending. People say that there is no free lunch for Europe or for Britain. The Secretary-General of NATO is already calling for European allies to step up their military spending and he took what the BBC called the "unprecedented step" of declaring 11 September to be an assault on the alliance as a whole. He said that European forces would be unable to operate alongside United States forces unless budgets are massively increased.
I am also worried about the domestic programme. I want to defend our country, but I am not certain that spending billions and billions on star wars is the way to do that. A substantial increase in our budget would knock out our plans to improve health, education and to do something about the transport system. A serious debate about Britain's attitude to missile defence is long overdue. We need to consider the danger that it poses to Britain, which will become a target if we are involved, and the cost.
§ Patrick Mercer
Does the hon. Lady not agree that we are already a target and are extremely vulnerable? We suffered severe casualties on 11 September, albeit not within these shores. If the hon. Lady is content for defence expenditure to increase, in which areas does she want that to happen? More to the point, does she not understand that we must defend ourselves to prevent our hospitals and transport system from being overwhelmed by the number of casualties that the Americans suffered?
§ Mrs. Mahon
I am the product of a family in which every male member fought in the second world war, and with great honour in some cases—I refer particularly to my father—so I must tell the hon. Gentleman that I am in favour of strong defence. I am not in favour of anything that might make us more vulnerable. As I have already said, the attack on the World Trade Centre would not have been prevented by the most sophisticated national missile defence system in the world. Such a system would not prevent suitcase bombs, but diplomacy, conflict resolution, conflict prevention and feeding the starving just might have a chance of getting rid of the militants.
I refer again to Fylingdales and to the lack of parliamentary involvement in what is going on there. As colleagues know, Fylingdales is the missile tracking 373 centre for the northern hemisphere and upgrading the facility is vital to the United States missile defence programme. I am informed by local sources, who are following the matter closely, that work has already begun on upgrading Fylingdales and doing what the Americans want us to do. That is taking place even before Parliament has had an opportunity to discuss the issue.
We know that plans are under way to improve security at the base, because it is known that Government support for national missile defence will generate much more protest than it is at the moment. Because military installations do not need to apply for planning permission, the work is going ahead without the local authority's involvement. There has been far too much silence, secrecy and evasion from those on the Govt Front Bench. It is ridiculous to keep saying that Britain will not adopt an attitude until we are asked.
The Government must come clean, because there is considerable unease among Labour Members and those of other parties. It is high time Parliament was allowed to debate the issue openly and transparently. Already, it is raised almost weekly in meetings of the parliamentary Labour party. The decision to support the Americans on national missile defence is far too important to the peace and stability of the whole world for one or two Ministers—important—and their advisers to take in secret. We should debate it openly. I hope that the Minister will have some answers for us tonight.
§ Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)
There is so much on which I disagree with the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) that I shall not follow the path of her speech. However, I agree entirely that if one is a good friend of another country, one reserves the right to say, "Yes, but." Perhaps that is something that we need to do more often.
I congratulate the former Minister of State for Defence Procurement, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), with whom I was a close colleague at the Ministry of Defence, on a speech that I regard as outstandingly courageous and honourable. I do not think that I have heard anything like it in my 18 years in the House of Commons, and I commend him warmly on it. I do not agree with him on the question of Chinook, but I know that he holds the strongest and most detailed views and has gone into the matter with great clarity. Again, I commend him on his tremendous courage in the presentation of his case, which was not an easy thing to do. I entirely agree with the first part of his speech, about the absolute requirement for us to spend more money on conventional defence and on our armed forces generally.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) on a wonderful speech delivered from the Dispatch Box. After finding that he had to open for the Opposition, he covered himself in glory. It is wonderful to hear such enthusiasm, pleasure and knowledge of the subject. I, too, spent a little time at the school in the Brecon Beacons; I did not enjoy it as much as he did, and I never want to repeat the experience. However, those who met him there will have been thrilled by his enthusiasm.
I wish to pay a handsome tribute to the men and women of our armed forces, and to their long-suffering families who put up with so much. We are truly proud of them, and 374 we are extremely lucky to have such wonderful people. I am not sure that we still deserve them, but we have remarkable armed services. I am glad that this debate is taking place, and I congratulate the Government wholeheartedly on producing "A New Chapter". It is admirable of them to produce a discussion document of that type and to try to persuade more of the general public to take an interest in so fundamental an issue as defence policy.
There is no doubt that the SDR, which was in many ways a useful document, needed an additional chapter in the light of 11 September. Many would say that it needed an additional chapter in any event. It is almost as if the threat had not been properly analysed in the original SDR. We thought that we lived in a largely threatless world. How desperately wrong we were, and how very unprepared. It is extremely difficult to make sense of the threat and to manage it. In military, diplomatic and political terms, there are broad requirements to learn new skills, and a clear need to make new dispositions.
The war on terrorism has made a good start—a brilliantly executed military campaign with a well assembled and broad coalition put together with speed and great skill. Many important lessons will have been learned. However, a great deal remains to be done to track down the terrorist networks. I agree wholly with the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), about the dangers that have to be faced and dealt with that lurk in this country and many others. We cannot pretend that they do not exist. I know that our country, the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office, and all the other agencies are playing an important role using some of our most special assets.
I pay in particular a handsome and generous tribute to our intelligence agencies, to which we owe a great debt, and to the soldiers, sailors and airmen involved in those operations. The Government, we must therefore hope, are constantly redefining the threat assessment as it is today. They must also ensure that our intelligence agencies are fully resourced, clearly and correctly tasked and, most important of all, that they unambiguously co-operate with each other. We need to continue the welcome work being done by the Ministry of Defence of redefining our conclusions as to the size and shape of our armed forces. Above all, our armed forces must be structured and resourced to meet the unpredictable, at short notice, when required.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) is no longer present. He always provided tremendous encouragement to those of us at the Ministry of Defence about the Territorial Army I am not as well informed about the TA as I should be When I was Minister of State for the Armed Forces, we went through some tremendous heart searching about the TA's future. I thought that we had arrived at a sensible and achievable number and role, but subsequently the Labour Government, in the light of the SDR, further substantially diminished the size of the TA, and by so doing gravely affected the TA's stability, its ability to deliver what it needed to deliver and, most important, the size of the already very small military footprint in the country.
Along comes a major new threat, and the TA is likely to be re-roled again. I agree with the right hon. Member for Walsall, South that merely to offer the TA the role of glorified military police is not right. The TA has far more 375 than that to contribute. Where our troops of all three services on deployment would be without the TA, I simply do not know. We need to maintain that good, specialist edge that delivers so much to our services, perhaps at the same time as reviewing whether there might be a category that could be cap-badged or assigned the task of guarding duties.
That would not be unwelcome, and I would be interested to hear the response of the TA and those who know about it. Whatever size the TA arrives at and whatever tasks it is assigned, it needs to be relevant, usable and, above all, fully integrated into the Army's readiness cycle.
§ Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)
As an ex-TA officer, let me make the point that when the Government reduced the TA, the largest cut fell on the infantry battalions—they took a disproportionate hit. Bearing in mind my hon. Friend's comments, might it not be that the infantry battalions, if some of them were restored, would be well suited to playing a role in homeland defence, without taking away from the specialist nature of other elements of the TA?
§ Mr. Soames
My hon. Friend makes an extremely sensible point. I hope that the Minister of State for Defence heard it. It is always the poor bloody infantry who get it in the ear. They got it disgracefully badly under the Conservative Government. In fact, in my time as a sycophantic Back-Bench running-dog lackey of the Conservative Government, the only occasion on which I voted against them was on their decision, under "Options for Change", to cut savagely the number of infantry battalions, to the great disadvantage of the Army ever since. As a former TA officer, my hon. Friend clearly knows a great deal about the subject and his is a sensible idea.
Nothing I have to say reflects in any way on the Minister of State for Defence, and I dislike having to say this, but in my view the Government take the armed forces for granted. It is not possible for the Government to repeat endlessly how much they value the armed forces while simultaneously starving them of financial resources.
My Government had great difficulty in finding money for the armed forces. The Secretary of State will be in an impossible position; he will be in a state of naked, aggressive warfare with the Treasury, which, as I have always said to the right hon. Gentleman and the House, is well known to work for the Russians, and not for us. He will find it extremely difficult to get the money that he needs. We must remember, because we have all forgotten what happened, that we all took it as read that the SDR was a good thing and believed that the Government would fund it as they said they would, but they did not fund it properly. It has never been funded properly.
The most important warning that I can give the Government is that on the now sadly few occasions when I get to meet men and women serving in the armed forces, I feel that they feel that they are being taken for granted and that their quality, efficiency and effectiveness are appreciated only at moments of high drama and great crisis. I think, I am afraid to say, that there is an element of truth in that, although I do not assign responsibility for that to the Minister of State.
376 It all started rather well, but with the relentless, baleful and ignorant pressure from the Treasury, the Government soon reverted to serious underfunding. The consequences are that the armed forces need at least £ 500 million a year extra, without which further cuts will have to be made. I warn the Secretary of State that if undermanning and overstretch continue, not only will there be problems in maintaining the high morale and efficiency of the armed forces, but things will inevitably start to go wrong in the military field, and the Government will not be able to take for granted the effectiveness in the armed forces that is absolutely guaranteed at present. In light of recent events, it would be a great mistake for the Government not fully to fund this priceless and golden national asset.
The money needs to go towards not only filling the gaps, which certainly existed when the Opposition were in power, but dealing with those things that the forces are very good at and which are extremely relevant to the profession of arms and the use of our armed forces at the moment. There are five separate areas: command and mission command, information and intelligence, fightability, sustainability and trainability. Those are all areas in which we need to make significant investment to maintain and further the pre-eminence of the British skill at arms. There are real strengths that need continuously to be developed in light of the new strategic situation.
I endorse the point made by the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) about the two tiers of the armed forces. I cannot tell the Minister of State how damaging it is for high-profile operations always to be carried out by the Royal Marines and the Paras. Every regiment of the line should be capable of undertaking those operations.
If we make any pretence that we will go on spending money on training for high-intensity land battle, it is absolute nonsense if, throughout the training cycle, the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, or any other regiment, comes to the peak of its fitness and operational effectiveness, having finished its medicine man training at the British Army training unit, Suffield, only to find again and again that it is not deemed suitable to undertake one of those operations.
Come an emergency, even a restricted one, such regiments would be shovelled out into the field as quickly as possible. Give them a chance, and let them show that regiments other than the Royal Marines and the Paras, both of which are remarkable and do a wonderful job, could do exactly the same job, given the chance.
Ever since the end of the cold war, NATO has been searching for a new role. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire and I were in the Ministry of Defence at a particularly fascinating time, with the Werner doctrine just coming in and the partnership for peace. We made thrilling visits to countries in eastern Europe which had been free from communist rule for only a few weeks or months. They were longing to learn how to run a proper army and a democratic system, and wanted people to come to the staff college and the Royal College of Defence Studies to take part in military training, so that they could eventually join NATO.
I hope that NATO will expand, but we need to be clear and confident that despite its limitations, which are many, it remains a formidable and hugely successful alliance. Unless it reforms itself, it will cease to be of real military importance and it will be merely politically important. 377 I applaud the work of our former colleague Lord Robertson, who clearly appreciates those difficulties and who must be driven mad by the failure of the defence capabilities initiative.
Many NATO forces are wholly inadequately funded; they are unco-ordinated and unprepared, and they are neither properly trained nor properly equipped. Most continental forces have only the most basic logistics and communications capabilities, and hardly any of them can operate at any distance from home. Few can sustain operations with any credibility, and in almost every respect those forces have to rely almost entirely on the United States for intelligence, strategic support and military muscle.
