HC Deb 31 October 2002 vol 391 cc1019-102

[Relevant Documents: Sixth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2001–02, on Defence and Security in the United Kingdom, HC 518, and the Government's response thereto, HC 1230.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Kemp.]

1.28 pm
The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram)

This is the last of the Session's five themed debates on defence. Two weeks ago, on 17 October, we debated defence in the world. Today, we consider defence in the United Kingdom.

As earlier debates have amply demonstrated, the United Kingdom's armed forces play a role in global peace and security that is second to none. They do so in defence of this country from attack by conventional and terrorist forces and as a force for good in the world, but they also play an important role here at home. The armed forces have a presence throughout the United Kingdom, from south-west England to Scotland, and from East Anglia to Northern Ireland. They serve the people of the whole United Kingdom as part of the wider community and the economy, and in conjunction with many other agencies organisations and emergency services.

I am therefore glad that the House has before it an excellent report from the Select Committee on Defence, entitled "Defence and Security in the UK", and the recently published Government response. Those documents will help us to address the issues today.

The context of the debate, like so much of the Ministry of Defence's activity in the past 12 months, is the aftermath and implications of the appalling terrorist attacks in the United States of America on 11 September 2001. Those attacks demanded two immediate tasks of us. First, we needed to respond urgently to the direct threat facing the United Kingdom and its interests. Secondly, we needed to re-examine our policies and planning to deal with al-Qaeda and other international terrorist organisations. Those responses were both international and domestic. They involved not just the United Kingdom but our friends and allies around the world; and not just the Ministry of Defence but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Home Office, the Department for Transport, the Cabinet Office and other Departments, including the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In the House on 16 October last year, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out both the immediate campaign aims and the longer-term objectives of our wider counter-terrorist strategy: to bring the leaders of al-Qaeda to justice; to prevent that group from posing a continuing threat; and to deny it a base in Afghanistan. More widely, we sought, and continue to seek, to do everything possible to eliminate the threat posed by international terrorism from whichever direction it comes. That is a challenge that faces all responsible countries, and it is a challenge to which the response must be more than a military one alone.

After 11 September, the Secretary of State immediately commissioned work within the Ministry of Defence to address the policy challenges and to look at our defence posture and plans in the light of the potential terrorist power demonstrated so starkly on that day. That work took as its basis the Government's defence policy developed and put in place through the strategic defence review carried out in 1997 and 1998. Our approach at that time was widely recognised and welcomed as being the correct one.

As the House will be aware, the new chapter was a re-examination not of the fundamentals of the strategic defence review but of the impact on it arising from the emergence of strategic and international terrorism. The new chapter should therefore be viewed as a development of part of a whole, and not as a stand-alone strategy on defence. We published two discussion documents as part of a wide and open consultation, which produced many contributions from individuals and organisations, including Members of both Houses of Parliament. The result was the publication of the new chapter on 18 July.

That document analysed how military force could be applied in response to the asymmetric threat that international terrorism poses. We face a different sort of enemy now—one whose strategic interests, infrastructure and will to fight are different from those of a conventional nation state, but who has identified and acquired the means by which to achieve strategic and profound international effects by their actions.

Clearly, part of the response is home defence and security, to which I shall refer in a moment, but another key part of it is the "away" game: in effect, taking the fight to the enemy consistent with our obligations and rights under international law.

Mr. Michael Portillo (Kensington and Chelsea)

The Minister referred to the co-operation between Departments on this issue, which I applaud. Has he had discussions with the Department for International Development about whether funds for overseas development might in future be channelled more towards promoting good governance in some of the countries where terrorism arises? Could some of that funding be transferred towards schooling, because it seems that in places where public schooling has collapsed, militant organisations provide schools that educate the possible terrorists of the future?

Mr. Ingram

That is a good point, and it highlights the close inter-relationships that exist in taking forward the Government's strategy across a range of issues. That is why I said that our response must not be a military one alone. When we engage internationally, in any part of the world, we must look at how we ensure that we do so with the approach of trying to create a healthy society when that society may have been damaged or flawed. Afghanistan is a good example of that. Substantial aid is pouring into the country in relation to a range of measures, much of which is led by the Department for International Development and its overseas development strategy. I have visited one of the schools that was reopened in the early days post our engagement in Afghanistan. As a result of the Army being in place, that facility was rebuilt, and that kind of measure must be sustained. There are many good examples in many countries of us delivering on that basis. I am sure that that process will develop internationally. However, the right hon. Gentleman might want to pursue that directly with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, with whom I speak often on such matters.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I do not want to interrupt my right hon. Friend's flow, but I have a question on security—although it may well be partly an issue for the Home Office. If, heaven help us, we were to go to war with Iraq, what would happen to the 300,000 Iraqis living in this country? Would measures be taken of an enemy alien nature? What plans do the Government have in mind? I do not expect my right hon. Friend to answer off the top of his head, but I put down a marker that that is a real problem.

Mr. Ingram

My hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that I cannot give an answer off the top of my head. He is right that it is not a matter for the Ministry of Defence. If the problem were to be dealt with in the way he suggests, it would be the responsibility of the Home Office. I shall touch on the way in which Departments inter-relate and take the lead on a wide range of issues.

The new chapter showed that the SDR's emphasis on expeditionary operations with allies was correct. However, it also identified how to develop it by better exploiting what is known as network-centric capability. What that means in essence is that there is a need, to ensure first that our knowledge base is as deep and wide as possible and, secondly, that data are placed quickly in the hands of those decision makers who direct the response, through weapons platforms and other means, targeting the threat, however fleeting the opportunity may be. We envisage future capability being measured not by the simple number of men or weapons platforms in the overall order of battle, but by the effectiveness with which such power can be applied to hit the right target hard, fast and effectively. It is about best intelligence and best resources best used to best effect.

Whatever our objectives, however, the fact is that we live in the real world. We must recognise that the terrorist has the advantage of surprise and attacks will come according to their choice of time, place and intended effect. It will not always be possible to prevent, deter or disrupt attacks overseas. However, against that background, we have taken important steps for the protection of the United Kingdom from terrorism and for its preparedness to respond to attacks. Let me outline some of those approaches.

We have addressed attacks by renegade aircraft, which were used on 11 September. The Select Committee endorsed our general approach to that very difficult issue, and we may hear more from its members in the debate. We have taken steps that are delivering progressive improvements in our radar systems and have decided on investment that will allow quick reaction interceptors to operate from additional bases at RAF Marham in Norfolk, RAF St. Mawgan in Cornwall and RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset. Those will give air defence commanders better information and more flexibility.

In the same way as we have had the ability to intercept aircraft for many years, we have a capability to deal with renegade shipping, which is another avenue of terrorist attack. The MV Nisha incident at the end of last year showed how we can mount such operations successfully, and I pay tribute to the forces deployed and the civilian personnel involved. As a result of the new chapter, we are considering a number of ways to improve that capability further.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

My right hon. Friend said that we are in the process of dramatically improving radar. He will know of extensive reports that wind energy resources, to which the Government are committed as a major policy, are not being supported by the Ministry of Defence, which is blocking them on the basis of the implications for radar. Which one is the Government's priority? Surely the majority of the British people would support wind energy.

Mr. Ingram

My hon. Friend could have mentioned any large structure that interferes with radar. Of course, such interference may not only cause problems for any possible military response; it may affect civil aircraft. The Government's responsibility to ensure the integrity of the system need not be wholly inconsistent with the aims of our energy policy. We are pushing forward a progressive programme for the establishment of wind farms and wind turbines, but in that, as in any other planning approach, all environmental aspects have to be taken into account.

I am surprised that my hon. Friend does not understand that equation. Safety is as important as environmental issues of energy production. These matters are difficult to balance, but those who plan the construction and installation of wind generators need to know where and how they may affect radar coverage and what other environmental impacts they may have.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

On preventive measures, will the Minister tackle the security hazards associated with light aircraft and airfields that are not part of the mainstream commercial industry but sometimes deal with substantial aircraft? Will he reassure the House that that element of our aviation industry is on his radar? Will he reassure us also that the same attention is paid to the threat that comes not only from large ships but from smaller vessels entering UK harbours?

Mr. Ingram

There was always a risk that I would be asked questions outwith my remit. One of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman may be a matter for the Department for Transport and the other may be a matter for the Home Office. I suggest that he takes up those issues directly with the Departments responsible.

Our response is in aid of civil powers. We stand ready to respond to any request for aid, and that is the matter that the Select Committee examined. I assure the hon. Gentleman that all those sensitive areas are being examined, but that does not mean that there is an easy solution. Any solution may have a big impact, on, among other things, cost, leisure or the economy. As I said in response to the previous intervention, we have to work out complicated equations, trying to find the best solution while maintaining normalcy in society; otherwise the terrorists have effectively won, and that, I am sure, is not the message that the hon. Gentleman would want to send. I take note of his concerns, and I will ensure that they are passed on to the appropriate Departments.

We have also made refinements to the well-established defence capabilities that respond to specific types of terrorist incident, including CBRN threats, which are those involving chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear devices. The House will appreciate that in all those areas, renegade aircraft and shipping and CBRN threats, it is not always advisable to be too specific about what our response would be. The more we publicly define, the more the terrorist knows and the more sophisticated the threat becomes.

Let me now turn to the new chapter and the issue of reserves. We suggested in the new chapter how we might make new use of reserve forces in this country. We published a discussion paper on that topic, and I am pleased that our proposals were broadly welcomed by the emergency services, the public and the volunteer reserves themselves. I can announce the details of their full implementation today. The volunteer reserves of the three services are a capable, integrated and usable part of our capability for military operations of all types at home and overseas. The measures that we are now implementing represent a highly effective way to build a valuable new capability to meet some of the home defence risks that 11 September highlighted. They do not, however, involve changes to existing operational roles or unit structures in the reserve forces.

At the heart of the new arrangements is the establishment of a capability to provide planned assistance to the civil authorities at their request on a regional basis in the event of a home defence incident. There will be 14 civil contingency reaction forces or CCRFs, each comprising some 500 volunteers drawn from existing volunteer reservists. Each will be based on a Territorial Army infantry battalion, and 29 new reserve posts will be established in each battalion to support the CCRF role directly.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth)

We are talking about recruitment. Is the Minister worried about the impact on recruitment of young people to the Army as a result of increasing public concern about circumstances surrounding the deaths of four young soldiers at the Deepcut Army barracks, including that of James Collinson, whose family live in my constituency? [Interruption.] Members may ask how that is relevant, but there is an issue about public confidence in the Army. Is the Minister not concerned that that will have an impact on future recruitment? We need to ensure that all the good things that he is talking about can be properly implemented. Will the Minister comment on that? Perhaps the way forward—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady must resume her seat immediately when I am on my feet. She has stretched her intervention to extremes.

Mr. Ingram

I well understand the hon. Lady's point. Any death in the armed services in a non-combatant role is always to be regretted. There has been a sizeable number of such deaths, almost 50 per cent. of which are caused by road traffic accidents. That is not to minimise the impact of any of the deaths, including suicides—those that have been officially declared suicides. As for the case raised by the hon. Lady, she is a lawyer, so she should know that I am constrained by a current police investigation. She may have supported the reopening of that investigation by Surrey police and, if so, I am surprised that she is asking me to comment while it is under way. We await the outcome of that robust, in-depth analysis, which I understand will be published early in the new year, although that depends on Surrey police. It is worth pointing out to the House that Surrey police said in a press statement on 30 April: No further information will be released until the enquiries are completed for fear of prejudicing any possible proceedings. Hopefully, the hon. Lady appreciates the way in which that constrains any comment on those cases.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)


Mr. Ingram

May I just finish dealing with the intervention by the hon. Lady, who linked the issue to problems in recruitment? People are rushing to judgment who should know better—they should wait to find out what the police say. Some months ago, I asked the Army to take a health check on all the ways in which it delivers initial training. On top of that, I made an announcement in the House on 17 October, mindful of wider concerns that we conduct an in-depth appraisal of t raining of non-officer recruits in all three services. That work is being conducted independently of service commands, and I intend to make its findings public. I have already announced that to the House.

In addition, the Select Committee on Defence is due to carry out its own inquiry. I understand that it will wait until the police investigations have been completed and reported on. We must establish the facts before we come to conclusions.

I understand the sensitivity of the matter and the grief within individual families, which may become collective. Before I took up my present job, I was the Minister with responsibility for victims. I set up a range of victim responses in Northern Ireland. I am only too well aware of the problems associated with these matters. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence met one of the families earlier this year. We do our best to try to take on the depth of feeling. I hope that the hon. Lady now understands the way in which we are constrained.

Even with all the publicity, we are doing exceptionally well in recruiting terms, to such an extent as to put pressure on our training pipeline. There is no relationship between the two at present. However, the more the hon. Lady raises concerns without establishing the facts, the more she may work against the recruitment strategy. There is an onus on all right hon. and hon. Members first to establish and examine the facts and then come to judgment. We must not come to a rushed judgment. It is always difficult to strip out the emotion. We must try to find what is best for the families, for the armed forces, and for the defence of this country.

Mr. Hawkins

As the constituency Member for Deepcut, I associate myself with everything that the Minister has said about this matter. May I pay tribute to both Ministers for the way in which they have responded to the concerns that I have raised? While sharing the grief of the families, I hope that the Minister will agree with me that both the current commanding officer at Deepcut and his colleagues and Surrey police are approaching the matter in a responsible way.

As the Minister was aware, I was waiting for a more relevant part of his speech before intervening. However, as the matter has been raised, I ask him to join me in condemning some rather sensationalist and irresponsible journalism. I understand that many tabloid newspapers are having reporters permanently stationed in local pubs in my constituency to try to pick up any little tittle-tattle or scuttle-butt that they can then have blazoned in the largest headlines available to them. That is certainly not helping the defence interests of this country, nor is it helping the understandable grief of the families involved. I ask the Minister to continue his responsible and restrained approach and wait for the report of the Surrey police.

Mr. Ingram

I am grateful for that intervention. I share the view expressed about the commanding officer and the Surrey police. They have had to take all the criticisms and speculation in the media, which are not solely made up by the media because sometimes people are speaking to representatives of the media. They then expand upon what has been said and maximise the headline impact. It does everyone who is trying to deliver an important service a great disservice when the matter is tackled in that way. I share the hon. Gentleman's concerns. I hope that those who are trying to exploit what are undoubtedly matters of deep grief will step back for a moment. I hope that the media, like right hon. and hon. Members will show a measure of responsibility.

Mr. Dalyell

Before I ask the Minister of State a general question on policy, may I thank the Under-Secretary of State for the care that he and his office have shown in respect of one of my constituents, who will be known to him?

It has hitherto been axiomatic that any problems were dealt with within the military, within the Army. What is the Government's attitude to bringing in the police from outside? That is rather a new development. It might be interesting for the House to know what the thinking was, in general terms, on bringing in the civilian police.

Mr. Ingram

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his opening compliments to my ministerial colleague. There is a big misunderstanding, promulgated by the press in its reporting of the matter. The police have always had primacy in such incidents. They pass on their findings to the internal branch of the Ministry of Defence police, who are as professional as the civilian police and equally committed to establishing the truth. A board of inquiry follows. If the board sets out matters that need to be addressed, we seek to address them. That happened in the case of two of the earlier suicides at Deepcut, as they were then described. The board of inquiry made recommendations, which were progressively developed and rolled out by the previous Administration. In addition, the findings of a board of inquiry are made available to the families, if they so wish.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham)

I fully support the view that we should await the outcome of the police investigation, and I do not think that some of the more sensationalist headlines have been helpful to the debate about what is going on at Deepcut, or to the families. But does my right hon. Friend recognise that the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) raised an important point? If four people have died, possibly as a result of suicide, something is seriously wrong, and that could affect recruitment.

Mr. Ingram

I knew that there was a big "but" in that question. My hon. Friend said that he accepts the way in which I answered the hon. Lady.

Mr. Jones

I did not say that.

Mr. Ingram

So my hon. Friend does not accept that I am constrained while waiting for the outcome of the police investigation. I thought that he accepted that that was the correct approach. [Interruption.] I can deal with heckling. If my hon. Friend wants to intervene again and correct any misunderstanding on my part, he should do so. My understanding was that he accepted that I was constrained. He goes on to draw a conclusion. He does not know what the police will say, but he says that something is deeply worrying and something needs to be done, so we should get on with it. That is how I interpret his comments.

I tried to make it clear that we entirely understand the depth of the grief of individual families, and the collective grief. We are trying to work our way through the matter. I pointed out that it has not had an impact on recruitment. I do not want to make too much of that, because the situation could be changing as we consider it. The more the lurid headlines and sensationalist arguments are raised by those who may not have a direct interest as a constituency Member of Parliament, the more likely it is that there will be a deleterious effect on recruitment. We need caution and careful thinking. We must wait for the facts, get them marshalled, and then make judgments. That is the way we approach such matters in the Ministry of Defence. To do otherwise would serve no one, least of all the families or the bigger issue of the defence of this country.

The new arrangements on which I was commenting complement and improve our existing practices for using the armed forces at the request of emergency services and local authorities in support of civil contingencies. They add a new capability, but they do not mean that we will use only volunteer reserves in this role. In future, as now, in the event of an incident, the regional commander will be able to judge which of the units at his disposal best match the needs of the authorities seeking support. Precisely what units are employed in a given situation will, as ever, depend on what we are asked to do and what we have available in the time scale required.

There will be some 280 new reserve posts in Army division and brigade headquarters to provide regional planning, liaison and command and control for such operations. These brigade reaction teams will work with the emergency services and local authorities to develop specific plans for the use of CCRFs in their areas. Regional planning will also consider where other formed units, including those in the reserve forces of all three services, have capabilities that can be incorporated into planned incident responses. In the event of an incident, the brigade teams will be capable of providing a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week command structure.

Individuals volunteering for CCRF duties will receive additional training of five days a year, and we intend to provide additional training of two days a year for all the volunteer reserves in the three services in support of civil contingencies activity generally.

2 (National Communications) Signal Brigade will be assigned the role of providing the communications infrastructure to support the regional command chain. We have started the procurement process to give it new communications equipment compatible with that being adopted by the emergency services. That is a key part of ensuring that the military response can be employed effectively alongside those primarily responsible for dealing with civil contingencies. 2 Signal Brigade will provide an interim military capability from the end of this year, although the achievement of a full national communications capability depends on the emergency services own communications improvement programme and will not be complete before 2006.

In total, there will be an addition of some 700 new volunteer reserve posts, and some 130,000 man training days to the volunteer reserves in order to create that new capability.

We expect to have an initial operating capability in place by the end of the year. We plan a regional full operating capability by 31 December next year, which will include all new posts recruited and filled, and all regional plans fully in place and tested. The complete capability will not be in place until 2006 when the new national communications infrastructure is fully deployed.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

I thank the Secretary of State, through the Minister, for the advance notice that he gave me and, I am sure, others of that announcement. Will those recruited to the CCRFs be from those already in the Territorial Army? I suspect that many civilians will have relevant specialties, so will the Minister ensure that the message is distributed as widely as possible, not just to existing members of the TA but to others, and that there will be a mechanism for them to join the TA so that they can contribute to this good initiative?

Mr. Ingram

That is a good point. The hon. Gentleman may want to become a recruiting sergeant for the TA and assist us in achieving that objective. People have to be in the TA to participate, and the more who show willingness to participate in this aspect of public service, the better it is for the country. Therefore, my answer is most certainly yes.

The Select Committee made some comments about the Government machinery for responding to the terrorist threat. Not all those comments were entirely fair. It suggested that there were signs of complacency. I can assure the House, just as the Government in their response to the report assured the Committee, to which I gave evidence, that there is no complacency, nor will the Government tolerate complacency.

Mr. Kevan Jones

That is reassuring.

Mr. Ingram

I am glad that I have convinced my hon. Friend of the merits of my argument.

The Committee suggested that there was room for improvement in the Government machinery designed to co-ordinate the response to the terrorist threat. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has lead responsibility for counter-terrorist policy and plays a leading role in co-ordinating the issues and measures being taken to strengthen the UK's ability to respond to the terrorist threat. The police have, perhaps, the largest role to play and, as we know, they do so with courage and skill. But many other agencies contribute. The armed forces make an important contribution to the response, contributing their specialist skills and capabilities. The counter-terrorist threat contingency plans are tried and tested and designed to respond to a wide range of terrorist threats.

There is always room for improvement. Plans are tried and tested so that lessons can be learned and improvements made, and to ensure that the response can be adapted to new threats and new forms of threat.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

The Minister has had strong support from the official Opposition in the measures that have been taken to counteract the effects of organised terrorist groups, but I take his mind back to the period immediately after 11 September when we had the anthrax scare in the United States and the copycat element of the sending of harmless white powder by individuals who clearly were not organised terrorist groups but opportunist disrupters. Has attention been given to that copycat element of the individual malcontent as opposed to the penetration of organised groups, which I am sure the security services are doing their best to undertake?

Mr. Ingram

It is always difficult to reassure hon. Members about that issue, because the range of the threat is huge. It is almost impossible to apply a common definition, although the hon. Gentleman tried to set out his particular one. Even organised groups choose a time and place and an intended effect. As to individuals, as I am sure he recognises, if they are not in a loop of understanding and are not connected to a group or network, they are very difficult to detect.

All that we can seek to do is ensure maximum public co-operation at all times and encourage people to report anything of a suspicious nature. Clearly, the civil authorities have to put in resources, but they cannot tackle every threat in every month of every year. That is simply not possible. There are not enough resources to be thrown in. If we invested more in one area, a threat might then come from a different direction and a different individual. We must recognise the sort of world in which we now exist, as well as the nature of our domestic and civil society. To some extent, the incidents in the United States involving hoax threats, which also had some impact here, showed up some fragility in our response, but we learned from that and put in place mechanisms to deal with it. We learned something from exactly what happened. Indeed, we are currently on an enormous learning curve and all of us have to give our best attention to that.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

I thank the Minister for his courtesy in giving way. Does he accept that we need not only additional resources, but much greater clarity in the command and control involved in dealing with some of the threats? That is the case not only within the military, where such clarity tends to be good, but in its relationships with local authorities, for example. I know that this is not his primary area of responsibility, but can he give the House some indication of whether serious consideration is being given to including an emergency planning Bill in the Queen's Speech? Many of the people involved believe that such a measure is vital for our defence.