The really serious military questions have now got to be dealt with, and we must give a lead on that in NATO and elsewhere in Europe. NATO must chuck the rhetoric out of the window and deal with the questions of operational capacity and effectiveness within its force structures. Above all, it must address Europe's shameful dependence on United States forces. We Europeans really must do more and take more responsibility for our own security.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire said, that means seriously increasing defence spending and placing greater emphasis on rapidly deployable and, probably, special forces, intelligence, surveillance and precision weapons. NATO is still crucial to a stable world. It is the only organisation that binds the United States to Europe, and Europe to the United States. There is no need for it to have a collective nervous breakdown; rather, it can take a clear, rational look at what it must do, set out a sensible, pragmatic programme to do it and get on with it.
Finally, and I apologise for speaking for so long, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have on many occasions spoken in defence debates in the House on the question of military ethos. I accept that it is no longer a fashionable subject, but I want to make one serious point in conclusion. There is no other place in British life in which there is so much of human achievement in such small institutions as there is in the British armed forces.
I hope that the Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary and, above all, the Chancellor understand—and I really mean understand—that as Lord Wavell said in his lecture on generalship, in the last resort, the end of all military training, the settling of all policy, the ordering of all weaponry and all that goes into the makings of the armed forces is that the deciding factor in battle is this: sooner or later, Private So-and-so will, of his own free will and in the face of great danger and chaos, have to advance to his front in the face of the enemy. If all that goes wrong, after all the training, the intensive preparation and the provision of equipment and expenditure, the system has failed. But it has never failed in this country; the armed forces have never ever let us down. If the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Secretary of State let them down by failing to pay the debt that they owe them by properly resourcing them now, they will not be forgiven, and our wonderful armed forces will gradually diminish.
378 On 8 October 2001, the Prime Minister, in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), said:We have already made it clear—the Chancellor did so the other day—that the armed forces should have the resources necessary to do the job. It would not be fair or right to ask them to do it without them being properly resourced and they will be."—[Official Report, 8 October 2001; Vol. 372, c. 819.]The Government have not honoured that obligation, and the Prime Minister will be in breach of a fundamental and unconditional undertaking made in the House if he does not see to it that the matter is dealt with.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)
Before I call the next speaker, it is clear that a large number of Members are seeking to catch my eye. I appeal for speeches to be brief so that as many Members as possible can contribute to the debate.
§ Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)
The strategic defence review was foreign policy-led, and it is perfectly proper that the new chapter is foreign policy-led, particularly taking into account the events of 11 September, asymmetric threats, greater security concerns and, perhaps, the greater importance of United Nations peacekeeping and nation-building work.
As has been said, I believe that the first stage of the campaign against terror, our military campaign in Afghanistan, has been substantially successful. I back my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) in saying that whatever our reservations about aspects of the campaign, we must give credit to the United States particularly, but also to our armed forces and intelligence service for the part that they played. However, I am concerned that in the overall campaign against terror, there are a number of ways in which we could still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory; I shall talk about one or two of those.
I said that I wanted to concentrate on the foreign policy lead for defence. I should particularly like to concentrate on UK-US relations and the Foreign Secretary's speech last week, to which the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) referred. In that speech at King's college, the Foreign Secretary suggested that arms control had been substantially successful, and referred in particular to the success of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty; a number of countries have given up nuclear weapons and other countries, which at one stage were thought might develop such weapons, have refused to do so. However, it should not be forgotten how difficult it was to reach agreement at the review conference in 2000. The Foreign Office played a key role in that success. Everybody agreed, both then and subsequently at the United Nations, that all countries would seek to ratify the comprehensive test ban treaty as quickly as possible, and to maintain and strengthen the anti-ballistic missile treaty as a cornerstone of strategic stability.
The Foreign Secretary pointed out that the test ban treaty had not yet been broken by the United States, but did not refer to the fact that the US has clearly signalled that it has no intention of ratifying it and, in fact, is seeking to breach it as quickly as possible. It is always said that the ABM treaty is a bilateral treaty; in 2000, I repeat, all states made undertakings that were genuinely multilateral.
379 The hon. Member for New Forest, West referred to the fact that the Foreign Secretary said that there was "new thinking". Twenty years ago, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle et al said that the ABM treaty was out of date and that we must develop star wars. Now, they say that that treaty is 30 years out of date and that we must develop star wars. I know that some people argue that some members of the Bush Administration are reassuring us that the project is not really star wars as it will be limited and have a defensive aim. They do not often cite Richard Perle's argument that it will be inexpensive; I suppose that depends on how many hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars one regards as cheap. Those people tend not to refer to the fact that other members of the Bush Administration, as well as, very often, the members offering reassurance, have had comments published about full spectrum dominance. It is perfectly clear that if a country believes that it is totally defended, it is far more likely to be belligerent or engage in aggression.
It has been said that Russia is more friendly, but are we helping that situation, when the ABM treaty is to be abandoned rather than further negotiation taking place? Does that strengthen the position of Mr. Putin? China was already intending to expand its nuclear arsenals, but it has made it clear that it will expand them even more as a result. The Foreign Secretary expressed the hope that that would have no effect on the situation in India and Pakistan; I hope that his optimism is justified.
If the major superpower is in flagrant contempt of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, what effect does that have on the chances of proliferation? The Foreign Secretary suggested that perhaps star wars would help non-proliferation:Those who seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction are not usually irrational".Star wars would put them off, he suggested. I am sorry, but I seem to remember that the rationale for star wars was that there were some rogue state dictators who were so irrational that they would not be deterred, even by the threat of nuclear annihilation. Further, would they be put off proliferation? The recent national intelligence estimate to the United States Senate is far more correct. It suggests that, because of star wars, and for a range of other reasons, such dictators would be more likely to look at using smuggled weapons because theyare less expensive than… intercontinental ballistic missiles… can be covertly developed and employedand their source can bemasked in an attempt to evade retaliation.Such weapons are more accurate and, I would add, have the advantage of total surprise; they can be used without warning.
Multilateral agreements are our best way of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, missiles and other weapons of mass destruction. My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) and the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) spoke perceptively about the particular threat that could be posed if nuclear weapons fell into the hands of terrorists; we must prevent that by all means possible. What security can we possibly have even against small nuclear weapons, which could annihilate everything 380 within a radius of half a mile or a mile? We cannot impose a ban on every vehicle coming within a mile of the House or any other place that we want to protect.
§ Mr. Savidge
No, I am sorry; I have been asked to be brief.
The present United States Administration are blocking or breaching nearly all the major treaties that we need for our safety. Of the biological weapons convention they say, "We need it relevant to today rather than yesterday." What on earth do they think other countries have been doing in the past six years of negotiation? The Foreign Secretary suggested that some people caricature members of the American Administration as unilateralists. In September 2000, I attended a Heritage Foundation seminar on star wars, which was addressed by leading right wingers from both sides of the Atlantic, including the Leader of the Opposition. One speaker said:They call us unilateralists and isolationists just because we totally oppose arms control, treaties and the UN.Since that seminar, there has been, I accept, some "new thinking". At the seminar, the republican right talked about a disparate group of people ganging together in "club mad". Now, they are talking about them ganging together in an "axis of evil". It is wrong to try to reduce a complex world to such simplicities. To suggest that Iraq, Iran and North Korea are all working together solely to produce weapons in order to attack the United States is to forget that Iraq and Iran built up their weapons largely to fight each other, that both were supplied by the United States among other countries and that North Korea, nasty and revolting as that regime is, has shown a readiness to negotiate.
Similarly, the Republican right seem to suffer amnesia as to exactly who first helped to arm the Taliban and al-Qaeda. I would follow the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) about Iraq. If there is no clear connection to 11 September, a unilateral declaration of war or a declaration following consultation of the sort that says, "This is what we are going to do whether you like it or not," by a country that refuses weapons inspections itself would be extremely dangerous. The United Kingdom must not permit mission creep from patrolling no-fly zones to involving ourselves in war in Iraq simply to ingratiate the Republican right rather than to defend British interests.
I have another concern. The campaign against terrorism has been abused as it has become an excuse for increased belligerence in some areas that present the greatest danger of world conflict; I am thinking particularly of Israel and Palestine and India and Pakistan. In the former case, it has not helped that Donald Rumsfeld positively encouraged that. I fully appreciate that British Ministers feel that they need to show the highest level of diplomacy in dealing with our American allies. However, it is appalling that the members of the US Defence Department show such an appalling lack of diplomacy.
If I may adapt the terminology used in an interesting article by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, I believe that we must show ourselves staunch allies of the US people, but we must not show ourselves as patsies for the present US Administration. I would repeat the phrase, 381 "Yes, but", that was used by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). The Leader of the Opposition, with his close links to the US right, must not be allowed to lead us into a dutch auction to sell out British interests to the obsessions of the American right. We must not be allowed to let real threats to the British people be increased in order to reduce imagined or remote threats to the United States.
Reference has been made to the increase in the US defence budget, and it has been suggested that we should follow that in Britain and Europe, but there is another consideration. With the US now being in the position of outspending on defence the whole of the rest of NATO plus Russia and China, while spending one of the lowest percentages on diplomacy, aid and reconstruction for other countries, surely it is time that the US considered whether it should be putting more dollars and more effort into the State Department and into aid.
As it says in "A New Chapter", the United States will undoubtedly play a lead role in many things, but it should be under the United Nations, which should lead us. George Bush senior said that he believed in a new world order, but it cannot be a new world order where one country lays down the rules for all the rest while flouting them itself. It is dangerous to assume the supremacy of the west, but it is even more dangerous to have the supremacy of the wild west. For certain states that view the United States as their allies, members of the US Administration should recognise that, although we would not regard it as the rogue States, it is certainly becoming the States of concern.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
It is a great honour to take part in this debate after the eloquent Front-Bench speech of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) and the speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) who are both former Ministers. In the aftermath of Afghanistan, I urge the House to think very carefully about whether we are providing the right kind of forces for the changing world and the many threats that we face.
The European Union is addressing part of that through the European Security and Defence Initiative whereby, in effect, an Army corps is to be projected up to 2,500 miles within 60 days and sustained for a whole year. After looking at the operations in Afghanistan, it is not clear to me whether continental Europeans at any rate have the required capabilities. A huge effort will have to be made to make good large deficiencies which were well summarised by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West.
First, there will have to be air superiority, and for that the Eurofighter is crucial. It is way behind schedule and well over budget, but it will have the great advantage of being a single-crew aeroplane so some of the manning problems that the Government face and which have led to the disbanding of 5 Squadron at Coningsby should not be such a difficulty. The whole range of air assets that we require—the airborne standoff radar system, the A400M, the new tankers, the Nimrod maritime reconnaissance aircraft mark 2 and a successor to the HC4 Sea Kings for a commando brigade, be that successor either Merlin 382 helicopters or tilt-rotor aeroplanes—are all required in a much shorter time scale than had been originally envisaged. However, they will have the advantage, if the Government provide the necessary funding, of pump-priming the aerospace industry, which is facing a severe downturn in its civil business.
§ Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton)
The hon. Gentleman has gone through a long list of possible procurement items. Is he aware of the thinking behind Congressman Allen's Bill which sought to recoup the research and development costs of missile defence and which applied to any allies to whom this proposed defence concept would be extended? Where does the hon. Gentleman think the money will come from to meet the costs of missile defence, in addition to that long list of armaments that he has read to the House?
§ Mr. Wilkinson
The hon. Gentleman will note that I did not include any provision for ballistic missile defence. Important as it is, the Government are still evaluating whether we really need to spend significant moneys which developing such projects will require. The hon. Gentleman is anticipating things, but that is not to say that we should not examine them with the greatest care and seriousness.
The Royal Air Force will also need a new training aeroplane—I would suggest a new version of Hawk—as a matter of urgency. Proper training and operational standards constitute a vital aspect of intervention overseas that is all too readily neglected. In that regard I turn to the House of Lords Select Committee report on the tragic accident to the Chinook mark 2 at the Mull of Kintyre on 2 June 1994. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), who is a former Minister, said that the controversy over the causes of the accident and the decision of Air Marshals Sir William Wratten and Sir John Day to declare the pilots negligent had cast a dark cloud over the reputation of the Ministry of Defence that would inhibit recruiting. I do not believe it.