Mr. Ingram

The hon. Gentleman should have asked that question of the Leader of the House, who would probably have given him the same answer: we do not comment about what will be contained in a Queen's Speech. Indeed, I would not even comment on Bills with which the Ministry was specifically concerned unless they had been previously declared as a part of future Government action. None the less, he makes a serious point. There must be joined-up government, and from the perspective of the Ministry of Defence, we must be certain that when we are asked to do something, we can use a coherent and well-brigaded command structure, as that will make our response much better. Clearly, discussions in that regard are under way at all times in government.

The whole question of learning from experience was already inculcated into the Government's mind before the attacks on the United States, because we had already begun to review and improve the contingency planning for managing a disaster. That included the consequences of a terrorist attack in the United Kingdom. We drew experience from the fuel protest, the floods of winter 2000 and the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, which led to the formation of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in the Cabinet Office to draw together and co-ordinate the different strands of Government activity that come into play in handling such complex and demanding events. I sit on a number of the committees that deal with such matters. There is a clearly focused dynamic in looking for new ways forward, and the process is about bringing together the strands into a clear, well-focused and well-delivered Government response under the Home Secretary's control.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater)

On the brigades system, will the brigades be responsible for co-ordination in their regions between the police and other emergency strands or will such co-ordination come under the control of the Ministry of Defence as part of an overall package? In other words, will the brigades be responsible for the day-to-day running of operations?

Mr. Ingram

They are a resource; they do not decide that they will be used. If a request is presented, a decision will be made about how best to use them. They could be on their own or alongside regulars as part of another MOD response. It depends on the circumstances. However, a request must be made; the brigades are not self-activating but, like the regular forces, they stand ready to serve the civil powers.

Of course, there are other aspects of defence in the United Kingdom apart from the threat from global terrorism. Although there is a greater hope for a lasting peace in Northern Ireland now than for much of the past 30 years, the need to deploy the armed forces continues. Some 14,000 personnel are currently deployed to the Province and act in support of the police. They continue to face a threat from dissident terrorist organisations and the violence on the streets of Belfast that marred so much of the past year. As well as providing the police with additional resources to secure law and order, they have helped them to carry out wider duties by giving protection and support in the search for and capture of terrorists, their weapons and equipment.

In Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, members of explosive ordnance disposal teams continue to support the police and protect the lives of the citizens of this country by carrying out their dangerous but essential service of disposing of old unexploded ordnance and dealing with terrorist bomb threats.

The armed forces are called upon to undertake another category of civil contingency operation from time to time. Today, many armed forces personnel from all three services stand ready to provide firefighting support to the community in case of industrial action by members of the Fire Brigades Union. They are working closely with the police, the ambulance service and many others, including non-striking firefighters throughout the country, to mitigate the effects of any strike.

Jim Knight (South Dorset)

Does not the firefighters dispute raise an anxiety about the way in which our armed forces are configured for expeditionary activity, and the extent to which they are being used around the world? Do we have the capacity to respond with military aid to the civilian power? Is my right hon. Friend worried, like me, about the effect of a possible firefighters' dispute on morale through, for example, loss of leave?

Mr. Ingram

The possibility of a strike puts a significant strain on our armed forces. If the strike continued for some time, it would greatly curtail many activities in which we are currently involved. We must also bear in mind that we do not know what future deployment may be required. There are therefore serious issues to consider. However, the response to the dispute, the numbers that we have been able to commit and the preparedness of men and women of the armed forces to take on an onerous task is a tremendous tribute to them. There is a personal cost, not only to them but to their families. I hope that those who are considering industrial action will hear that message.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram

I am conscious that I have spoken for a long time. The last time I opened a debate, I spoke for 72 minutes and the shadow Leader of the House condemned me the next day. I spoke for such a long time then because so few Opposition spokespersons were present to keep the debate going. I want to make some progress.

The armed forces cannot fully replace the broad spectrum of capability that the emergency services provide, and they cannot be party to the dispute that we are considering. Although I am sure that hon. Members will join me in hoping that the dispute is resolved as quickly as possible, we have implemented a contingency plan to provide a service that will minimise as much as possible the danger to human life during any action. The 19,000 personnel who would undertake the tasks are disciplined, capable, well organised and led. They have been trained to perform the tasks that they would be expected to undertake to the best standard possible in the time available.

Hon. Members can be confident that the armed forces are able to rise to the occasion with enthusiasm and determination, should they be asked to do that.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

The hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) made a specific point about the cancellation of leave. In a debate in Westminster Hall earlier this week, I raised the great concerns of the Welsh Guards whose families have lost deposits for cancelled holidays and have not been reimbursed. The Under-Secretary rightly said: I should think that if people are losing deposits because of unforeseen operational commitments, I would expect them to be reimbursed."—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 29 October 2002; Vol. 391, c. 228WH.] Will the Minister tell us whether the MOD has resolved that problem so that we can convey the message to the Welsh Guards and others throughout the country?

Mr. Ingram

I noted the response to the debate, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I asked questions. My hon. Friend may want to deal with the matter later. There are standard practices for tackling such matters against which we have to set applications for compensation. The best information available is that something is likely to be done because that would be consistent with the procedures. However, that does not apply across the board because people can insure against potential loss, for example, if something is planned and we fail to deliver. When the tempo demands short-notice deployment, which militates against everything else, we must deal with the matter properly and sympathetically.

Existing operational demands on the armed forces remain. Although there may be a need to maintain emergency fire cover if the dispute continues, the impact on their primary duties of defence of the UK interests and acting as a force for good will remain under review and be balanced against other commitments.

Providing emergency cover can be undertaken only at some expense. That means not only the financial cost but, as we said earlier, a cost to service personnel. We will do everything necessary to mitigate the impact on personnel of providing cover. We have done our best to ensure that the burden is shared. For example, there are several specialist groups in the three services that, because of their specific skills, are more susceptible to overseas deployment. Whenever possible, those "force enablers" will not be deployed on firefighting operations. However, it is unavoidable that many armed forces personnel who may be involved in firefighting duties will be inconvenienced, through postponed leave and disrupted training.

All the operational capabilities that I mentioned depend especially on the men and women of the three services. The demands on them are considerable. Availability of suitably trained and motivated personnel is vital to operational success. A vital element of the strategic defence review was the "Policy for People" recognition that our defence depends on our armed forces personnel and their families, and the civil servants who work with them. The armed forces overarching personnel strategy ensures that people remain at the centre of our plans.

Hon. Members have mentioned recruitment in interventions. It is one of our highest priorities. The services are engaged in a fierce competition for talent; they need approximately 24,000 individuals every year. They undertake many varied initiatives to find and recruit those young men and women.

Let me comment on the MOD's status as an employer. It complies fully with the responsibilities required of any employer unless there are strict operational reasons for not doing that. Often, we provide far more than many other employers because of what we demand.

We are not into making people, but breaking people Our training develops thousands of highly motivated., highly qualified and highly professional service men and women whose performance and record of success are second to none. If serious institutional problems existed, we could not provide what we do. As I said earlier, we take on 24,000 people each year. The vast majority become regular service men and women. It is worth noting that between 17,000 and 18,000 service men and women leave the services each year, and society is the better for them.

We are not complacent, and I am not saying that problems do not exist. Given the numbers involved at any one time in our training pipeline, it would be wrong to claim that we were perfect. I would ask that we be judged on our high level of success, against the background that. I have just set out. Nevertheless, we must keep a constant and critical eye on what we do, and if lessons need to be learned we will learn them. That is why progressive changes to personnel policy have been made over the years, designed to ensure the high quality of our outputs. Once recruited, it is important that we keep these highly trained assets.

As with recruitment, there is no single approach that will address retention. Our approach to that issue embraces a balanced and layered mix of measures, some dealing with broad issues such as pay, pensions, training, families, accommodation and diversity, and others addressing issues of concern to particular high value groups such as air crew, medical personnel and engineers.

I want to move on to defence industrial policy. Of course, we must ensure that the armed forces are well equipped to do their job. We are committed to a strong and globally competitive UK defence industry. We all benefit from its high value, high technology skill base. Over the last 18 months, with the help of the National Defence Industries Council, we have reviewed our defence industrial policy with a view to making the UK defence industry more competitive and better able to provide the armed forces with the equipment that they need, at best value for money for the taxpayer.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State launched this new policy on 14 October. We have identified three main priorities to take forward: getting best value from our acquisition decisions; improving market access; and investing in research and technology. Competition remains at the heart of our acquisition system. We use it to place some 70 per cent. of our equipment orders by value, and it remains the best means of delivering value for money, innovation and efficiency. But let me repeat the Secretary of State's promise that, for this Government, competition will always be a tool, not a dogma. Our goal is best value for money. If competition does not offer the greatest advantage for a project, we will not use it. However, value for money needs to be considered in a wider context than discrete project decisions. Often, decisions that we take now will shape defence decisions in the future, when, for example, they may impinge on the preservation of competition. So we look across projects and into the future to take into account all the factors that enable us to get best economic value for the United Kingdom.

I began by saying that the context of the past year had been the atrocities committed by international terrorists in the USA last year. Of course, there have been other terrorist attacks since then, including the vicious attack in Bali on 13 October. I set out to make two things clear, in opening this debate. The first is that the Government as a whole are committed to ensuring that the security of the United Kingdom is maintained and enhanced. The second is that the Ministry of Defence is both ready and able to play its important role in that essential work. As well as being a force for good internationally, we are a vital source of comfort and security at home. Post-11 September, we face enormous challenges. We have the trained personnel ready to meet those challenges and we are increasingly equipping them with the equipment and resources to help them to carry out their task. We have also put in place the response machinery at the heart of government to ensure that we stand ready, no matter from where, or when, the next threat comes.

2.23 pm
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

I do not regard this debate on the defence of the United Kingdom as separate—in its own box—from our debate on defence in the world, and I do not think that the Minister does either. All hon. Members realise that, even before 11 September, the threats at home and abroad overlapped. It is unfortunate that, owing to parliamentary timetabling, there is a clash between this debate and one that is about to begin in Westminster Hall on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report on the foreign policy aspects of the war against terrorism. A number of hon. Members were rather torn between attending that debate and this one.

I shall begin by extending our congratulations to the members of the Special Air Service and the Special Boat Service, and the Royal Air Force crews on the gallantry awards made to them for their role in Afghanistan. They get a lot of publicity, some of which is perhaps unfortunate, but the nature of the operations that they undertake often makes it difficult for them to get proper public recognition. I am conscious that discussing operational or training matters in relation to our special forces is not something in which we should indulge, but we should all recognise that, although those forces are high quality, they are limited in numbers and used on an extensive scale. That means that the time available to them for reorganisation, retraining and recuperation is often very limited. We should be aware that they have to put even more into those activities than members of the regular armed forces, of which they are, of course, a part. Unlike the special forces in some countries, ours are directly recruited from our mainline armed forces. They do not just have a label attached to them because they happened to join the service directly from civilian life.

The death of service men from non-combat injuries has been mentioned. The Minister rightly said that he could not comment on the incidents at Deepcut barracks, and I do not intend to draw him on that matter, or to comment on it myself. I obtained the information from a recent parliamentary question that there had been some 445 recorded suicides between January 1984 and 31 December 2001. Any one of those suicides is a tragedy" not least for the family concerned. That number of suicides may be the same as, or smaller or greater than, the number that occurred in civil society in that period. We should bear that in mind.

I want to draw on what the Minister said about the important review of how young recruits are treated and trained. Obviously, the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force want to get this right. Will the Minister tell us whether the fact that many of our young recruits fail or leave the services is a problem specific to the United Kingdom, or whether it is mirrored in other NATO countries? Furthermore, is it a problem specific to the Army, as against the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force?