The Ministry of Defence has been open at all stages about the tragic accident, which occurred in the difficult circumstances of a special mission that flew VIPs to Scotland in an inappropriate aircraft. Comments from another place and even from former ministerial colleagues such as Sir Malcolm Rifkind do not help matters. Lives were tragically lost, and there are lessons to be learned about operational procedures and training. I shall consider some of them in detail.
First, I hope that an aircraft that has not had clearance from the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down will never be allowed to perform such an important mission again. It was a fundamental mistake, and I am astonished that an aircraft with so many operational limitations was allowed to fly on the mission. It is noteworthy that the crew preferred a Chinook mark 1, perhaps partly because they were more familiar with the aircraft, but also because they knew the limitations of the Chinook mark 2, especially in icing conditions.
On 1 June, the day before the accident, the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment suspended test flying of Chinook mark 2s because of problems with flight in icing conditions. Those briefing for the sortie knew that the aircraft would probably have to fly in icing 383 conditions: in cloud, at a temperature below 4 deg C. The aircraft was not cleared for flight in icing conditions below that temperature.
If the eminent officers had to fly to Fort George, it would have been more appropriate and sensible for them to travel to Inverness airport in a Hercules or BAe 146. It is incomprehensible that they all flew in one aircraft, especially one that had so many limitations, in such unsuitable weather. Clearly, the weather was marginal for flight under visual flight rules. I shall say more about that anon.
The Chinook mark 2, especially the digital engine control system, had malfunctioned on several occasions. There had also been various spurious warnings, which made the aircraft notorious. One serious technical problem was reported on form 700 only three weeks before the accident. The history of technical problems should have led briefing officers to choose another aircraft, such as a fixed-wing aeroplane that could fly safely in such weather. The senior officers who permitted the sortie to go ahead in the helicopter, in the weather conditions that I outlined, are reprehensible.
Their Lordships are wise after the event. They can provide a panoply of legal wisdom, but they have not flown helicopters at low level in difficult weather conditions. There were some weather reports along the route; one was provided by a yachtsman. However, the perspective of a yachtsman is different from that of a pilot who flies an aircraft at low level above the sea in marginal visibility at 3 nautical miles a minute.
The Royal Air Force's investigation was thorough and carefully conducted. Appointing Sir John Day, AOC 1 Group, and Sir William Wratten, AOC and Commander-in-Chief Strike Command, to conduct the review was appropriate. As commanding officers, they had to do it. As Sir William pointed out, in some 38 per cent. of cases of Royal Air Force boards of inquiry, air officers commanding have overturned the findings. They were not acting against precedent. I do not therefore believe that they deserve such criticism for their conclusions. They will have understood their overriding responsibility as air officers commanding to ensure the highest standards of flight discipline and airmanship by their crews. Captains of aircraft, regardless of circumstances, mission, the importance of the passengers and the seniority of those who sent them, have a duty to abort the mission or change the flight profile if circumstances dictate it.
It is my belief—particularly after reading the exchange between the two Air Marshals and their Lordships during the cross-examination in the other place—that the Air Marshals were justified in their belief, with the wisdom of hindsight, that the crew, who were flying in very marginal weather with high ground ahead, and with the aircraft slightly off track to the right, probably ought to have aborted, or at least got well clear of the high ground with all speed.
It is sadly clear from the accident inquiry and the inspection of the wreckage that the aeroplane struck the ground while climbing. There had been a rapid flare in the last seconds before impact, which would be consistent with the pilots having seen the high ground just before the crash occurred. The height, speed and configuration of the aeroplane were consistent with a controlled flight into high ground.
384 That is not to say that there was not a malfunction. There could conceivably have been one, but if there was, how were the pilots able to tap in a new way point on the navigational computer less than one nautical mile before the high ground? If there had been a malfunction, they would have been highly preoccupied. A malfunction could conceivably have occurred when the pilots changed course towards the new way point, but such a small change of course would be unlikely to cause erratic behaviour leading to loss of control and a crash into high ground.
I conclude by justifying the decision of the Air Marshals. The House would be wise not to follow the path taken in the other place, or to try to second-guess investigations into military accidents, however tragic the circumstances and however much we sympathise with the grief of the parents of the service men who lost their lives. In an excellent letter to The Times on 9 February, the managing director of British International Helicopters, Mr. Stewart Birt, wrote:'Good airmanship', an approach to flying promoted in both military and civil aviation, would have dictated a series of decisions that should have resulted in the aircraft not being at risk of a collision with the ground at the location of the accident or anywhere else.
The Air Marshals had a duty to ensure that the very best standards of airmanship were maintained, particularly for VIP flights in difficult circumstances. I do not think that the Air Marshals were in dereliction of their duty. I support their judgment, and I hope that the Ministry of Defence will as well, however tragic the circumstances were.
§ 5.8 pm
§ Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West)
I shall keep my speech as short as I can; I know that we are short of time. It is a privilege to take part in this debate, as there are a lot of very knowledgeable Members on both sides of the House. Perhaps there has been an occasional hint of disingenuousness, however, in the comments of Opposition Members about the problems of overstretch in the Army. That problem has existed for many years. As the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) said, the figure for people on operational duties is about 27 per cent., which is about the same level that this Government inherited in 1997 from the Tory Government. That is pretty normal. The figure went up during Kosovo, and then went back down. This is still a problem, but it always was and, in many ways, it always will be, because we cannot solve problems of recruitment and retention overnight.
At least one of the Opposition Members present has greater expertise than I have in this matter. They may talk about hugely raising troops' pay, but that will not solve the problem, because troops are not all that pay-sensitive. They expect to be reasonably well paid and well accommodated but raising their pay hugely will not solve the problem of recruitment and retention in the services. The situation has been the same for a while and I suspect that, regrettably, it will be the same for some time to come. So when we talk about future defence policy, we have to assume that we will always have rather fewer soldiers, airmen and women, and sailors than we might wish to have.
My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), who is no longer in her place, repeatedly used the term "warmongering", but such language is unhelpful. 385 I appreciate that she does not like the Bush Administration—nor am I a great fan—but President Bush is the elected representative of some 250 million people. They have a right to elect whomever they want. There is a fine line between being anti-American and anti-Bush, and repeated use of the term "warmongering" is unhelpful.
I shall cut to the chase and deal with the discussion document that was issued today. It refers to preventing the conditions that allow international terrorist organizations to operate, and to our providing training assistance to the armed forces of other states, when we have the resources. It is worth noting that the service personnel who are sent on such duties are invariably highly skilled, and are often senior and near the end of their military careers.
In places such as Africa—I was in central Africa a few months ago—military assistance would be invaluable. However, we cannot necessarily provide British military advisory and training teams, either because we do not have enough highly skilled soldiers, or because the political conditions are not quite right. The Foreign Secretary's recent thought that well-regulated private companies could fill that breach is therefore worth extensive consideration.
Sometimes, hon. Members hear the term "mercenaries" used. The Prime Minister used it, presumably on advice, but it is an unfortunate word. It might be in vogue or even correct, but "mercenaries" makes me think of Richard Burton in the 1970s film "The Wild Geese". That is not the kind of role that we are talking about today, and it is an unhelpful image to place in people's minds. Well-regulated private companies could have a role to play in filling that breach. The issue is in the public domain and it needs to be discussed.
The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot)—he is also not in his place—mentioned the Chinook issue, which has been taken up. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands, is to discuss pragmatism in politics on Libby Purves', Radio 4 programme, "Midweek". His definition of pragmatism is likely to be a tiny bit too wide. I was disappointed to discover that, in effect, he blames his officials and officers for his wrong decision, as he now regards it, on the Chinook disaster on the Mull of Kintyre. He told a Scottish Sunday newspaper that, in those circumstances, politicians are at the mercy of their advisers. I believe that he made the correct decision, but to compound his misdemeanour he also cast personal aspersions on current Ministers for not overturning the original decision.
The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) referred to the speech of the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire as honourable, but I am not convinced. Both made fine speeches, but I am not convinced that it is honourable to describe as dishonourable current Ministers who are upholding the decision of a former Secretary of State. It is not right to throw around such a word, and its use was ill-considered.
§ Mr. Soames
I want to clarify the point. I was not suggesting that the Ministry of Defence or Ministers have acted in any way dishonourably, but it was extremely honourable of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) to speak as he did.
§ Mr. Joyce
I appreciate the distinction. Perhaps I should clarify my explanation, which may have been a little inelegant. I am slightly concerned about describing as honourable a speech that calls Ministers dishonourable simply for acting correctly. Essentially, that is what the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire did.
§ Mr. Gray
My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), who is not present, did not in any way imply that Ministers acted dishonourably in not overturning the finding. It is high time that Ministers did overturn it, but there is nothing dishonourable in their not doing so.
§ Mr. Joyce
The right hon. Gentleman chose to leave the Chamber, but he did use the word "dishonourable". He said that it was dishonourable for Ministers to uphold the current position.
Let me return to Sir Malcolm Rifkind. Sir Malcolm is a capable man. It cannot have escaped his attention that it is at best inconsistent for him to argue on the one hand that present Ministers must take full responsibility for such decisions, which indeed they must, and on the other hand that the principle should not extend to him.
That contortion may be an expression of Sir Malcolm's new doctrine of pragmatism, but I think that the lesson may go deeper. It seems to me that the Conservative party—which, after all, is full of knowledgeable experts—is struggling to come up with a critique of the Government's defence policies with an "oppositionist" resonance. I believe that the Conservatives agree with many of those policies, and are trying desperately to find some reason to oppose them.
In the Chinook case, Sir Malcolm has been pulled a bit too low in terms of the level of debate. There were a couple of glaring factual errors in his newspaper article. He said, for instance, that both the senior officers involved had retired. I do not think that Sir Malcolm himself would have made such a mistake; I suspect that the article was heavily drafted.
It would be a pity if a former Defence Secretary, who must be very frustrated and disappointed by his failure to be re-elected as a Member of Parliament, misjudged the tone and the effect of his own political comments. He may have chosen to continue in this way for all I know, but it would be disappointing to learn that he had.
On a lighter note, let me say a little about Scottish National party policy, as an SNP Member is present. This week the SNP leader attended a demonstration against Trident at Faslane, at which one of his MSPs was arrested while pursuing the party's anti-Trident policy. With astonishing hypocrisy, the SNP's 2001 manifesto stated:We should get the benefits of jobs at Rosyth, and we will fight any government proposals to remove refitting work from Scotland".That is remarkable.
With what would the SNP replace Trident? An assistant defence spokesman—a fine individual, actually; a former lieutenant-colonel who left the Army recently—said this.
§ Angus Robertson (Moray)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I raise a question regarding a 387 ruling by Mr. Speaker last week? As I understood it, Mr. Speaker deemed that Members should not question the policy of other parties, but should question only that of the Government.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
This is a much more general debate. The hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) is entirely in order.
§ Mr. Joyce
I was about to say—perhaps this is why the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) was beginning to get upset—that the SNP has made only one suggestion of a possible replacement for Trident. Two years ago, its assistant spokesperson said:It is well worth considering the utility of ballistic missiles … They can carry a wide variety of warheads, including chemical and biological payloads, which can be seen as a cheap alternative to nuclear ones for deterrent purposes".That is true, I would guess. The spokesperson continued:Such attributes have made ballistic missiles the weapon of choice for many third world countries, but the Scottish Defence Force might also find them an important asset in its armoury.
§ Angus Robertson
Could the hon. Gentleman enlighten us about Scottish Labour policy on the stationing of nuclear weapons in Scotland?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman must use correct parliamentary language. He must not use the word "you".