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that only Britain and Belgium recruit children into the Army? Given that some of the suicides that have been mentioned involved children, does he think that we should learn lessons from other NATO countries on the recruitment and deployment of children in our armed forces?

Mr. Simpson

The word "children" immediately conjures up an image of people aged 11 or 12, rather than 17 or 18. The Government have already made some progress on this matter, but there are people in the Chamber who have served in the armed forces who know only too well that the recruitment of what used to be called "boy soldiers" was a superb way of recruiting long-service men and women for the armed forces. We are talking here about volunteer armed forces, not conscripts. I believe that the Government are taking serious measures on this matter in relation to the Army. All that I am trying to do is ask a series of specific questions.

There is a difficulty—particularly in the Army; less so in the Navy and the Air Force—in determining how we strike the right balance between producing a training mechanism that merely goes through the motions of preparing for military life, and one that actually prepares for combat. At the end of the day, we would all expect any form of bullying or training that puts young people's lives in danger to be ruled out. However, training has to be robust and realistic, not least because we may expect those young men and women, perhaps within a matter of months, to go into an environment that will be far more robust and realistic than any British training establishment. There is a fine balance to be struck, and I suppose that the old Army motto—"Sweat saves blood"—is very much in the minds of those on the training establishment. I hope that the Army produces a report and that it is published. Perhaps we shall have the opportunity to debate it.

I must discuss the strength of the armed forces. As of 1 April 2002, the Army, the Navy and the Royal Air Force had a manpower shortfall. I shall not go into the minutiae of that, which we could debate, although I believe that the issue is important. It was highlighted in the debate on overstretch in Westminster Hall this week by my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight). I am raising it in the context of not only UK defence, but defence in the world.

All the problems involving shortfall and its impact on training and operations as well as the difficulties of retention and family issues will be made worse by the continuing challenge represented by not only homeland defence and achieving expeditionary force capability, but the fact that falling below a numerical critical mass will make it incredibly difficult for the armed forces to fulfil a number of functions. I genuinely believe that, and I recall that, 12 years ago, General Sir Richard Vincent, Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff, argued to Ministers that if the Army fell below about 100,000 men and women, it would be difficult to maintain a raft of capabilities. I am sure that Ministers are aware of that, and the position is similar for the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.

On that point, will the Minister clarify press reports that some 30 per cent. of the Royal Navy's type 42 destroyers and type 23 frigates are out of action because their crews are ashore preparing for firefighting duties and other responsibilities? If that is the case, it is obviously a considerable challenge to the Royal Navy and it shows the tight operational conditions in which the armed forces are working. If they have such concurrent responsibilities, I suggest that that means that their overall effectiveness is incredibly limited.

During the Westminster Hall debate, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) made the point that the armed forces can cope with all that because they have a can-do mentality. Indeed, in a strange way. the armed forces are their own worst enemy. They often say that they are short of manpower and do not have the right equipment, and then go on to carry out Government policy—they deliver on it. I suspect that, not Ministers, but the Treasury, then says, "There you are. The armed forces were crying wolf, because they delivered."

I fear that the real issue could be sustainability. Any lengthy, full-scale operational war-fighting commitment, which most of us would rather not think about, would test the system to breaking point. There is little spare capacity, and Ministers are only too well aware that, in the event of us participating in a United Nations or other operation against Iraq that is not a quick fix, like those in Kosovo and Afghanistan, there will be major problems for the armed forces across the board.

May I ask the Minister to comment in his winding-up speech on the National Audit Office report that half the Army's Apache helicopters will have to be taken out of service for up to four years because the private finance initiative training programme is three years behind schedule?

Mr. Ingram

It was started by the Conservatives.

Mr. Simpson

From a sedentary position, the Minister does what the Liberals usually do—blame the last Conservative Government. Indeed, we might blame the last Labour Government, but the good thing is that we cannot blame the last Liberal Government, as they were in office so long ago. Of course, I recall that the 1915 shell shortage brought down the Liberal Government.

There is a serious point here: such failure to deliver on the Army's key programme—Apache helicopter capability—represents not only a defence procurement scandal, but an undermining of the morale of our armed forces. The Minister needs to consider that, not least because we were promised under the strategic defence review that smart procurement would resolve all the procurement bottleneck problems faced by all previous Governments. So far, I have seen little evidence of that.

Mr. Kevan Jones

I accept that it is the Opposition's role to look for opportunities to criticise a Government, but do the hon. Gentleman and his party accept no responsibility for the state of affairs relating to the Apache helicopter? Some of the decisions were taken by the previous Government.

Mr. Simpson

I hope that, in speaking from the Dispatch Box on defence issues, I have accepted that there is a continuity of decision making that sometimes goes back 15 or 20 years. I am proud of the fact that a Conservative Government decided to go ahead with the Apache, but if we are getting into this knockabout stuff, I have to say that I do not recall all Labour Members being in favour of it. The Labour party was arguing for larger cuts. The real issue today, which is all that service men and the public are interested in, is how we resolve the issue. There is a major shortfall and we could be sending some of our armed forces abroad to what might be a serious war with a capability that could be reduced.

Mr. Jones

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point. but it is not the point that the shadow Secretary of State for Defence made this morning on the "Today" programme. He tried to blame this Government for the problems with the Apache. Does the hon. Gentleman accept some responsibility for the situation in which we find ourselves—yes or no?

Mr. Simpson

No, because the problem clearly involves the training package and the simulator, not the fact that the Apache was ordered. The hon. Gentleman has got the wrong end of the stick.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

We on these Benches had little option but to support the Apache, not least because it was being built by Westland. The then leader of the Liberal Democrats, who represented Yeovil, made his views pretty clear, although the project was well worth supporting for its own intrinsic merit.

Is there not a curiosity here? In the past, we had men but no equipment. Now we have equipment but no men. Exactly what is the hon. Gentleman's assessment of the detraction from capability that putting those helicopters to one side for a period will have on the Army's ability, for example, to conduct campaigns such as that envisaged, at least by some, in Iraq?

Mr. Simpson

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point, and achieving such modern war-fighting capability as the Ministry of Defence wants will he extremely difficult. As I said in the debate on defence in the world, there is an additional problem over procurement in that the communications package that, it is hoped, the Apache will receive may have to be upgraded quickly to enable it to continue to communicate with the armed forces of the United States of America. The problem facing the MOD is challenging to say the least.

Mr. Francois

Is not the whole concept of air manoeuvre, to which the Apache is integral, very important to 21st-century warfare and, in particular, to the Army? There is not much point in preaching the concept of air manoeuvre, however, if half those helicopters sit in hangars because we have not been able to train pilots to fly them.

Mr. Simpson

Absolutely. The Government originally, and rightly, put at the centre of the strategic defence review the prospect of an Apache helicopter force that would be able to carry out the operations to which they would commit the Army.

Mr. Dalyell

Language is often very revealing in the House. The hon. Gentleman used the words "a serious war" May I gently ask him to urge some caution—along with a number of his distinguished Conservative colleagues—on the Leader of the Opposition in regard to the language he uses in egging on those who are thinking of a serious war?

Mr. Simpson

I am always very careful about giving leaders any advice. I feel—the Minister probably feels the same—that those who go to see a leader are rather like the grand vizier who used to go to see the sultan and, when he left, used to shake his head to make certain that it was still on.

Harry Cohen

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Simpson

How can I resist the hon. Gentleman?

Harry Cohen

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said that language was important. Just before he started talking about the Apaches, the hon. Gentleman said that we might become involved in a UN-led war or a war led by others in Iraq. Surely the Opposition would not favour a war that was against international law—would they?

Mr. Simpson

I was speaking academically. I am not a Minister, unfortunately; the hon. Gentleman would do better to put his question to the Minister who is present. I was merely reflecting speculation that has taken place in the media.

As the Minister pointed out, the armed forces are not just our first but our last line of defence. That "can do" mentality means a number of things. More than a year ago, the forces were brought in to resolve the logistical problems caused by foot and mouth. Brigadier Birtwistle arrived with virtually no knowledge of the problem. He scribbled on the back of an envelope, and made certain that things were done while others in public service found the circumstances frustrating or almost impossible to deal with.

As the Minister said, some 19,000 service personnel have been training to undertake defensive firefighting in the event of a firemen's strike. I am sure the whole House hopes that the use of those personnel will not be necessary. I was lucky enough to visit the Army barracks at Swanton Morley in my constituency last Friday, 25 October. RAF personnel from Marham and Coltishall are deployed throughout Norfolk in contingency training; some 170 have been taken away from specific tasks until 24 December, with no roulement and no leave. I watched an exercise involving Green Goddesses, specialists from the RAF and defence fire service rescue units. I join the Minister in paying tribute to Squadron Leader MacIntosh and the men and women under his command, who are preparing for an eventuality that will put great stress and strain on them.

There is no doubt, despite the excellent work being done, that the Green Goddesses are slow. They have small water tanks. These Green Goddesses were using hoses from the 1950s, and their operational area in my constituency will extend as far as the north Norfolk coast. The personnel concerned took their training seriously, and showed considerable enthusiasm; but, with the best will in the world—this is not really an issue for the Minister, but he might pass it on to the Deputy Prime Minister—those fire tenders are very old. I suspect that when they were called out in the 1970s, many of us assumed that that was their last hurrah. We may well have to think about a future requirement—particularly in terms of homeland defence—for a reserve capability that is slightly more realistic.

When I left Swanton Morley I had with me my 11-year-old son, who had sat in the car watching the demonstration. I had told him what it was all about. As we drove away he said that he had found it very enjoyable and interesting, but were the fire engines now going back to the museum? The Government should think carefully about the effectiveness of those machines should they ever be used again.

The Minister spoke of the new SDR chapter. The Government's 1998 SDR, written at the end of the cold war, said: there is…no direct military threat to the United Kingdom or Western Europe. Within three years that had moved sideways, and the Government have admitted that they did not fully cater for threats on the scale which materialised on 11 September, and we therefore looked again at out defence posture and plans. When we discussed defence in the world, the Secretary of State made a welcome announcement to which the Minister did not allude. He announced that the British Government would carry out a series of studies of requirements for ballistic missile defence. That is an important subject, not least because of defence from missile attack against the United Kingdom, but also because ballistic missile defence might well be the other side of the strategic coin with the Government's willingness to consider a pre-emptive strategy.

Perhaps the Minister will comment on the fact that, following the Secretary of State's announcement, the French Government appear reluctant that NATO should fund studies on ballistic missile defence. Most of us probably regard ballistic missile defence as being not unique to the defence of the UK homeland, but relevant to the wider European mainland.

The Select Committee produced an excellent report on defence and security in the United Kingdom. The Minister said that it had been extremely critical about a number of matters. I will not go into the details because I know that they will be raised by others, but, having listened to the Minister, I am concerned about the crucial issue of who is ultimately responsible for homeland defence. It must ultimately be the Prime Minister. Sir David Omand in the Cabinet Office is the co-ordinator of activity, but I must say this, with the best will in the world—I suspect the Minister is aware of it—when I listened, at a tactical level, to his explanation of the role of reserve forces, I perceived a certain amount of blurring around the edges in terms of lines of communication, command and control, and who was ultimately responsible, not least because so many Government and local government agencies are involved.