§ Mr. Joyce
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The SNP says that in an independent Scotland a new Scottish defence force would operate outside NATO, but would be configured for—wait for it—land, sea and air defence of Scotland. It would be capable of overseas operations including rapid deployment, and it would deploy on humanitarian and peacekeeping operations. According to the SNP, that dynamic defence force would consist of whatever Scottish personnel in the current UK armed services chose to transfer. They would be choosing to transfer from one of the finest armed forces in the world to a tin-pot group of people with no experience and no idea about how to run the defence of the country. There is nothing on the SNP website about defence policy. It has removed it because it is deeply embarrassed by it. That is why it has made a token appearance today.
I shall conclude because time is pressing. The document that has been issued today by the Ministry of Defence is a fine document. It raises a number of key issues. It is important that the public debate them in the coming weeks and months
§ Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)
Exactly 12 months ago, the MOD rather bravely published a 388 document entitled, "The Future Strategic Context for Defence". In its introduction, it set out the problems with future thinking of that type:We recognise that the paper will contain judgements about the future with which many will disagree. Inevitably events will prove some of our judgements to have been wrong (perhaps this is the only truly certain prediction which we can make).The nature of such analysis tends not to identify the possibility of 'shocks', low-probability events with a dramatic effect…It is in particular the potential negative impact of shocks that we need to be aware of for purposes of contingency planning. Across a 30 year period we must expect a number of such shocks, even if we can't predict their nature, which have the potential fundamentally to disrupt our carefully laid plans.Those were indeed prophetic words because, not 30 years hence but only one year hence, here we are discussing primarily the aftermath of a particular shock: the event on 11 September last year.
We had sight for a rather brief period before the commencement of the debate of a new consultation document on how the strategic defence review should be updated in the aftermath of that atrocity—that outrageous mass murder that was nothing short of a declaration of war on the west. The document, which I have seen today for the first time, asks us to make our views known on no fewer than 11 different points. The questions are set out in a useful summary. In the limited time that I intend to confine myself to, I will work my way through as many of them as possible, so I may not give the most comprehensive response to the document that the MOD will receive, but I pride myself on giving the first response to it.
The first question is:What should the international community do to address the key underlying causes of international terrorism? What specifically should the UK aim to do?There will always be a minority of fanatics in any society, no matter how liberal, civilised and enlightened, who are prepared to engage in totalitarian, murderous activities. The aim of that civilised society must be to keep them away from the levers of power. In particular, the elements that lead to terrorist events are the existence of such fanatics, their access to weapons and the availability to them of a protected base, usually supplied by a host country. When asked what we must do about that, I say in brief that we must identify, infiltrate and monitor such organisations, actively impede their acquisition of weapons and recover those that they have already managed to acquire, and destroy their bases, if necessary overthrowing the regimes that harbour those bases and decline to close them.
The second question is:In the medium to long term, what balance should the UK seek to strike between contributing Armed Forces, on the one hand, to help address the symptoms of terrorism and, on the other, to assist in efforts to address the causes of terrorism?The symptoms that we may have to face in this country are three. The first, which has not materialised anywhere yet, is small-scale suicide terrorism carried out in large quantities. That was what I feared we would be facing early on when we met on 14 September for an emergency sitting. I contributed to that debate and talked about the grave and severe changes that there would have to be in national life to cope with that sort of threat.
So far, it appears, a few spectaculars rather than a large number of low-level operations have been planned. Large-scale, spectacular attacks on public buildings are 389 the second category about which we must be concerned. The third, which has been alluded to briefly, is mass attacks on the civil population using methods such as those that Soviet spetznaz forces were discovered to have formulated in the early 1970s for use in the event of a war on this country. Hon. Members will remember from their history that that led to the expulsion of more than 100 so-called Soviet diplomats—a coup from which the Soviet intelligence service in this country never recovered.
On assessing the likelihood of such threats being carried out, I am grateful to a friend for drawing my attention to an article in The Mail on Sunday on 3 February, which purported to be an interview with someone out in Lahore near what was alleged to be an al-Qaeda training camp. He claimed to have been born in Britain, to have worked as a doctor in Britain and to retain British nationality.
That person, who used the name Dr. Hakani, said:Our work has hardly started. America is still bombing Afghanistan, now we want to bring the war to Britain and America. We are waiting for the right time to return to our sleeper cells in the West and launch full-scale attacks.Unlike America, we do not want to harm civilians.Tell that to the bereaved of the World Trade Centre victims. He continued:We will be hitting public buildings, government and military targets and leading politicians like Tony Blair. All of us who have fought with Al Qaeda would welcome martyrdom. We can see spectacular results from another September 11. We could hit Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace or the Houses of Parliament.That threat is obviously worrying, but at least it is small in terms of the numbers involved. If it remains so, we are much more likely to be able to prevent it from being carried out. Let us remember this: at first, we were unsure of the extent to which the UK Muslim community might be a source for terrorists, but it now appears that it is barely a source, as the numbers involved are very small. We must consider using the UK Muslim community, with its consent, as a resource against terrorists.
In that connection, I cite the experience of the Jewish community. Since being allowed to develop at the turn of the last century, which is when my grandparents came here, it has played a full part in the defence of this country. Hon. Members with knowledge of military history will have been reminded of that by the recent death of Tommy Gould VC, the famous submariner.
I have already mentioned the major causes—the coincidence of the existence of terrorists and their ability to get their hands on weapons while enjoying a secure base—and we can no longer ignore the behaviour of dictatorial regimes that are determinedly pursuing the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. We must be careful of again burying our heads in the sand and saying, "Saddam Hussein may be acquiring nuclear, chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction for all we know." We do not know whether he has such weapons because he did not allow the inspection demanded by the international community.
We must not say, "We will deal with this as and when it manifests itself." We must not wait; and if regimes are trying to acquire such weapons, it is up to us to stop them doing so, having given them every opportunity to allow the inspections that would show that they are not engaged in such activity. We must not allow the clock to tick indefinitely, as we may eventually find that the ticking is that of a time bomb.
390 The third item on the list to which we have been asked to respond bears on what I have said:How should we strike a balance between the defence role in helping to protect the UK, and contributing to operations against international terrorists and other asymmetric threats overseas?I believe that that is one of those occasions when the author of the document posing a question has answered it in the body of the document far more effectively than anyone else could. Thus, before I conclude, I wish to put on the record paragraph 27, which appears on page 7 and states:it is usually better to seek to engage an enemy at longer range—before they are able to mount an assault on our interests. Not only is this more effective than waiting to be attacked at a point and timing of an enemy's choice, it can have a deterrent effect. We must therefore continue to be ready and willing to deploy significant forces overseas to act against terrorists and those who harbour them.The document recommends a combination of prevention, deterrence, coercion, disruption and destruction, applicable in different degrees to different targets.
We can try to prevent terrorism by putting pressure on Governments willing to harbour terrorists to ensure that they no longer do so. We can try to deter terrorism by showing that those who wish to harbour terrorists, or to sympathise with them, will meet not a feeble response from the west, but a massive one.
We can try to coerce host regimes to ensure that they do not think that they can wage a sort of proxy warfare. That possibility resembles what happened in the cold war, when people who did not want to fight the west openly would push smaller so-called client states to wage guerrilla war on their behalf. If Afghanistan has taught people of that mindset anything, it should be that that approach will not work in this case.
Disruption can be of only limited effectiveness against specific operations. In the end, terrorism has to be destroyed, without mercy or limit, wherever it rears its head in the world. That is why we must not close our eyes to the fact that ruthless regimes exist that for years have sought to acquire weapons which, even if they did not want to use them themselves, they could pass to other groups that would have no compunction about doing so.
I am not sure that the Conservative Government of the time did themselves any favours when they left Saddam Hussein in power at the end of the Gulf war. The time may be coming to put right that mistake. If it is necessary for us to act, we must do so firmly, and in a way that means that we will never again see anything as terrible as what happened so disastrously on 11 September.
§ Mr. John Grogan (Selby)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). His speech was typical of the high quality and breadth of knowledge that have characterised the debate. The hon. Gentleman clearly had much more to say, and I thank him for his courtesy in stopping when he did and allowing other hon. Members to contribute.
I shall not attempt to emulate the breadth of approach of the hon. Member for New Forest, East, as I intend to focus on one aspect of defence policy—the possible privatisation of the defence fire service. That would threaten the military ethos which, as the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) noted, is so strong and valuable.
391 As many hon. Members have said in this debate, politicians of all hues were quick, after 11 September, to praise the public-spiritedness, self-sacrifice and the ethos of brotherhood and sisterhood of the New York fire service. It is less well known that 100 members of the UK defence fire service volunteered on the day of the disaster to go to New York to help out, if required.
As far as I am aware, there is no threat to privatise the New York fire service, but there is a real threat to privatise our defence fire service. I became aware of that when a constituent of mine, a firefighter at RAF Church Fenton, came to see me last summer. In his hand he held a sheet of paper on which he told me a senior politician was quoted as saying that that was a privatisation too far.
I speculated as to who that senior politician might have been. Several of the contributors to this debate might have made such a remark; I thought that it might have been a Liberal Democrat Member. However, in fact it was the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), the Leader of the Opposition, who had said that it was a privatisation too far. I respectfully say to my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Minister of State for Defence that if it is a privatisation too far for the Conservative party, we need to pause for thought.
How did that situation come about? Three thousand fire service and associated personnel support the armed forces at their bases. The associated staff carry out tasks such as refuelling, or are employed as vehicle technicians and so on. They work at about 100 bases, not only in this country but worldwide. All their jobs are at stake.
On 20 September last year, with impeccable timing, the Ministry of Defence—with no announcement to the House—invited tenders from three preferred bidders for that support work. The contracts could last from between 15 and 20 years and would ultimately be worth up to £4 billion.
During an Adjournment debate, the Minister of State assured me that no decision had been made and that the tender documents are not due to be returned until the end of this month. Apparently, no decision will be made until the end of the year. That is why I was rather surprised to read in RAF News a few weeks ago an advertisement headed "Career Opportunities in Airfield Support". It stated:Logicair, a joint venture company formed by Ryder plc and Serco Group plc, is embarking on a major project with great future potential. This will create a dynamic organisation to provide a wide range of airfield support services to the MOD, at over 100 sites world-wide.The advertisement noted that work was expected to start in early 2004. The closing date for expressions of interest has already passed: it was Friday 25 January.
Clearly, a great deal of forward planning is being carried out by one of the bidders. That company must think that it is in with a good chance of obtaining the contract.
I thought that perhaps the work force were recalcitrant and had been threatening the efficiency or even the security and safety of our armed forces. However, history reveals that the opposite is true. The defence fire service was reviewed for the first time in recent years in the mid-1980s. The Transport and General Workers Union 392 co-operated with the MOD at that time—although it was probably not easy to do that then—and agreed on a common solution: the creation of a single defence fire service for all our armed forces.
That solution was accepted by the trade unions and the MOD, but it was not implemented; there was resistance from some of the defence fire service chiefs. The single service was created in name, but it had three separate managements. There were some common features such as training. The inefficiencies and duplications of effort continued, and in 1995 the then Government began to investigate whether there might be private sector interest. The Labour Government have let that process continue.
It is time to call a halt. We should consider what the trade unions have offered recently. In true stakeholder fashion—something of which new Labour should be proud—they are co-operating with defence service staff. Under the chairmanship of Wing Commander Bob Waldegrave—no less—they have come up with the "Defence Fire Study 2000". That is an in-house project and shows how the service can cut costs by 20 per cent. As there is limited time for the debate, I shall not go into detail. The project has been agreed by the military, the MOD and the TGWU.
It is a real tragedy in terms of best value that the project cannot be implemented at present because of the parallel process of tendering. Public money is being wasted because "Defence Fire Study 2000" is not being implemented. There seems to be a doubt that the public service comparator established by the study will ever be used directly with the private sector, as three elements have been put out to tender.
The first element is procurement—no one would argue about that. The second is the defence fire service and the third is the associated services. It looks as though they will all be lumped together and that our brave firefighters in the defence fire service may not have the chance to compare their work directly with the fire service support that would be provided by the private sector.