We all know that "co-ordination" frequently means moving pieces around the chessboard, rather than action. I suggest to the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) that it might be an idea for his Defence Select Committee, the Select Committee on Home Affairs and the Intelligence and Security Committee to consider a joint study of homeland defence, giving specific consideration to co-ordination. At present it seems unlikely that, in the event of a major terrorist incident in the United Kingdom, we would witness a seamless reaction by the Government. It seems unlikely that there would be someone in overall command and control, and that that would be arranged quickly. I think that the Ministry of Defence would react quickly. However, I am concerned about the co-ordination across Whitehall. I urge Ministers to press the rest of Whitehall strongly on that.

I thank the Minister for his statement on the role of the reserve forces, not least because it justifies all the hon. Members on both sides of the House who said in the Chamber when the strategic defence review was moving like a stately galleon that the cuts announced by the Government in the reserve forces were too great. To be fair, the Secretary of State has admitted that, in the light of circumstances, many of us were correct on that. Welcome as that is—a number of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), have mentioned this—there is still a number of questions about how effective the reserve forces will be.

The Minister talked about the fact that there would be additional training of five days a year. What sort of training will the reserve forces have as formed units? What sort of training will they have with the emergency services?

A crucial issue will be the sort of equipment that the reserve forces will be allocated. We all know that for financial reasons they tend to get what the regular forces have left over. If we are taking the threat, which Ministers have rightly flagged up, to homeland defence seriously, that question will have to be seriously addressed. With regard to command and control in the MOD, particularly on the military side, the reserve forces should not just be an add-on, something at the bottom end of the list for brigade and divisional commanders.

Defence policy, budget and the armed forces depend crucially on the support of the public. In my county of Norfolk, we have been in the front line for 60 years. We had the largest fixed-wing aircraft carrier in western Europe, first during the second world war and then during the cold war, with the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force stationed in large numbers.

Other parliamentary colleagues have raised this question. Since the end of the cold war the MOD has disposed of hundreds of barracks, stations, dockyards, stores and married quarters. The specific question of the disposal of married quarters is causing some disquiet in Norfolk. Recently, in south-west Norfolk, the public were upset to discover that married quarters were being sold in blocks of three creating a suspicion that buyers were speculators rather than people needing a home.

Bob Russell (Colchester)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Simpson

I will in a minute.

The Under-Secretary will be aware that some 200 former RAF quarters are standing empty and neglected at West Raynham just outside my constituency, which could be used for local housing. I know that the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) has spoken with the Under-Secretary, who said that he would look at the issue but that it was dependent on the review of forthcoming RAF bases nationwide. Perhaps the Under-Secretary can tell us when we can expect the review to be completed and when a decision may be made.

I heard a faint mewing from my left.

Bob Russell


Mr. Simpson

How very aptly from my left.

Bob Russell

Will the hon. Gentleman remind the House which Government sold off all the Army married quarters?

Mr. Simpson

That is a classic Liberal Democrat attack. The package for married quarters was introduced by the last Conservative Government. There is no secret. I do not know where the hon. Gentleman has been—I know where he was before he became a Liberal Democrat: he was in the Labour party, so I suppose his policies will have changed—[Interruption.]I am afraid to say that he was.

Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have MOD establishments in their constituencies that are awaiting disposal. Rightly, the Treasury is looking at the best value that it can get for those properties. Rightly as well, the MOD is looking at ways in which it can use them, but when married quarters are lying empty and being vandalised, it is a wasting asset.

In this debate on defence in the UK, the Minister has raised a number of issues relating to the role of the armed forces, the part that they play in the community, their strength, their deployment as part of an expeditionary force capability and their newly resurrected role in home defence. All of us support what the Minister said about the vital role that the armed forces play, but Conservative Members are conscious of the fact that the armed forces are being asked to take on new roles, that even with the resources that the Government say they are giving to the armed forces, there are still serious shortfalls and that in the event of more than one concurrent activity, the ability of the armed forces to provide long-term sustainability will be incredibly difficult.

The armed forces always rise to the challenge, but I think that all hon. Members know that in the past year many members of the armed forces have realised just how much they are now being asked to do. Our task is to make certain that they are given the support and resources that they need for the policy that the Government commit them to.

2.56 pm
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

I am sure that the signal was sent to the Conservative party, "Simpson is back" to help a deeply demoralised party facing a major crisis. When the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) referred to who is in charge, I must confess—no, I should not say it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Go on."] No, I will not. The hon. Gentleman knows exactly what I was going to say.

The hon. Gentleman was talking about the civil contingencies secretariat and leadership in response to a crisis in this country, a concern that the Defence Committee shares. I thank him and the Minister for their kind comments. As he will know, a symbiotic relationship exists between the Defence Committee and the Opposition Front-Bench team. We must co-ordinate a little more consistently over the months so that he remains in his position, otherwise when his leader reads his speech perhaps his head will be metaphorically chopped off and he will fully deserve it.

That is the extent of my bipartisanship for the moment. If provoked, I will go further and talk about jumping on bandwagons. As an observer of procurement failures over the past 25 years, I only wish that the delays had been for two years and eight months. This programme is on target in terms of budget and the quality of the helicopter, which is first rate. It is a great shame that some people wish to denigrate what is an excellent piece of equipment.

There has been a mistake, or mistakes, in the procurement of equipment for training; that is clear to all concerned. The company will pay for it. The delay of under three years, while it may appear to be a disaster, when set against the background of past procurement failures, is of about the same earthquake potential as the Dudley earthquake a few months ago, which measured I think 4.5 on the Richter scale. Apart from frightening my wife into thinking that I was snoring more loudly than normal, it caused little damage.

I understand that the Deputy Chairman of the Defence Committee wishes to intervene. I willingly give way.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, the Chairman of the Defence Committee. Conservative Members have no intention whatever of denigrating the Apache; we were the party responsible for procuring it. At the time, I happened to be involved in supporting another bid, which was unsuccessful. The Apache is a first-class machine, but there is criticism of the incapability of the simulator to provide pilot training. The National Audit Office, not the Conservative party, drew attention to that problem.

Mr. George

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I think that the first criticism is on page 24 of the Select Committee report. If people are prepared to look at the situation in the round, they will see that it is not a disaster. It is not for me to defend the procurement process, but I am concerned that we should not jump on too many bandwagons.

I am pleased that the Government and the Opposition received our report favourably. I am proud of the way in which the Select Committee operates and although the report ruffled a few feathers, it is an example of the Select Committee system at its best. It has been suggested that several Select Committees produce a joint report. I have tried that, and as a consequence the Defence Committee published its own report, which has not suffered as a result of being produced by just one Select Committee.

It is not for the Defence Committee to beat the drum for the armed forces or the Ministry of Defence, so we looked not simply at how to avoid a crisis by meeting the threat as far away as possible, but at how to minimise risk, what to do if all else fails and at how good we are as a nation at trying to clear up as swiftly and successfully as possible if—or when—we are attacked. The whole system will be called into question if such an attack succeeds and we have to depend on the three blue-light emergency services. I hope to God that an attack does not take place when one of the three is not fully operational, as the consequences would be horrendous and fingers would be pointed in many directions. I know in which direction my index finger would point.

I am pleased that the Government have recognised the work of the Defence Committee and our important contribution to the continuing effort to strengthen the UK's defence and security against the terrorist threat. That must be our common aim. The issue is arguably the most pressing that we face. We all know what terrorists can do and that, despite recent military and policing successes in dealing with terrorism, many terrorists are still out there, closer than we imagine.

David Veness, whose experience in fighting terrorism is unrivalled, told the Defence Committee that terrorists would strike. I share that fear. Defence in the UK covers more than defence against the terrorist threat, which is the most immediate issue covered by the Select Committee report. I am delighted that this debate comes just one week after the Government published their response to our report. Defence does not involve only the armed forces. The defence of the United Kingdom also looks to the police, voluntary services, the private security industry and architects of high-rise buildings.

During the summer, I spoke to some 25 heads of security in large corporations, mainly in London. I asked them what they were doing. Most of them were taking the threat seriously, but the Select Committee found that more than half of the largest companies in the UK have no business continuity plans. If companies plan to rely on the insurance industry to rescue them, they are making a great mistake. If there is a major crisis or attack, public services may be overwhelmed, so ultimately it may be up to the companies to use their own resources to minimise the consequences. An attack on the City of London or Canary wharf will have not just immediate disastrous consequences for individual companies, but for the whole economy.

The current threat is similar to the one that we faced during the cold war of having our entire society disrupted and large chunks of it destroyed. The difference is that during the cold war many people thought that the only chance of catastrophic attack was if there was a mistake, but from now on, a successful attack on the UK is likely to be deliberate and the consequences could easily be comparable with the worst fears during the cold war.

Harry Cohen

Given the context of this part of my right hon. Friend's speech about a possible terrorist attack on parts of Britain, what does he think of a policy that relies on nuclear power stations?

Mr. George

No doubt my hon. Friend spent the recess attending to his constituency duties as diligently as he always does. As I said, I spent much of the recess studying and that included preparing a paper for an international conference on the very subject that he raises. Rather than spending time on it now, I would be delighted to send him a copy of my report. If I could reach, I would hand it over now. It is a matter that causes me considerable concern. I shall not write to my hon. Friend but give him a copy of the paper.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Now that he has had time to get the paper that he prepared, does it refer not only to the issue of nuclear power stations within the UK, but to implications for terrorist threat of the international plutonium trade between the UK and Japan?

Mr. George

It covers everything. I shall hand my hon. Friend a copy and test him on it later. However, I shall not make light of what is a serious issue.

I shall focus on a couple of issues in the Defence Committee report. I have referred to our methodology and how comprehensive it was. The problem with a Select Committee report is that if 30 per cent. of it is critical of the Government, they are quite happy with it. The report does not spend much time saying how wonderful the Government are, but concentrates on critical evaluation. Although much has been done that has been absolutely correct, the Select Committee, at no political risk to itself, pointed out where we were going wrong. We had every right to do that and I am pleased that the Government are taking it in the constructive spirit in which it was written.

In our strategic defence review monitoring exercise, the Defence Committee did not criticise the Government for stating: there is today no direct military threat to the United Kingdom or Western Europe". That may have been true in 1998, but today it is a historical approach. Military home defence appears in the SDR as a military task in the section on regional conflict inside the NATO area. No forces were specifically committed to it and the Ministry of Defence told us at the start of our inquiry that the security and defence of the UK continues to rest on our membership of NATO and our willingness and ability to participate in operations and tasks abroad with partner countries in mutual self-defence. Conversely, terrorist activity within the UK, whatever its source, is seen as criminal activity and in most cases the operational lead rests with the police.

Dr. Julian Lewis

Has the right hon. Gentleman any idea from his studies of the time why, at the time of the strategic defence review, so little attention was given to the possibility of an extremist Islamist terrorist threat, when I think that we are all aware of the fact that, from quite early in the 1990s. the security service and the secret intelligence service recognised it as the next possible threat over the horizon? Where does he think the breakdown of communication between Government agencies occurred?

Mr. George

It probably took place about 1991, when the cold war was seen to end and the eyes of the intelligence services were taken off the range of threats. They looked at substitutes for the Soviets, who were not seen as the threat that they had been. They looked at crime, and I suspect that they did not look internationally and domestically at where other threats might exist. In fairness, the blame—if there is to be blame—goes back 10 or 12 years, and now they will spend another 10 or 12 years in making up for the fact that they averted their eyes to threats of political and religious extremism, wherever those threats exist.

Dr. Lewis

I am sorry to intervene again, but I think that the right hon. Gentleman has rather missed my point. As I understood it, the security and intelligence services did appreciate the upcoming Islamist extremist threat from the early to mid-1990s onwards. My concern is that that appreciation by the intelligence services, which turned out to be accurate, does not appear to have been taken on board by those people who drew up the SDR in the Ministry of Defence.

Mr. George

I honestly cannot say. The hon. Gentleman was closer to the then Government than I was in those days. I look forward to his observations and insider knowledge as to whether what he says is right.

The Minister announced the results of the Ministry of Defence's consultation exercise on the role of the reserves in home defence. As I understand it, the proposal has not changed significantly as a result of the consultation, although the new forces are to be renamed civil contingencies reaction forces rather than reserve reaction forces. The new name is perhaps a little odd if their responsibilities are to respond only to home defence incidents as opposed to the wide range of civil emergencies in which assistance from the military might be sought. The Defence Committee will want to look carefully at the proposals, and although we welcome the decision to give back to the reserves a role in home defence, there are a number of issues of concern including, for example, the notice at which they could be made available in response to a terrorist incident.

Our report questions how the commanders could choose between regular and reserve forces if both were available. I do not believe that these proposals answer that question. It would be demoralising for volunteer reserves if, having put themselves forward and having been trained, they saw regular troops deployed in their place. As we noted in our report, no reserves were deployed in the fuel crisis in 2000, and only about 10 per cent. of those who assisted with the floods in autumn 2000 and the foot and mouth epidemic in 2001 were reservists. Those were not home defence incidents but they suggest a pattern of calling first upon the regular forces.

In December of last year, the Secretary of State set out what he described as a formidable catalogue of questions that the SDR new chapter would have to address. At the top of that list were questions about how we should strike the balance between home defence and seeking to attack terrorists in their bases or in transit. These are fundamental questions—they are complex and deserve serious analysis.

We can see how much work is being done in the United States on this issue, including the appointment of Governor Ridge as director of homeland security and the proposal before Congress to create a fully fledged department of homeland security. That would bring together many existing agencies such as the coast guard, the border patrol, the customs service, immigration officials, the transport security administration and the federal emergency management agency. I am not suggesting that we follow the Americans slavishly, especially as their circumstances are rather different from our own. However, I contrast the thoroughness with which the issues are being examined and addressed by the United States with the bland statements in the new chapter. It says: Experience shows that it is better where possible, to engage an enemy at longer range, before they get the opportunity to mount an assault on the UK. That is fine.

Mr. Chaytor

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. George

In a moment, I promise. I will give my hon. Friend some more of my writings if he wishes and has the patience, especially on history, in which we both have a great interest.

This country did not attempt to deal with Irish republican terrorism campaigns by attacking their bases in the Republic of Ireland. Israeli attempts to destroy the bases of Palestinian terrorists have not so far been an unqualified success. I can see why, at both the rhetorical and the military strategic level, it is right to believe that we should strike at the source of the conflict. However, terrorists, unlike Saddam Hussein in the past, are not likely to line themselves up in such formations as easily to be destroyed.

The Defence Committee is conducting an inquiry into the new chapter and we will publish our report in due course. However, I am a little disappointed that the Government and the Ministry of Defence do not seem publicly to have treated this fundamental question with the seriousness that it requires.

Mr. Chaytor

In one respect, my right hon. Friend's subsequent remarks have pre-empted the purpose of my question. In the context of attacking the terrorist in his base, does my right hon. Friend think that an attack on Iraq by the United States—either alone, with the United Kingdom or with an international coalition—would be likely to increase or decrease the threat of the al-Qaeda terrorist network?

Mr. George

I will not go too far down that road. I can certainly speak to my hon. Friend about this privately, as the question requires more than a glib three-sentence answer. As yet, I am not convinced that al-Qaeda is alive and well in Iraq. There may be sufficient threats to this country and others to require a military response, but I very much hope not.

I said at the start of my remarks that I could touch on only a few of the issues raised in our report, but I want briefly to refer to one other area that has already been mentioned. I refer to legislation and the handling of major emergencies and disasters, including terrorist incidents. The Minister was circumspect in his response. The Government recognised well before 11 September that existing legislation was inadequate and set up a review of emergency planning in England and Wales. The consultation process for that review was in the second half of last year, and in fact straddled 11 September, so that many of the responses took the immediate lessons of those terrible events into account.

It is now more than a year since 11 September, and so far nothing has emerged. In our report, we recommended that the Government publish their proposals as a matter of urgency, with the explicit aim of introducing legislation in the 2002–03 parliamentary Session. I am sure that if I were to press the Minister on the issue today, he would again give the standard line, which is in the Government's response to our report, that he cannot pre-empt the Queen's Speech. So we will just have to wait. Except that on 9 September, the Government placed in the Library a progress report on the United Kingdom and the campaign against international terrorism. It is an interesting document which, regrettably, I suspect that few people have read because of its timing.

At the end of the document, there is a list of the Government's priorities for the next year in the campaign against terrorism, one of which is to protect the United Kingdom by further enhancements to civil contingencies arrangements, set out in a Civil Contingencies Bill. Perhaps the Minister, even if he cannot predict the contents of the Queen's Speech, can at least confirm that that still remains one of the Government's priorities for the coming year.

Mr. Francois

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence. Having read the Committee's report on the issue, I can honestly say without fear or favour that it was excellent, and I should like to take the opportunity to endorse absolutely its call for emergency legislation to be included in the Queen's Speech. We simply cannot afford to wait any longer for such a Bill.

Mr. George

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that support. When the Bill is published, the logical Committee to which it should be sent is the Defence Committee, not any of the other Committees, because we have spent a great deal of our time on the issue. I hope that the Minister will pass on that endorsement to the Ministry of Defence and say that we should do that. The advantage to the MOD would be that the more time we spend harrying the civil contingencies secretariat, the less time and energy we will have to pursue the MOD. That would be in both our interests.

In our report, we welcome the appointment of Sir David Omand to the new post of intelligence and security co-ordinator. We will watch with interest how he, together with the civil contingencies secretariat under its new head, Susan Scholefield, takes forward their formidable list of responsibilities. I shall continue to urge the Government to take an active lead in pulling together all the many threads needed to co-ordinate our response to major emergencies, particularly those caused by terrorism, because that co-ordination is an essential element of any Government's first responsibility—the defence of the United Kingdom.

3.22 pm
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), and I, too, congratulate him and the Defence Committee on its recent report and, indeed, the good work that he and his Committee continue to do.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) has already dealt with some important issues on equipment, and I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with the many constructive points that he made in his excellent speech later. I do not intend to begin my remarks by repeating what the hon. Gentleman said, because I want to concentrate on what I believe is the most important piece of equipment in the armed forces: the men and women who serve in them.

I want to say a word or two first about Apache helicopter training because it seems that those concerns are slightly more deeply felt than they may have originally appeared. The National Audit Office report rightly comments on the current training regime, but it appears that a number of training aids and training computer systems were never budgeted for at the very start. I wonder whether the Minister can confirm in his winding-up speech the following three points.

First, is it the case that we do not possess the equipment to allow us to simulate Apache attacks in numbers? In the past, Apaches have been used not alone, but with other Apache aircraft as well as other helicopters, yet I am told that we do not possess and have not budgeted for the training packages to allow that. Secondly, I am also told that our training packages do not contain a training laser that would allow us to use simulated laser, not the real thing. Apparently, the real laser is so powerful that it might harm our servicemen on Salisbury plain.

Finally, is it the case that, beyond what the NAO has already said, the only range where we can test Hellfire missiles and use them in simulation is in Cape Wrath in the north of Scotland, and that it cannot be used on Salisbury plain? I should like the Minister specifically to deal with those points in his winding-up speech.

May I join other colleagues in paying tribute to those members of the armed forces—some 19.000—who are preparing for the eventualities of a firefighters' strike? I have seen preparations under way in my constituency, and, like other right hon. and hon. Members, I sincerely hope that we will never have to go down that road.

This debate is entitled "Defence in the United Kingdom", and at the end of my remarks I will highlight and define what I understand that to mean. Of course we recently had a debate about the role of Britain's armed forces in the world. Liberal Democrat Members have broadly supported what the Government have been trying to achieve: flexible forces and rapid deployment—the very expeditionary strategy outlined in the strategic defence review.

We have supported the pursuit of the European security and defence policy—the commitment to build a 60,000-strong rapid reaction force for European Union states. We also have supported the deployment of British forces in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor and, most recently, Afghanistan, but we have to concentrate on problems nearer home. I want to begin with the biggest threat to Her Majesty's armed forces—retention and recruitment.

Recently released figures show a deficit in every category of full-time trained strengths and requirements, to which the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk referred earlier. The naval service is 1,420 under strength; the RAF is 770 under strength; and the Army is 5,440 under strength. Reference has already been made to the excellent debate in Westminster Hall earlier this week.

Net outflow from the armed forces, which had been slowly falling under this Government, rose in 2001–02. This year, twice the number of Army and naval officers left the services as joined them. Let us take just one example. The MOD estimates a shortfall of more than 130 fast jet pilots each year for the next four years. We all know that undermanning inevitably leads to overstretch, and even as commitments begin to draw down in the Balkans, new commitments arise, such as those in Afghanistan. Closer to home, the possibility of fire strike cover has involved cancelling the leave that more than 1,000 personnel were expecting.

Overstretch also has other casualties. Some 10,000 personnel are not fit for duty in front-line roles. By raising Army manning levels in the SDR, the Government have had to contend with an inbuilt shortfall on establishment levels. The SDR established clear targets for recruitment and retention, but they have consistently not been met. In fact, there are now around 6,000 fewer men and women serving in our armed forces today than when Labour came to power. Nowhere is that more acute than in the defence medical services. When a former head of the defence medical services, Sir John Baird, says we would struggle to meet our medical requirements for a major operation, we would do well to take note.

The SDR envisaged three fully staffed deployable field hospitals, but in current circumstances, even by stripping the reserve hospitals, we could field only two such hospitals at best. Reservists are relied on to fulfil front-line commitments in Bosnia and elsewhere. MOD hospital units are understaffed. Locums are employed to take up the slack, and even private hospitals are now being used to treat service members because the defence medical services are unable to cope. Clearly, that situation must not be allowed to continue.

The medical manning and retention review is now being conducted. Its conclusions should be made public, and we should debate them in the House. It is crucial that the new centre for defence medicine in Birmingham be helped to succeed. I have spoken to some of my constituents who have been treated there, and they have told me of the very great service of care that they have received. Considerable benefits have been achieved from the close links between that centre and the national health service, but those benefits will be of no use if the defence medical services cannot retain their specialists.

Of course I understand that there are extra difficulties in recruiting in those specialist fields. That is why the MOD must push extra hard for solutions. Some measures are simply common sense—for example, ensuring that the pay and conditions of military medical personnel are comparable with those of staff in the NHS. That makes sense, but there are no easy answers for such intractable retention problems and the MOD must start to listen to those who know best—the professionals who already work in the service.

Much has been said already about reservists. With gaps in regular regiments and serious shortfalls in specialists—signallers, engineers and doctors—the reserve forces are proving their utility. We approve of the plans announced today for reserve forces—the CCRF—to play a new role in home defence. We approve of that because it was, of course, a Liberal Democrat policy six months before the Government announced it.