The military ethos and the public service ethos are closely allied. The security—the very lives—of our RAF pilots and many others depends on the sense of military ethos or of public service ethos of many of the people who serve in the defence fire service and associated services. It depends on their being prepared to go that extra mile to put aside their own interests. Even as a constituency MP, one is aware that the defence fire service has been prepared to contribute repeatedly to meeting the wider needs of the community—to fill in the gaps of our hard-pressed county fire services. In last year's floods in North Yorkshire, the defence fire service was there time and again. It has been deployed 100 times in the past two years, to places such as Kosovo.
I quote one defence fire service firefighter, Darren Gribben, who recently returned from several months' service in Kosovo:I was proud to serve in the hostile conditions of war-torn Pristina, but I would be unsure of returning under a privatised service.That military ethos applies not only to pilots, but to our defence fire service staff, and I do not believe that it would apply in the same way if they were merely working for a boss who was a contractor to the Ministry of Defence, or perhaps a subcontractor to a contractor.
393 That issue goes to the heart of the great debate about the proper role of the public and the private sectors. If we are prepared to privatise the defence fire service, what are we not prepared to privatise? Are we prepared one day to privatise our fire service generally? That is a fear of the Fire Brigades Union.
On this issue, the Ministry of Defence is playing with fire. It should kick the proposals into touch and accept the 20 per cent. efficiency savings that are on offer from our firefighters.
§ Mr. David Laws (Yeovil)
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to take part in this debate on a wide range of defence issues. We have discovered a certain amount of common ground on some issues, but a lot less in other areas.
To start with the common ground, all hon. Members who have spoken have expressed our gratitude to the members of the armed forces for the astonishing work that they do on our behalf, not least in the recent operations in the Balkans, Sierra Leone and—particularly perhaps—Afghanistan.
Several hon. Members have expressed concern about the Government's plans for the Territorial Army and a desire to ensure that the Territorial Army retains a flexible role; that it is able to support our troops in a variety of ways; and that it does not simply become a home guard that is relegated to lower-level and domestic duties.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), supported by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), expressed concern about the dangers of ending up with a two-tier system in our armed forces, in which some units are regularly used for high-level and high-priority activities while other regiments are left on lower-level duties. That would be a great pity, especially as all units in our armed forces are trained to an extremely high level.
We found less common ground on other issues. The Chinook crash was discussed eloquently by several hon. Members with great experience in the matter, and I do not want to cover that ground in detail. I would only say that the fact that Members with as much experience as the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) have very considerable concerns about this matter, adding their voices to the questions raised by the House of Lords report, suggests to Liberal Democrat Members that it is time to have the matter independently reviewed so that we may get as close as possible to the truth of what happened in that tragic accident.
The second issue on which there has perhaps been less agreement is funding, which was discussed by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex and by the Chairman of Select Committee on Defence, the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). I fear that the Chairman set a high hurdle for his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in terms of the up and coming spending round when he said that he thought that the Secretary of State should seek to achieve an increase of half a percentage point in the share of national income that goes into defence; that would involve an increase of £4 to £5 billion a year. If the Chairman of the Defence Committee is setting that hurdle for the Secretary of State, he may be disappointed by the outcome of the spending review. There will be a great deal of competition for resources, especially as 394 funding for health, education and transport is growing above the rate of inflation. That puts pressure on many other sectors, including defence and social security, to grow at less than the growth rate of the economy so that not too much upward pressure is placed on the tax burden.
The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex was closer to the likely outcome when he referred to an increase of £500 million a year over and above inflation. According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, that would be a 2 per cent. real increase each year. The Secretary of State will need to deploy a robust set of arguments in the face of Treasury scepticism if he is to gain the share of the cake that defence should be allocated. Not all his arguments should lean too heavily on the events of 11 September, however. As the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) said, the nature of those events was such that they would not necessarily have been prevented by additional expenditure on the armed forces. It is significant that the attack took place in the country that dedicates the largest share of gross domestic product to national defence. The nature of the threats that we now face might be better dealt with by expenditure that is targeted into intelligence, for instance, as the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) suggested.
If there is an argument for increasing expenditure on the armed forces which goes beyond the pay and cost pressures, it is the low share of GDP that Europe invests in defence compared with the US, as the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex explained. Although many Conservative Members expressed a strong solidarity with America, I am pleased that some of them share the concern that we should not be too dependent on it or expect it to do all our work for us. That is one argument that the Secretary of State should deploy.
Another argument is that although there is no great need for defence expenditure to respond to the specific events of 11 September, they highlight what is important. We need to take out insurance against a series of risks. If the events of 11 September tell us anything, it is that there is a huge uncertainty about the risks that we face. Our armed forces need to be flexible enough to respond to those different risks, many of which we cannot anticipate now. We need to be aware of the fact that the military responds to the latest war and the latest risks, but we need to consider our ability to respond to new risks.
Despite the Secretary of State's best efforts, if he does not obtain the full funding that he requires from the Chancellor, he will have to consider what hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford, said about how we deploy the existing budget between competing uses. With today's news of the increase in the cost of Eurofighter, I hope that the Minister will tell us whether he can reduce some of those cost pressures and their effect on other aspects of the defence budget, including procurement. Are the Government thinking of reducing the number of Eurofighters that we purchase to reduce some of the pressure on the defence budget, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford suggested?
I agree with what the hon. Member for Halifax said about having a wider debate on national missile defence. Many of my hon. Friends who would in no way associate themselves with the arguments for unilateral nuclear disarmament in the early 1980s are none the less concerned about the NMD programme and the value for money that we may or may not derive from it. Inevitably, if we decide to go along with that programme, there will 395 be a very significant impact on our defence budget and costs, as other hon. Members have suggested. If only for that reason, we ought to have an early opportunity to debate in detail the pros and cons of becoming involved in this very important initiative with which President Bush wishes to proceed, and which will have major implications for US defence expenditure.
I wish to keep my comments as brief as possible because I am aware of the pressure of time. I wish the Secretary of State good luck, especially in the next week or so, in his battles with the Treasury over the comprehensive spending review, whose outcome will be crucial to all the issues that we have debated today. I hope that the resources that the right hon. Gentleman is able to secure will allow our armed forces to continue to do the really superb work that they have done in recent years and to complete their role not only in securing the British national defence interest but in engaging in humanitarian operations such as those in Sierra Leone, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford said, have had such a dramatic effect on the quality of life and security of people in countries beyond our own.
§ David Wright (Telford)
It is a privilege to be able to contribute to the debate. In particular, I want to refer to the speech made by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), which I thoroughly enjoyed. He has a knowledgeable perspective on such issues; his remarks were often humorous; and he made an important contribution. I concur with what he said about the way that the House was moved by the statement that the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) made in his opening remarks. I may not agree with every part of his speech, but it takes courage to make such a statement in the Chamber, and I pay tribute to him.
This important debate has been wide ranging—from the Chinook crash to the deployment of front-line troops. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) has raised the issue of MOD fire services and I should like to broaden the debate even further to defence logistics. Often, defence debates focus on regiments such as the Parachute Regiment or the Royal Marines, and the superb job that they do. I should like to associate myself with the comments that other hon. Members have made about those forces. They do a fantastic job for our country, but we have to remember that their effectiveness in the field is very much dependent on defence logistics.
My constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) have long-standing traditions of defence logistics work. My constituency is well known in military circles as an effective location for the distribution of defence hardware, and the Equipment Support, Provision and Procurement Authority—otherwise known as ESPPA—is located there. My hon. Friend's constituency, which adjoins mine, contains the defence storage and distribution depot and ABRO, which was formerly called the Army base repair organisation, both of which are located at Donnington.
The significance of defence logistics to our national economy must not be forgotten. Some 31,800 people are employed in the United Kingdom on defence logistics work, 2,500 of them in Telford. It is a major employment 396 asset for the west midlands economy. At times of conflict, those involved have responded superbly in the service of our country, from the Falklands war in the early 1980s to the current situation in which we find ourselves in Afghanistan. They do a tremendous job in ensuring that our armed forces are supported effectively in the field. I pay tribute to all the members of staff who work in those organisations.
The strategic defence review's effect on defence logistics will have a significant impact on my constituency. The principles of the strategic defence review and defence logistics policy are outlined in the MOD publication "Defence Policy 2001", from which I shall quote briefly. It states:We need to deliver a step change in performance in all areas of logistics to deliver the Armed Forces' support and sustainability needs. In particular we need to optimise our stocks and fixed assets. This will require radical improvements in repair and maintenance, the exploitation of e-commerce, the creation of an integrated and responsive support chain effective across organisational boundaries and improved relationships with industry.We can all sign up to that broad policy objective. Certainly, the people who work in defence logistics in Telford and The Wrekin have responded effectively to that agenda. ESPPA has introduced quality systems founded on ISO 9002. It is an exemplary organisation in terms of information technology provision. It has Investors in People status and it adds significant value to the work of the MOD. Donnington defence storage and distribution has merged with facilities at Stafford. Our armed forces are supported by some of the most technologically advanced warehousing in the western world.
ABRO at Donnington is moving towards a trading fund situation—it vests as a trading fund on 2 April. It uses partnering as a means of securing new materials and assets for the MOD and it uses some of the financial freedoms introduced by this Government to secure business fund reinvestment. A positive set of actions have therefore been taken in relation to the defence review agenda.
However, I urge caution on the Government. Since I became a Member of Parliament in June last year, I have already received four significant letters from the MOD about the restructuring and reorganisation of defence logistics. Constant upheaval and uncertainty in relation to defence logistics activity affects the morale of the people involved. That is a major concern in Telford and The Wrekin. The MOD publication "Defence Policy 2001" highlights the fact thatfinancial rewards, working conditions, training and career prospects which are sufficient to attract and retain innovative individuals with the skills we needare important to staff morale and recruitment in the MOD. The constant concern and upheaval of ongoing review does nothing to strengthen the morale of local people.
People in Telford and The Wrekin have the necessary skills and have proved, through the work that has been done in the organisations that I have mentioned, that they can build on those skills. We should let them flourish as far as possible. It is as important to support defence logistics as it is to support our front-line forces. Without an effective service in logistics, our armed forces cannot effectively serve the interests of this country with our partners.
397 Defence logistics also have a positive impact on our economy. We need to preserve the geographical spread of MOD interests throughout the UK. In security terms, that is a good principle anyway, but we must use the MOD to enhance local economies wherever we can.
§ Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury)
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that we need to ensure a defence presence throughout the country. However, does he agree that we must ensure that support units serve front-line units where they are? In particular, does he agree that defence medical services must support front-line units in Wiltshire and Hampshire rather than in Birmingham?
§ David Wright
I am sure that the Secretary of State has heard that comment. The hon. Gentleman clearly has more experience of those services than I do. I am talking about services provided directly by people in Telford and The Wrekin. On the basis of my visits to those establishments, I can report that the service is superb and of a high quality. People in Telford can demonstrate that such services can be delivered from across the UK in support of our armed forces.
I pay tribute once again to those who work in defence logistics. We must respect the commitment and flexibility shown by them and their trade union representatives, whom I have met regularly in recent months. We must protect their jobs and praise the work that they do in support of our front-line armed forces.
§ Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. At business questions today, the House heard the Leader of the House, in response to a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), issue an emphatic denial in respect of today's newspaper stories about Jo Moore and an e-mail that passed between Mr. Sixsmith and the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. The Leader of the House was totally emphatic on that point.
It is becoming clear from the Downing street 4 o'clock Lobby briefing that an e-mail does in fact exist. Those providing the briefing refuse to deny that the e-mail was copied to Jo Moore, or to release the wording of the e-mail. The Press Association is now reporting that this morning's stories are, in all important respects, accurate.
It is disgraceful that the media should have heard about the retraction before the House. Have you, Madam Deputy Speaker, had any information that the Leader of the House is to come here to put the record straight?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)
I have received no information from the Leader of the House or any other Minister that they are about to come here.
§ 6.1 pm
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)
As we debate defence here tonight, we are extremely conscious that our forces are on active service almost all round the world. Great tributes have been paid to them, and I associate myself with those tributes, which apply as much to those working in supply organisations as to those members of the Parachute Regiment, whose regimental headquarters remains in Aldershot.
398 I am bound to say that I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and others who have said that there is no point in other units being trained up to war fighting levels only to be stood down in favour of one or two units that are deployed every time. I hope that the Secretary of State has taken that important point on board.
I shall raise two specific issues: missile defence and expenditure. My remarks about both are informed in large measure by my visit to Washington last week. The Defence Committee spent the entire week in end-to-end meetings with officials and others in Washington.
First, I should like to say to the Secretary of State that everywhere we went, it was made absolutely explicit that the United States Administration greatly appreciate the support of the United Kingdom and its Government and the extraordinary qualities of our armed forces, who are in action and who have supported the United States' activities in Afghanistan. The united stand of the House and the support of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister standing shoulder to shoulder with our American partners have done the United Kingdom enormous good. I welcome that.
We Members of Parliament have to be clear that, whatever our individual views, the United States Administration are absolutely determined to proceed with missile defence. They greatly resent the suggestion that it is "star wars"—an expression that has been used repeatedly this afternoon. They are emphatic that it is neither "star wars" nor "national missile defence". They have changed the name of their organisation from the national missile defence organisation to the ballistic missile defence organisation, to make the point that they are not in the business of throwing up a curtain that protects the United States alone, as foreshadowed by the "star wars" concept of the 1980s.
It will be unfortunate if we fail to understand the United States' belief that it faces a real threat to its homeland, either from the axis of evil nations, or from other nations, or from terrorist organisations which might at some point in the relatively near future become capable of deploying missiles that could inflict damage on the United States. That is why the Americans are prepared to invest no less than $7.8 billion—£5 billion—next year in research to produce an answer to that problem.
If a missile is deployed, there are three stages at which it can be taken out: the launch phase, the mid-course phase and the terminal phase. That takes considerable technological achievement, and instead of criticising the United States, we should welcome the fact that a country that is richer than us is prepared to invest the necessary money.
It is significant that in the document that the Government published a year ago, Defence Policy 2000, they said:We assess that, for the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that a direct threat to the UK could re-emerge on a scale sufficient to threaten our strategic security, whether through conventional means or weapons of mass destruction.399 Of course, that has now changed because in the new document, which we received only this morning, the Government make a few tentative assumptions, one of which is thatthe psychological threshold of shock may have been raised and other terrorists or possibly rogue states may in future seek to emulate the massive effect of the 11 September attacks. This might mean attempts to acquire and use chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear devices".
In light of the Government's acknowledgement that we face such a threat, I must ask why there is so much criticism of the United States for taking action, putting its dollars where its mouth is and trying to identify technical means by which that threat can be countered. What action are the British Government taking? On Monday, the Secretary of State, in answer to one of his colleagues, made it clear that this is not a national missile defence system designed only for the United States. He said:President Bush has made it clear, for example, that he wants the United States friends and allies to be protected against the potential ballistic missile threat."—[Official Report, 11 February 2002; Vol. 380, c. 9.]Everywhere we went in Washington we heard the message that this system is not available only to the United States; it would like to be able to protect its friends and allies as well.
The Government might take a lead from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), who alerted the nation to the threat at least a year ago and suggested that we should co-operate with the United States to try to eliminate it. We face that threat more imminently than does the United States. Countries such as Iran, Iraq and Libya are closer to us than they are to the US, and it is incumbent on the Government to enable us to defend ourselves if those states develop the potential to hit this country,
When we met Mark Grossman, the Under-Secretary of State at the State Department who is responsible for political affairs, he said that the US would welcome support from its NATO allies. I understand that Italy and the Netherlands have said that they would like to support the United States. What, then, are the British Government doing? They must give us an answer.
My second point relates to expenditure. I draw to the attention of the House the penultimate paragraph of today's report which refers tosignificant additional investment of £100 million to meet urgent operational requirements".That is not additional investment. When the Secretary of State came to the Defence Committee in November, he made it clear that that £100 million is to meet the cost of prosecuting the war and is different from investment; it is not new money.
I hope that the Minister will take on board the many representations that have been made, because if we are to be able to meet the threat posed by terrorists and rogue states that can get their hands on intercontinental ballistic missiles, there will have to be significant increases in expenditure. The people of Britain have seen the damage that can be inflicted by those with a desire to inflict casualties on western countries; if they are told that insuring against such an eventuality carries a cost, I believe that they will he prepared to wear it.
400 I shall end with an ancillary point about additional expenditure. The Minister recently wrote to me about project Connaght Allenby in Aldershot. I wholly oppose any policy by Her Majesty's Government to sell off large tracts of land in the south to raise money to invest elsewhere, which would be at the expense of the garrison at Aldershot, a long-established garrison town with facilities for the armed forces, especially the Army, and a culture that welcomes the forces. I urge the Government not to sell off all that land to raise money for the Treasury, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex said, accounts more to Moscow than it does to the Ministry of Defence. Will they ensure that they do not divert such funding, which should be properly raised by taxation? I shall conclude on that note, and hope that the Minister will explain how those increases will be funded.
§ Angus Robertson (Moray)
May I praise the brevity of many Members who have spoken? I, too, shall try to be as brief as possible, as I know that a number of other Members wish to speak.
I shall perhaps surprise the Minister by whole heartedly welcoming the discussion document, the announcement of a series of debates on the issues, which are important and deserve regular examination, and the detail of the Government's report. Like many others, I shall take the opportunity to praise our service personnel from Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, especially those stationed in my Moray constituency, which has two of the largest RAF bases in the UK—RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Kinloss. It will be no surprise to the Minister if I reiterate briefly the distinction that differentiates the defence policy of the Scottish National party from that of other parties in the House. We believe that defence policy should have a democratic basis. If we send someone into conflict, possibly to die for their country, that decision should be taken in the nation's Parliament which, for the SNP, is the Scottish Parliament. However, I do not expect the Minister to agree.
Moving on to the report, I support the emphasis on European security and defence policy and its headline goals, which are of great importance in the coming year. My party and I support that, as we do the partnership for peace programme. Sadly, the report omits mention of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which has an important part to play. That may be my oversight, but it does not appear to be mentioned, and no one else has talked about that important organisation today. It is an important element of peace policy in Europe. It is the only organisation on the continent that reaches as far as central Asia.
I shall not dwell on the partisan matters raised by the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce). I was going to make the point that there is not a single Scottish Labour Back Bencher in the Chamber, but the hon. Gentleman has returned in time for the start of my speech. I congratulate him and thank him for making the effort. I wish to make specific points, first, about the Territorial Army, then about the defence fire service, which has already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan).
The Minister will be aware that the SNP has consistently argued, since before publication of the strategic defence review, that there should not be a 401 diminution of the Territorial Army. At about the time that the review was published, George Robertson said:The TA should no longer be a force of last resort, held against a major threat…That means a shift in emphasis away from roles such as home defence.After the events of 11 September, which Lord Robertson certainly could not have foreseen, it is absolutely right that the Territorial Army and other reserve forces should become more central to Government defence planning.
A number of issues need to be raised with regard to the Territorial Army. First, the fact that there are too few TA numbers means that the burden of disruption caused by TA obligations falls on a smaller number of businesses that have to release their staff, and not every business is prepared to do that. That is an important issue in respect of any rise in TA numbers. TA personnel who volunteer to reinforce the regulars in peacetime do not have the right to return to their jobs on return from their duties. That is only possible when they are mobilised, and it contrasts with the conditions of the National Guard in the United States.
Military observers in Scotland believe that there are simply too few trained personnel among the 4,500 TA credibly to defend key points. Does the Minister believe that there are sufficient to cover shifts at the gates or patrol inside installations? Perhaps he can say how many platoons were needed in the cold war for key point defence. How many key points are there in Scotland? I would not expect the Minister to name them; the numbers would suffice. It is important that we have an informed debate on the role of the Territorial Army as part of the ongoing consultation.
The SNP's position since 1996 is that there should be up to 8,000 part-time volunteer reservists in Scotland. That would thicken the volunteer reserve footprint in Scotland and bring more people into the TA and the reserve forces of the other services. It would create more trained personnel, spread more widely the burden on businesses that have part-time volunteers on their staff and encourage the recruitment of regular forces. In that respect, I fully support any efforts that the Government make in reaching that number.
Mindful of the time, I turn to the fire services at RAF bases, which, since my election in June, has been overwhelmingly the largest issue brought to me by service personnel from both bases. Only a few weeks ago there was a lobby of Parliament by more than 50 fire officers from throughout the United Kingdom, and those who travelled furthest of all came from RAF Lossiemouth in my constituency. The issue has been fully outlined by the hon. Member for Selby to whom I pay tribute for his work on this. I also thank hon. Members from both sides of the House who have signed early-day motion 853 on the subject and urge others to do so.
I have a number of questions for the Minister. I have asked them before, but received no answers. They concern RAF Lossiemouth where morale among staff is at rock bottom. They have raised the matter with me, with the Transport and General Workers Union and the Moray Trades Council and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond now. They are concerned about back-fill—the ability to bring in extra firefighters to cover extra changes in the category of planes that use those bases. As the Minister will be aware, in general Tornados operate from RAF Lossiemouth but an increasing number of VC10s 402 and Tristars use it as well. Those planes are large and have heavy fuel loads and their status for firefighting goes from category 4 to category 7. The base also has squadrons on detachment and there is flying every day. Will the Minister confirm that squads at RAF Lossiemouth will be reduced from seven to six? I should be keen to hear his views on how airfield commitments can be met with fewer men. Morale is at rock bottom. Is the Minister not worried about the safety implications of that?
Specific measures were incorporated into the minutes of the local works Whitley, which met on 28 September 2001. It noted that RAF Lossiemouth is to be recategorised as a category 3 station and that its four firefighter crews will bereduced from 7 to 6 …However, the Command Fire Officer at the time—who is named in the report—stated in writing that those figures did not include crew commanders, only the operational firefighters.The report adds that the person in question has, however,now retired and Command Fire has not subsequently substantiated his statement. It transpires that the revised manning figures do include crew commanders and are now enshrined in Joint Services Publication 426.It adds:the Trade Union side wished to record its dissent over the deceitful and underhanded way in which this issue has been handled.This is matter of supreme interest to people at RAF Lossiemouth.
On 13 November 2001, the Minister said to me:I will deal with the questions posed by the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) in writing, because sufficient time is not available."—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 13 November 2001; Vol. 374, c. 234WH.]He now has the time, and I should be grateful for the answers—if not when he sums up, in writing within the next few weeks.
§ Patrick Mercer (Newark)
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson). I want to talk about morale—a crucial element of fighting power that is intangible but makes our soldiers, sailors and airmen do what they do so well.
The problems of a two-tier army may be just as applicable to a two-tier navy and a two-tier air force, but they are probably most obvious in the Army, and they are getting worse. I shall give the views of a company sergeant major of a Warrior battalion in Tidworth. The battalion has become part of the joint rapid reaction force and was alerted for action at short notice as its spearhead battalion. That means that, other than troops actually deployed on operations, no battalion anywhere else in the Army is on shorter notice to move. The sergeant major brought his company on parade, made sure that every last gaiter button was ready and every bootlace was tied, then said, "Boys, we are the leading edge—the spearhead—of the JRRF. That means we're going absolutely nowhere." In other words, the problem is that, as far as the troops are concerned, unless they are wearing a red hat or a green hat, they ain't moving.
In fact, that is not true. For example, 16 Air Assault Brigade contains elements of two fine battalions—the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment and the Royal Gurkha Rifles. The Commando Brigade contains men of the Royal Artillery, the Royal Signals, the Royal Engineers, 403 and so on. It is a growing list. Too many of the line infantry see themselves as underemployed and undervalued. Will the Minister address that?