Patrick Mercer (Newark)

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest and respect. Does he have any suggestions to improve recruiting? At the moment, he has simply observed that recruiting is a problem. That is fine, but what solutions does he have to offer?

Mr. Keetch

The hon. Gentleman has suggested several good solutions in debates in the House, which have not been taken up. I will echo one of those solutions: we need to look at the good practice of those regiments that can recruit more easily and that can sometimes stop recruiting as a result, and make sure that that good practice is spread among other regiments. He knows from regiments in the midlands, not too far from his and my constituencies, that that happens in an effective way. We must also look, for example, at those members of the armed forces who have recently left the service, many of whom find that they do not like civilian life as much as they thought they would and want to come back into the armed forces. Those are two suggestions, but I would be happy to write to him with our party's policies on this matter, which I daresay he will be more than happy to read.

To return to the CCRF, it will only be effective if it trains regularly with the civil services—the fire brigade, the police, the ambulance service and others—if it has the right equipment, as has already been said, and if it can recruit beyond the Territorial Army. I would be prepared to act as a recruiting sergeant-major, as the Minister suggested earlier, to try to bring other people into the armed forces.

Mr. Ingram

Sergeant, not sergeant-major.

Mr. Keetch

I am grateful for even that humble assessment from the Minister. I would hope that the Conservatives would join in that role, too, as many people who are not currently members of the TA would like to contribute to what they see as the home defence of our country. We must bring in people who are specialists—chemical engineers, linguists and so on—whose skills can be brought to bear.

In the SDR, the TA was to reduce in numbers, and the MOD undertook to ensure that TA units are fully manned and trained and equipped to the standards needed to undertake their tasks effectively. We are far from that. Unfortunately, at present, barely 60 per cent. meet their bounty every year. Against a strength of 39,663, only 23,201 are fit for role. The medical reservists illustrate that point, too. According to figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats over the summer, 201 field hospital, for example, is 34 per cent. undermanned, with a 90 per cent. shortfall in medical consultants, with no radiology or pathology consultants, and no neurosurgical nurses either. Furthermore, 202 field hospital was 53 per cent. undermanned, with no anaesthetics consultants, no radiographers and no burns nurses. Those are regionally based units—an asset to any community—and we must attract the right people into their ranks.

When there is talk of war—we have already heard such talk in the House this afternoon—the families of those who serve in our armed forces listen very carefully. The MOD should have a clear idea of the concerns of those who serve in our armed forces through the continuous attitude surveys undertaken on its behalf by QinetiQ on issues such as career prospects and equipment, and, in terms of their families, on aspects of life on base or in Ministry housing or accommodation. It is time the Government shared those concerns with Parliament. We should be able to hear the voices of the armed forces. The Army Families Federation, for example, receives more calls about housing than any other issue. The Under-Secretary, who has responsibilities for veterans, said he believed that the privatisation of the MOD housing estate was not the best bit of business done by any Government". He is absolutely right. On 18 July, the Secretary of State himself said that MOD accommodation was "shocking". I am sure that even the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk would agree with that.

Of course, bad management is part of those problems, and I understand that a major building programme is under way. Sadly, however, the mistakes of the past have to be lived with today. Since 1998, the Government have spent £100 million pounds on renting empty properties from Annington Homes because they were not good enough or not in the right place to give to service members. Have the Government had any discussions with Annington Homes about trying to renegotiate or overhaul the contract, which I accept was foisted on the Government? How do the Government propose to address the rising cost of substitute accommodation? In the first quarter of 2002 alone, the Government spent nearly £9 million on substitute rented accommodation for the armed forces. That is equivalent to 225,000 nights in average bed-and-breakfast accommodation. That means that, this year, the Government are heading for an annual total of around £40 million. No wonder the customer attitude survey conducted by QinetiQ for the Defence Housing Executive shows that a third of armed forces families are "not content" with their accommodation. That must improve.

In the Government's comprehensive spending review settlement, the defence budget was given an extra £1 billion a year over the next three years. Of course, we welcome that. However, a succession of major and minor defence reviews over the last 10 ten years have all indicated that current capabilities cannot be maintained without major structural changes and extra funding year on year above domestic inflation. When the SDR targets were set, the additional threat and costs of the campaign against terrorism were not foreseen. Estimates assumed that major projects would not be subject to cost overrun, but of course they still are. We know, too, that personnel costs can be met at present only because of shortfalls. We need more open competition and value for money, less waste, ways of saving money through co-operating with our European partners on procurement and logistics, and further targeted increases. Otherwise, the ability to mount additional operations could be jeopardised.

The service pay rise this year was a realistic and achievable 3.7 per cent. Recent comparisons between firefighters and the troops that are on standby to replace them have been illuminating. Personnel costs for well- qualified service men and women increase at or above inflation rate, and that trend is worsened in times of poor retention. There are also concerns about pensions. If we are to address the problems of retention, we must address the changing needs of our male and female soldiers, sailors and airmen. The risk of relationship breakdown, for example, for members of the armed forces is higher than for most people in civilian life. Marriage rates are falling. Since 1997, however, the number of UK regular forces aged between 25 and 29 has fallen by a remarkable 20,000, while the number aged between 20 and 24 has steadily risen. The average age of our armed forces is therefore falling considerably.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West)

The hon. Gentleman has used an enormous amount of statistics in his speech. I have been reflecting on a statistic that he used earlier, and I want to establish whether there is depth in what he is saying, or whether he is simply reading off a sheet. When he said that the RAF was 130 pilots short each year for the next four years, did he mean 130 short, or 130 short every year for the next four years in a cumulative way?

Mr. Keetch

Actually, I referred not to the RAF but to fast jet pilots, because, of course, there are fast jet pilots beyond that. What I meant was 130 short every year for the next four years—year in, year out—which is a serious problem. I am more than happy to give the hon. Gentleman the figures and supply him with the parliamentary answers that I have received from his colleagues on the Treasury Bench, which are the basis of these statistics. I have used statistics because they show the severe overstretch of our armed forces at the moment.

We have a new generation of soldiers, both male and female, some of whom would have been only 10 years old in 1990, and would have watched the reports of Desert Storm in Iraq on their televisions. Many of them would not remember the Falklands war. If we are to recruit and retain high-calibre young men and women to our forces, we must look at their concerns, not at the concerns that we judge that they have. In the QinetiQ continuous attitude survey, the MOD asked soldiers an interesting question: whether unmarried partners should be granted the same support and allowances as the spouses of officers and soldiers. I am glad that the Government asked that question. Of course we do not know the answer, but I hope and believe that there will be changes as a result.

When faced with the need to adapt its traditions and rules to keep pace with the rest of society, the Ministry of Defence understandably adopts a cautious and precautionary approach, but that has proved costly. We have had to pay compensation for the infringements of the rights of gay men and women in the military. Pregnant soldiers have been summarily dismissed. We should not wait until such issues are tested in the courts before we recognise that a policy needs to adapt. Our society is ahead of the armed forces in recognising the legal and financial rights of unmarried partners. Members of the House voted to amend our pension scheme to give recognition to unmarried partners. The civil service pension scheme recognises unmarried partners, too. We know that last year the Ministry of Defence settled out of court to a young lady whose unmarried partner was killed on active service in Sierra Leone. How would the Government act should a similar situation arise? That is one decision that the Ministry of Defence could make without fearing that the modernisation and reform would threaten the fighting capabilities of our armed forces. Indeed, it would only enhance the men and women who serve in them. If our forces are sent into action, they should know at the very least that their loved ones are being provided for, whether they are married or not.

The Government have been willing to revise the strategic defence targets according to changes in circumstances. For the same reason, they should be as willing to adapt to the needs of the men and women who fight in our armed forces, because those people are our defence in the UK. Policies must put their needs first and be developed with their input. If we ask our armed forces to serve us, we must make it clear that we are determined to serve them.

3.41 pm
Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) and support the case for improved pay and conditions for members of the armed forces, as indeed I do for the firefighters.

The House will be horrified at the high level of casualties following the use of gas in Moscow last weekend. The Russian authorities faced a truly difficult set of events. Although I hope that authorities in this country never face a similar problem, we have important lessons to learn and policy initiatives to take. At the same time as we press the Russians for greater openness on what was used and how it was used, there should be greater openness concerning British preparations to use gas in counter-terrorist operations.

In March 1998, I asked about a chemical agent held by the Ministry of Defence called CR, which it keeps to maintain an effective counter terrorist response capability. Initially I was pleased to be told that the Government's policy on CR is consistent with the Chemical Weapons Convention, which permits the use of certain toxic chemicals for law enforcement purposes." — [Official Report, 12 March 1998; Vol. 308, c. 324W.] However, as the same permission enabled the Russians to use their gases, I am concerned about the use of CR for law-enforcement purposes in the United Kingdom.

Dr. Julian Lewis

The hon. Gentleman has a long history of open-mindedness on the dilemmas faced by successive Russian military authorities. Can he shed light on the fact that after the gas was applied in the theatre in Moscow—so effectively and lethally that it knocked everyone out and killed people so that nothing could explode—many of the assailants were dispatched by gunshot wounds? Presumably that happened when they were unconscious.

Harry Cohen

I have seen those reports. I want the Russian authorities to be more open about what happened and why. I hope that they can be encouraged to produce that information.

Patrick Mercer

I had the good fortune—or the misfortune—to watch the events on Russian television last week. It was obvious that Spetznatz forces made no bones about the fact that the terrorists were executed while they were unconscious. There was no question of hiding that. Indeed, the terrorists' wounds were exposed and filmed on camera to the acclaim of the audience among whom I was standing.

Harry Cohen

That act was wrong, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point.

Although I would not want the Government to release information that could be useful to terrorists, there is scope for greater openness, not least in having information ready to send to doctors who treat casualties exposed to such materials. When the full story of what happened in Moscow is known, I fear we will learn that some people died in hospital because the doctors knew nothing about what compound had affected their patients. I would not want that to happen if we had a siege.

In response to my questions in 1998, I learned that the Ministry of Defence held about 260 kg of CR which was described as a riot control agent designed to cause temporary irritation. That was a puzzling statement because the next answer from the Ministry of Defence in response to another Member said: CS irritant is the only riot control agent held by my Department." — [Official Report, 12 March 1998; Vol. 308, c. 324W.] But CR had been described in the same way. Although the full effects of CR have not been published, perhaps one side effect is amnesia. That juxtaposition of contradictory answers prompted correspondence.

The Minister wrote to me explaining that although in technical terms CR was considered a riot control agent, because of its effects it was held for use not against rioters but against terrorists—hence the claim that CS is the only Ministry of Defence riot control agent. As I cannot understand why a substance such as CR would be used against terrorists unless hostages were involved, that means that it would be used in situations similar to that in Moscow. Is that a serious loophole in the chemical weapons convention? Could a country stockpile chemical agents while pretending they were for law-enforcement purposes and then let their military people use them in a war? That would critically undermine the convention, the major piece of international law which controls chemical weapons around the world and which most major countries have signed.

The convention clearly says that any toxic chemical held for one of the permitted purposes, such as law enforcement, should he held only as long as the types and quantities are consistent with such purposes". That provision could close the loophole because other countries could challenge in the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague the holding of such chemical weapons. That international body relates to the convention, and I urge the use of such challenges and inspections.