I ask the Minister carefully to consider the plans for 2 and 52 Brigades. I applaud the idea of creating infantry brigades, but they must be given organic sappers, gunners, signals and a headquarters if they are to become proper brigades. At the moment, they are only training brigades. Although the proposals are good for the morale of the battalions inside those brigades, they do not deal with the problem.
In my opinion—and, I humbly add, my experience—the factor that erodes morale more than anything else is under-recruiting and undermanning. Earlier this week, in Defence questions, the Minister said:The figure for the Army is more than 100,000, which we hope to raise to 103,000 or 104,000 by 2005.The add-back to the strategic defence review makes it 108,000. We now face the prospect of not approaching that figure until 2005. Why is manning so chronically unsatisfactory?
The Minister went on to say:As for recruitment, I could spend the next hour describing in detail all the ways in which we have tried to tackle it…I suggest that the hon. Gentleman should begin to appreciate the complexities and difficulties, and support the Government's initiatives, rather than trying to talk down the armed forces."—[Official Report, 11 February 2002; Vol. 380, c. 14–20.]I am not trying to talk down the armed forces at all. The fact remains, however, that the examples are legion. The Omagh Battalion, which is the north-western battalion in Northern Ireland, as the Minister will appreciate, is a difficult and tough two-year posting. The battalions very rarely keep their numbers up to strength during that time; their numbers are always eroded.
The 1st Battalion, the Prince of Wales's Own Regiment of Yorkshire has just deployed with one quarter of its combat power under strength. It is completely lacking one whole company. I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I appear to be teaching him to suck eggs when I tell him that the battalion has four operational tasks to do, for which it needs four companies; it has only three. What is the solution? A unit from the famous 16 Air Assault Brigade, a battalion of the Parachute Regiment, has to provide a company to make the Prince of Wales's Own Regiment of Yorkshire up to strength. Not only do we have an ineffective battalion, but the precious resource of troops trained for airborne operations—part of 16 Air Assault Brigade—is being diverted towards relatively routine duties in Northern Ireland. It is extremely difficult for the commanding officer of that battalion to make it work properly and to maintain morale.
I tabled a written question about the number of troops leaving the Army, compared with the number entering it. The answer that I received was that the number entering is slightly higher than the number leaving. That is absolutely right, but those numbers do not shed the correct light on the problem. I spoke recently to the commanding officer of an Army training regiment. He expects to lose 20 per cent. of his recruits during phase one training. I do not take issue with that; it is probably reasonable, although unfortunate. During phase two training, he expects to lose a further 10 per cent.
404 We need to look at the numbers joining the battalions, and at the numbers leaving them. The former is chronically lower than the latter. There are one or two exceptions to that rule, however: the Light Dragoons, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, the Sherwood Foresters and, most remarkably of all, the Coldstream Guards. Those battalions and regiments are consistently fully manned, or even over-manned. How do they do it?
The answer is that they conduct their own recruiting operations, because the resources of the recruiting group are seen to be inadequate. Soldiers are, therefore, mis-employed in what the Army refers to as the black economy. Mortarmen, machine-gunners and snipers are taken away from their tasks with their battalions and paid for, clothed, equipped and fed by their commanding officers while being deployed to Middlesbrough, Birkenhead or Clitheroe, for example, where they are told to go out and get recruits. If we ask how many men and women are recruited by regimental recruiting parties on the so-called black economy, and how many are recruited by the recruiting group, we are told that the figures are impossible to assess.
I maintain that that is the way to recruit successfully. It is not fussy or sophisticated, but it works, as it has worked down the centuries. I recommend that the Minister looks closely at this matter, and takes a spyglass to the operations of the recruiting group and to the budgets allocated to it. Interestingly, commanding officers of territorial battalions are given responsibility for their own recruiting. That would not wholly work in the regular Army, but there is merit in looking to see how it is done, and how those particular regiments approach the problem and—despite the economic climate—come out with the right answer time and again.
The Sherwood Foresters, based in Chester, will be 20 men over strength in six weeks' time. They have been told, "Do not recruit any more. You are over-bearing on salaries too much, so pack in your recruiting efforts." Why? Where is the logic? Surely, if they are recruiting, they should be allowed to do so. It is not a cap badge issue, as cap badges can be used elsewhere.
I have said enough and I am grateful to the House for its tolerance. It need not be reminded, I hope, of my undying admiration for our armed forces, but we are selling them short by treating them unfairly. Soldiers, sailors and airmen want to fight and to go on operations, and such opportunities should be given to them all. If units are to be effective, they need to be fully manned and morale must be kept high.
§ Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)
I begin by paying tribute to the small but dedicated band of defence followers who have stayed until this late hour on a Thursday before a recess to discuss the important business before us. I refer to Members on both sides of the House, of course, but particularly to those on the Conservative Benches. Our interest in defence is well known and goes back a very long way indeed.
It has been a surprisingly worthwhile and heavyweight debate. I say "surprisingly" not to cast aspersions on the quality of any contribution from either side of the House, but because we made surprisingly good soup from the remarkably thin gruel that the Government served today 405 in the form of the Green Paper. It amounts to very little and is unexpectedly thin, considering the heavyweight briefing of newspapers, television and radio in the past two or three weeks. Such briefing led us to believe that the Green Paper would contain all manner of interesting announcements about the Territorial Army. The reality is that there is a tiny paragraph on that subject that amounts to very little.
We were told that the Green Paper would mention special forces, but it says nothing, and that it would discuss various aspects of defence, but such references amount to questions rather than answers. It is a thin document, but it has taken five months since 11 September for it to appear. It bears striking similarities to the speech made in November by the Secretary of State for Defence at King's college, and I suspect that today's speech was the same one, given that he appeared to be reading large portions of the Green Paper verbatim. It is disappointing and surprising that, five months after the terrible events in New York, the Government's thinking has moved no further forward than the Green Paper suggests.
I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement that there will be three further debates on defence issues and various other such topics, hopefully before the summer. I hope that we have more substantive issues to discuss by that time. Members on both sides of the House have struggled to find anything to say today on the Green Paper. There have been many interesting discussions on Chinooks and other such matters, but the Green Paper itself has not amounted to much.
In that context, I pay particular tribute to the Defence Committee, to the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who makes a huge contribution to defence matters, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who is vice-chairman of the Committee and who speaks with great knowledge. They make a great contribution to defence thinking, and their report, which immediately followed the strategic defence review, seems a great deal weightier than the flimsy Green Paper.
I want to make one or two suggestions to the Minister, and to the Secretary of State in his absence—it is a shame that he was unable to stay for the rest of the debate—that they might consider before those more substantive debates. The first suggestion concerns the foreign policy baseline. The original strategic defence review made a reasonable stab at analysing our position on global defence requirements. Presumably, some foreign policy baseline underpins the new, post-11 September chapter.
However, the truth is that the baseline was not explained to us at the time of the strategic defence review, and it has not been explained to us today. We have not been told—except through speeches and so on—what the Government's foreign policy ambitions are. If we do not know what the job is, how can we assess whether the tools that the Government are giving our armed forces are suitable? I therefore call on the Government to publish the original baseline, and to update it and make it public. There is no reason why the people of Great Britain should not know what the Government's ambitions are in the world. Let the Secretary of State announce the foreign policy baseline and its update.
Of course, all that we get on that front is the Prime Minister rushing around the world grandstanding on a variety of important issues, with comments such as, 406 "We must do something about it." He does that all the time, and most memorably in that foolishly grandiose speech at last year's Labour party conference. I recall his announcing, among other things, his intention of intervening in both Rwanda and the Congo.
If anything of the sort is likely—if that is indeed what the Labour party believes we should be doing in the world—the Prime Minister will have to discuss it with his Foreign Secretary, who seems to be rather out of the loop of late. Sadly, he did not manage to go to Africa with the Prime Minister last week. The Prime Minister will also have to discuss it with his Defence Secretary, who seems to have been ineffectual when it came to delivering the "overstretch" message at the door of No. 10. Above all, he must discuss it with his Chancellor, who will have to fork out for the realisation of his global ambitions.
I am delighted to see that the Secretary of State has at last returned. My second question is this: will he guarantee that he will properly fund the new chapter of the SDR? Most people agree that the original SDR was not at all well funded.
I must tell the Secretary of State that the runes in the papers are not at all encouraging. Over the past 12 months, it has been reported that the Treasury is demanding some £1.5 billion of defence cuts. Indeed, the Secretary of State came close to admitting as much in an interview with The Daily Telegraph last week. He said:If we are going to engage more fully in the world"—presumably along the lines described by the Prime Minister—then obviously we will need the resources to achieve that".He said in the same interview—or, at least, implied—that the defence budget was under threat. According to the newspaper,senior defence sources said they were in the middle of a 'battle royal' with the Treasury which was questioning additional costs for operations in Afghanistan.
Perhaps the Minister will tell us how confident he is of persuading his Treasury colleagues that the proposals in the new chapter, and the defence changes necessitated by 11 September, should be properly funded. Will he give us an absolute assurance of decent funding? That did not happen after the SDR.
If the Green Paper is not properly funded, it will be like so much that the Labour party does—all smoke and mirrors. The Government seem to think that saying something is just as good as doing it. We do not want more questions, more national debate, and more mucking around with fancy bits of paper; we want to know what resources they will give our excellent defence forces to enable them to perform the ever more grandiose tasks with which, apparently, they are about to be confronted.
The main news that has been trailed this week—for instance, by the Secretary of State on the radio this morning—relates to changes in the Territorial Army. I declare an interest here: I served for seven years in the Honourable Artillery Company, and was recently appointed to the Court of Assistants.
In a strange intervention, the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) accused my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) of speaking out of turn because he was paid by the Territorial Army. He also accused my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), who spoke about the 407 Chinook issue, of being dishonourable in some way. I did not entirely understand that, especially as it came from a gentleman who, I gather, was dismissed from the Army after a court martial. I thought it rather strange that he should call the honour of others into question.
§ Mr. Joyce
That is not the way it was. Moreover, the hon. Gentleman misunderstands what I said about the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot); I suggest that he read Hansard.
In a debate some years ago, the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) criticised me for being publicly political while serving as an officer. I accept that that was wrong at the time. He also stressed that there was effectively one Army—that the TA and the regular Army were one and the same. I was not criticising the hon. Gentleman today; I was drawing attention to an inconsistency.
§ The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram)
Let me try to defend the background of my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce). I do not know all the details, but an interesting issue has been raised. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that no members of the armed forces should participate in any political discussion? I should be interested to learn his point of view, and the sources of some of his information. Should they all be court martialled?
§ Mr. Gray
I was making no such suggestion. I was trying to defend two of my colleagues whom the hon. Member for Falkirk, West had chosen to have a go at. That struck me as unreasonable, especially as his background in the armed forces is, to say the least, questionable. I leave it at that: I cast no aspersions on him. The way in which he behaved during his last couple of years in the Army is a strange old business, but that is not what today's debate is about. No doubt he will want to clear his name, and if I have misunderstood, I shall be the first to apologise, but my understanding is that he should be careful about throwing accusations across the Floor of the House.
The main thing that the Secretary of State talked about on the radio this morning was the TA. I know that the TA will diligently carry out whatever task he may throw at it. He says that the TA will guard key points. He must make it plain that it will not just guard key points but perform the tasks that it is already performing. Ten per cent. of troops in the Balkans are from the TA, which is also active in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. If guarding key points is an additional duty, what extra resources will he give the TA?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), who was a distinguished Minister of State for the Armed Forces. He made particularly useful comments about the regular and Territorial Army. I take issue with him on just one point. He described himself as a sycophantic, running-dog lackey of the Government. That rang no bells with me. He makes a great contribution to defence.
408 The Green Paper hardly even mentioned the Secretary of State's plans with regard to the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force; there seems to be a large gap in the middle of it. I pose a few questions that he may like eventually to publish.
The Green Paper makes great play of defending homeland waters and airspace. I shall not intrude on the private grief raised by the hon. Members for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen), for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge), all of whom seem reluctant to support the Secretary of State's approach to ballistic missile defence, but there is a curiosity closer to home. The Green Paper says:following 11 September, elements of the Armed Forces, including air defence fighters, were placed at increased readiness. They have been scrambled to monitor suspect aircraft on more than one occasion.It says on page 5 that it is important to defend territorial waters and territorial airspace. In that case, will the Secretary of State confirm why he chose to take the opportunity to stand down 5 Tornado squadron, which I understand was responsible for the defence of London? That decision seems to conflict with what he says in the Green Paper.
Will the Secretary of State give some answers on the Royal Navy? Will he confirm how many type 45 destroyers he is ordering and when the first will be commissioned? The MOD constantly refers to "up to 12" but does he accept that if the Royal Navy is to continue its capability, it must be 12, not up to 12, ships? When will the first steel be cut on the first ship, and will she be delivered before 2008? Those are key questions that he needs to answer. It appears that the Navy will take delivery of a type 45 destroyer every six months from 2008 to 2014. Is BAE Barrow capable of delivering that?
The same applies to the number of frigates and destroyers, which seems significantly lower than that which Ministers have talked about. I think that I am right in saying that last year only 20 were available for use. Thirteen were on deployment. That means that there is no scope for royal naval deployments elsewhere. UK waters are not being patrolled by the Royal Navy at all. Since November 2001, for the first time ever, no royal naval ship has been deployed in the Caribbean.
I am glad that the Secretary of State has reconfirmed the carriers, but when does he intend to announce the decision on the planes that will be on them? Will he commit to three Astute class submarines, of which there is no mention in the Green Paper?
The same applies to the RAF. Pilot numbers are at a 10-year low. What a sign of the times it is that the Secretary of State has to offer fighter pilots £50,000 golden handcuffs to stay, just at the moment when he is closing 5 Tornado squadron.
The Eurofighter is late and badly over-budget, as we have heard. It seems to be being brought into question. Then we come to air transport and the A400M saga. Will the Minister confirm whether the A400M will definitely be delivered and if so when? From a constituency standpoint, will he ensure that it will be based at RAF Lyneham in my constituency, which I am straightforward about asking for? We cannot have all our transport eggs in one basket.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire, who raised the Chinook issue, spoke with passion. It seems that Ministers will have to explain why 409 they are not ready to accept the outcome of the Select Committee in the other place. Will they be ready to appear before a recommissioned Select Committee to explain why not? They should accept the overwhelming evidence before them.
The shortages in the procurement and spending bow waves, which are creeping up on the Ministry of Defence, are becoming realities in the Green Paper. The services do not have the resources to deliver the ever increasing tasks that the Government are giving them and the new chapter of the SDR must not be used to camouflage procurement or operational budgetary shortfalls. The Government are simply asking our superb and ever willing armed forces to do too much with too little. Will the Minister commit himself to providing the resources that they need to carry out their ever more grandiose tasks?
§ The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram)
This defence policy debate comes at a particularly appropriate and important time. I welcome all the contributions—perhaps even that of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray)—and pay particular thanks to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) for his opening comments and his recognition of the role played in our defence by the armed forces, and the intelligence services in particular. Other Members referred to that, but the hon. Gentleman's comments hit the nail on the head.
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State informed the House in opening the debate, our defence policy must be flexible and able to evolve and adapt as international circumstances change. The 1998 strategic defence review undertook an extremely important assessment of the post-cold war strategic environment. It is clear that the review, and the changes to our defence policies and structures that it has driven, remain relevant following 11 September. It provided the foundation on which real improvements to our defences, such as more rapidly deployable, sustainable, robust and versatile forces, have been based.
The review was widely welcomed in the defence community and beyond it, and it has become the framework for other nations as they examine their defence postures. However, as my right hon. Friend made clear to the House, it is vital that we consider what has changed and identify how we need to adapt to meet those new circumstances. It is important to stress that the work we are undertaking is not a new strategic defence review, no matter how others may want to portray it. It is a new chapter that builds on the review and develops our thinking in areas which, for reasons I hope we all understand, have assumed a new prominence. It will help to ensure that defence policy, which drives the military tasks that we ask our services to be able to carry out and the nature of the equipment that we procure, takes full account of the requirement to prevent and defend against terrorism in all its manifestations.
However, we are operating in a less certain context. The SDR recognised a time of more diffuse, less certain risks. Threats to the United States, our allies and our interests overseas are not always well advertised, but they are no less real. Our opponents may use terror and force to try to achieve impossible aims and objectives, and it is not always immediately obvious how our strengths, not least in military power through our armed forces, may be used to overcome those threats.
410 The work that the Secretary of State has put in hand seeks to identify what may need to be done differently, or additionally, as a result, but this is not a world turned upside down. As well as new dangers, old threats remain, and we must be ready to meet both. It may be argued that a new world exists post-11 September, but the old world has not been replaced. It continues to exist, and it is in that context that the debate is taking place.
The debate has been wide ranging and we have touched on a lot of subjects. I cannot take up every one, but let me deal with the Chinook issue. I am doubtful as to whether it touches on defence policy, but I take the point made by the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) that the outcome could affect morale. I understand the depth of the right hon. Gentleman's feeling, but I am sure that, as an ex-Minister, he knows that it would be inappropriate to respond from the Dispatch Box to a detailed and rigorous report that requires intensive scrutiny by the Department. That is being undertaken. Useful contributions have been made, but I ask all Members to take their consideration beyond the technical aspects of the report and the terrible tragedy that occurred. We also have to examine the airmanship decisions taken by the pilots on the day. They have to be weighed in the balance.
The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) tried to say that all members of our armed forces want to fight. I am not sure that he quite meant that. I remind him that the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), the Opposition Defence spokesman, said on Monday 11 February that the Government should reduce the number of military commitments. The Tories say that Britain's armed forces are involved in too many operations, but they refuse to say which commitments they would cut.
The hon. Member for Newark wants there to be more activity, but the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen say that there should be less, that every commitment suffers from mission creep, and that no mission will ever succeed. The Opposition never offer congratulations on success, just more criticism, because their approach is based on party politics.
Questions have been asked about the cost of Eurofighter. Those costs have not risen by £2.7 billion, as was claimed. The programme is subject to regular and rigorous scrutiny. Procurement costs are reported annually to the National Audit Office. In the major projects review of 2001, those costs were put at £18.8 billion. The media recently reported a figure of £21.5 billion, but that includes initial support costs that were not included in the MPR figure. The result is that like is not being compared with like.
It is true that Eurofighter procurement costs, year on year, have risen by £37 million. In a programme of such complexity, that is a modest increase of 0.2 per cent. The Comptroller and Auditor General has acknowledged that the Ministry of Defence is continuing to control costs better. In the last year, project costs overall have fallen by £100 million. Eleven projects are now below the costs specified when the decision to buy was taken.
§ Mr. Francois
The Minister mentioned the Eurofighter costs in MPR 2000, and compared that figure with what appeared in MPR 2001. What was the cost of the programme in MPR 1998?
§ Mr. Ingram
I do not carry all the relevant figures in my head. I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the 411 figure, but my point is that the audited overrun in the project is very small. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will stop running scare stories on the matter. By concentrating on cost overruns, the implication is that we should not spend the money. If that is the logic of what people are advising, I hope they will say so. If they honestly believe that the cost overrun is becoming unsustainable, I hope that they will say so and make a decision accordingly. We remain committed to the Eurofighter aircraft.
The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) asked me to pass on his thanks for the opportunities that arose to visit so many units. I hope that more hon. Members will avail themselves of the opportunities to visit armed forces units. The armed forces parliamentary scheme is a good way for Members of Parliament to be aware of everything that is happening on the front line of military activities.
Several hon. Members spoke about the role of the Territorial Army and the reserves. If I heard him correctly, the hon. Member for New Forest, West said that he was opposed to the cuts in the TA that occurred at the time of the SDR. It is worth pointing out that the Tory Government cut TA numbers by 20,000 in the 10 years to 1997. When did the Tories become converts with regard to cuts in the TA? The SDR focused on the strategic needs of the Territorial Army and the reserves. Previously, cuts in the TA numbers had been driven exclusively by Treasury demands to save money.
I do not want to fall out with my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who is not in the Chamber at the moment—[HON. MEMBERS: "He is."] I apologise, my right hon. Friend is present. Our experience since the SDR has demonstrated the validity of its conclusions with regard to the TA. The specialist support units, such as signallers, logistic units and medical troops, were the focus of the TA restructuring. They have been in heavy demand for deployment in operations in places such as the Balkans.
Other hon. Members have noted that, since 1995, around 10 per cent. of our forces deployed in the Balkans have been made up of reservists. Currently, about 700 reservists are deployed for operational service, in the UK and overseas. More than 1,700 personnel are currently on full-time reserve service—almost 800 of them in the Army. That is a clear example of the utility and cost-effectiveness of our reserve forces.
Compulsory mobilisation of the reserves does not mean that we are short of volunteers; it means greater certainty that we have the right number of people with the right skills to meet emerging requirements. I am proud that we have both the courage and the honesty to make the call-out compulsory. It is always difficult to do that. Members of the TA welcome it as a demonstration of our confidence in them. We train the reserves to be indistinguishable from the regulars alongside whom they work. We expect nothing less from them and, inevitably, they respond to the trust placed in them.
In relation to UK home defence, we are considering whether we need to enhance the assistance we provide to build our civil defence. In his opening remarks, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence said that the leading role for domestic security remains with the civil authorities. That will always be the case. However, 412 nowadays, the reservists form an integral part of our defence plans. They provide the well-trained, usable assets that we envisaged in the strategic defence review.
It was pointed out that we intend to turn the TA into a glorified security guard force. The point was well made, but the discussion paper poses questions as to whether the new situation suggests additional uses for the reserves, both abroad and at home. There are a range of possible roles at home. We have made it clear that we want to consult the current reservists and their employers before we take any decisions. We attach great importance and value to the volunteer ethos of the reserves and do not want to propose developments in their role that would undermine the enthusiasm and commitment that they bring to their work. We must have a balanced approach.
Overstretch has been raised by several Members. We take it very seriously indeed. We take it so seriously that we reduce the percentage of the Army committed to operations as soon as we possibly can—from the peak of 43 per cent. at the time of the Kosovo crisis to 27 per cent today, with most units well within the tour intervals envisaged in the SDR. My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) made perceptive comments on overstretch, which has been a problem for a long time. The other comments in his all-too-brief contribution were also perceptive.
We fully recognise the depth of the undermanning problem. We have to try to find solutions. That is why we have embarked on an intensive programme of retention and recruitment measures to stimulate the willingness of members of our community to continue to serve in the armed forces. An operational welfare package was introduced in April last year. We recently announced a major aircrew retention review after a thorough analysis of the problem. We are dealing with the extensive problems of single living accommodation.
We inherited major difficulties, with total costs running into many billions of pounds for many years ahead, but they have to be tackled if we are serious about the issues. We have announced that the recommendations of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body will be implemented in full.
In 1999, the service families taskforce was set up as a central focus for family issues and to liaise with other Departments on matters that were outside the MOD's control. I chair that committee and senior Ministers from other Departments serve alongside me trying to find answers to the problems. A wide range of recruitment strategies accompany that work.
The hon. Members for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), for Mid-Sussex and for Newark made points about a two-tier Army. We do not have a two-tier Army. Units serving with distinction in a variety of operational circumstances—in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere—are not helped by suggestions that, if they are not at the sharp end, where the real fighting is going on, or if they are not engaged in major peacekeeping events, they are not serving their country. Of course they do: they serve this country with distinction.
The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) asked about the £100 million that was announced for immediate operational requirements in and around Afghanistan. That is indeed an additional investment. I shall write to him with more details about it.
413 I do not have time to mention the defence fire service other than to say that a major review is taking place on that, and that all the work that has been done for the fire study 2000 report will of course be—
§ It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.