The Government, through the Ministry of Defence, must give a new public assurance that they have checked that stocks of CR are held in compliance with the chemical weapons convention. But they must also do a little more. They cannot simply say that they are in compliance; they must present evidence of their thinking and show how they reached their conclusions. Only in that way can we make other countries justify what they do with chemicals for law-enforcement purposes. The Government would be a world leader by helping to keep the loophole tightly closed.

We cannot allow the use of gas to pass without comment. It may seem politically expedient not to condemn the use of gas now, but will it seem that way in a decade? The greatest control on the use of chemical weapons around the world is the fact that they are taboo in many cultures. If it becomes acceptable to use chemicals in law enforcement, that may lead to a weakening of the general taboo against their use in other circumstances. We owe it to British troops in the field to ensure that the sense of taboo against the use of chemical weapons is as strong as possible.

If the Russians feel that there has been little international pressure concerning the use of gases, what is to stop them using the same substances in Chechnya itself? If they did so, would the Americans feel free to use sleeping gases in Iraq? We could be at the start of a slippery slope that ends with scenes such as those in Halabja in 1988—another instance in which the Government of the day found it expedient not to criticise. We need strong controls on all those materials in all circumstances.

The Government must accept that there is no such thing as a non-lethal weapon. There is still speculation about the exact gas used in the Moscow siege, and although thankfully it was not lethal for the majority of the people involved, it was lethal for about 100 others. As with all substances that can bring about unconsciousness, the difference in the dosage necessary to make a person sleep and that needed for lethal effect is relatively small, which is why an anaesthetist will constantly monitor a patient who is under general anaesthetic during routine surgery. Sadly, uncontrolled doses can be lethal.

A great deal of political attention has been paid to so-called "non-lethal" weapons in recent years. It is laudable to try to create methods for carrying out military and peacekeeping operations without causing as much death and destruction, and the United States has an extensive programme to develop non-lethal weapons, but all that is too optimistic. Perhaps the longer-term lesson from what happened in Moscow is that it has demonstrated, in the bluntest possible terms, that the drive for non-lethal weapons is based on the fundamentally mistaken belief that materials that interfere with the operations of the human body can be applied with little chance of deadly effects becoming apparent. Non-lethal often ends up being lethal.

In summary, the Government must publish the evidence for their conclusion that their holdings of CR gas comply with the chemical weapons convention, and then encourage other countries to display similar openness. How can we demand from Russia information that we ourselves have not provided?

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

I accept almost everything that the hon. Gentleman says, but will he answer a simple question? Given that the evidence now emerging from Moscow is that the special forces had to move quickly in the early hours of the morning because they believed that the hostages were about to be killed by their captors, how would the hon. Gentleman have resolved the siege without recourse to gas, which the forces needed to use to stop the terrorists activating their explosives?

Harry Cohen

I cannot say how I would have done it because I do not have all the information. Nobody has, which is why we want openness, at least in retrospect, from the Russians. I have made it clear that the use of the gas does not breach the chemical weapons convention. We must have openness, otherwise we will open up the possibility of the convention being breached, and I want to prevent that.

The Government must also be more open about the rules of engagement for the use of CR and provide full reassurance that they have taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the correct treatments are available if anyone is exposed to CR. Lastly, and most important, the Government must ensure that chemicals used in law enforcement are there only as a last resort. It took most of the 20th century to achieve proper controls on the use of chemical weapons; it is the Government's duty to ensure that those controls are not weakened in the first few years of the 21st century.

3.54 pm
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

The right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). the Chairman of the Defence Committee, invited me to expand on my earlier intervention about the intelligence services' assessment in the 1990s of the rising threat from Islamic fundamentalist extremism, and I shall do so with the limited knowledge that I have.

That knowledge simply goes back to an incident in, if I remember correctly, 1994 or 1995, when, perhaps looking backwards a little too much and forwards too little, I was concerned about membership of the Intelligence and Security Committee and in particular the fact that people were being appointed to that Committee who had a history of sympathy with the former Soviet Union. I discussed the matter with a senior parliamentarian—it would be invidious to identify him—who said, "Quite frankly, Julian, we are not bothered about that any more." Surprise surprise. What was a genuine surprise was that he then said, "We are concerned about whether any members of the Committee have links with Muslim fundamentalism."

I was impressed by the fact that, at that early stage, when there had been no significant eruption of Muslim extremism in this country, the committee should have been already thinking about such matters. We cannot lay at the door of the intelligence and security services the accusation that they were not thinking about these matters long before 11 September 2001; clearly they were doing so. We have to wonder why, when they had appreciated that Muslim extremism would be the next threat over the horizon, the strategic defence review carried out in 1998, several years later, did not pay more attention to that threat.

The Chairman of the Defence Committee criticised the post-11 September Government pronouncements in various Ministry of Defence documents as being too brand in stating that in the defence of the United Kingdom, the fight had to be carried to the potential enemy long before he got too close to home. I think that criticism a little unjustified. If there is a primary point that I want to convey in my contribution, it is that passive defence against terrorism is never enough; only a form of offensive defence can hope to be successful.

That problem is not new. Strangely enough, the strategic planners of the United Kingdom—in the days to which I refer it was still just about at the tail end of what was called "the British empire"—had to face something very similar. At the end of the second world war, they had to assess what the arrival of mass destruction weapons meant for the future defence of the country. Some of the top scientific brains in the country were then still available to the Government service because they had been recruited as scientific advisers to the respective service Ministries throughout the second world war. They turned their attention to the prospect of whether there was any straightforward or practical way to counter the threat posed by the advent of biological and, as they were then described, atomic weapons. They quickly came to the conclusion that it was important to keep up the techniques of conventional military warfare and maintain the traditional roles of the Army, the Navy and the Royal Air Force in safeguarding sea communications and defending the United Kingdom's air space, as no one knew what sort of conventional conflict might yet take place. However, because only a few mass destruction weapons were needed to cause massive devastation, the only real defence against them was the ability to threaten immediate and devastating counter-attacks, thus deterring people from launching an offensive in the first place.

There is a parallel with today's situation. In the international threat facing our homeland, a small number of people may use the technology that the west itself has developed. Modern airliners, for example, may attack modern buildings, resulting in the deaths of many people following detailed organisation by a few individuals. That mini form of mass destruction is difficult to stop because only a few people undertake it. As we heard from the Minister of State for Defence in response to one of my interventions about individual terrorists undertaking copycat operations, there is no way in which society can protect against every deranged individual who may want to attack it. There is therefore a parallel, as a small number of people pose a disproportionate threat of damage and destruction.

However, there is also a difference in the solution to the problem—deterrents cannot be applied to people who are so filled with hatred that rational consideration of their own interests cannot be deemed applicable. If we are dealing with those who are so full of hatred that they are prepared to commit suicide to bring down their perceived enemy, we cannot hope to deter them from attacking. However, if we cannot hope to deter them and cannot necessarily, because of the mass destruction multiplier effect, hope to prevent them from carrying out those attacks, it follows that the MOD's basic approach is correct—we must stop them launching the attack in the first place. The best way to do so is, indeed, to attack their bases or at least their centres of power.

Mr. Keetch

The hon. Gentleman has not mentioned one key aspect of the campaign against terrorism, although he may be coming on to it—intelligence. Is it not the case that it may not be necessary to launch a pre-emptive attack with the aim of stopping an attack? With adequate intelligence, one can know that an attack is being planned, so it can be detected and stopped. Is it not the case that we probably do not know how many attacks have already been thwarted by excellent intelligence? Will the hon. Gentleman join me in paying tribute to those people in British intelligence who are protecting us in that way?

Dr. Lewis

The hon. Gentleman has anticipated my remarks very well indeed. I endorse entirely what he said, but I have not yet elaborated on what I mean by offensive defence. It is not enough to talk about intelligence as a way of finding out what is intended— that is of value only if we take counter-action. We should, of course, praise the thwarting of individual terrorist initiatives, as the hon. Gentleman said, but that alone is not a sufficient answer to the problem. As in the case of attack with nuclear weapons—only one or two have to get through to cause indescribable and unacceptable damage—so with terrorism. Only a small proportion of those attacks need succeed and escape the best attempts of the intelligence services to thwart them for the results to be unbearable and entirely unacceptable.

We must bear in mind the fact that what has happened so far has not been anything like as bad as it could have been. That may surprise hon. Members, but it is true. My mind goes back to the emergency debate held on 14 September last year in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, when I outlined in my contribution the sort of draconian measures that would be necessary in a free democracy if we protected ourselves against a series of suicide attacks on a par with what goes on within the borders of Israel or the occupied territories. I leave aside the rights and wrongs of that conflict—I am looking at this purely in technical terms.

A comparison could be made with the long history of the confrontation of our country's intelligence services and armed forces with the IRA. In the course of that long struggle—I hate to say this because I know that it will be misinterpreted—a sort of rules system was in operation. The people who carried out terrorist attacks on British society did so in a ruthless but calculated way. If a particular political initiative was coming up, they would decide whether they wanted to derail it, and whether they should have a bomb explosion, assassinate a soldier or whatever. It was almost like a horrible lethal form of chess. Similarly, I suspect—although I do not know—that the response of our intelligence and security services was strangely analogous. When the IRA went beyond a certain level of offensive behaviour, the security services were free to take firmer and more deadly action than was normally allowed.

The system that developed was therefore graduated for political purposes. One factor, however, makes that comparison with the more recent international terrorist threat slightly strained. It would have been easy for the IRA to cause many more explosions and casualties—for example, by not giving bomb warnings, which they often did—had they wanted to do so. They did not do so because they were playing the deadly game that I have described—but such considerations of restraint do not apply to international terrorists of the type who attacked the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Such people are out to cause maximum casualties at every opportunity. The fact that that has not occurred in this country so far is a measure of genuine weakness on their part, rather than a wish to restrain themselves. Where they have been able to strike, as in Indonesia, they have done so. We must ask ourselves why they have been relatively weak in their subsequent activities against their most hated enemies—first, the United States, and secondly, Great Britain.

Our Government, with the full support of the Opposition, have stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States. The terrorists' response to the United States and our country has been low level because they have been put on the back foot following the counter-action against the terrorist base in Afghanistan. Any branch of that deadly network must also be concerned because, wherever international terrorism raises its head, it simply provokes the authorities to suppress it. We know that in Pakistan there was, shall we say, an ambivalent relationship between the Pakistan intelligence service and extreme Muslim fundamentalists. Since 11 September, the Pakistan authorities have been forced to crack down. We know similarly that parallel work will take place in Indonesia.

I see that the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the Chairman of the Select Committee, has resumed his seat. It seems that despite the critical remarks that he made about it being too bland to talk about keeping the threat away from us as far as possible, rather than relying primarily on defensive measures at home, that must be the essence of our counter-terrorism strategy. It is vital to keep these people on the back foot. The best defence of the United Kingdom is to keep them on the run.

I shall conclude with a small suggestion that I hope the Minister will take on board. In my first intervention on the Minister of State, I referred to the danger of copycat terrorism and to the vulnerability of open democratic societies to anyone who wants to send a white powder through the post or set himself up as a sniper, whether it be for terrorist purposes, for motives of extortion or for any other indefensible reason. The trouble that we face in the modern world with the new feature of international terrorism is that the potential terrorist need not even know, let alone be in touch with, the leader of his organisation. We now have terrorist websites on the internet. There is the ability for instructions to be given from a cave in Afghanistan, for example, or from somewhere on the Pakistan border to those who wish to sacrifice themselves to the terrorist cause. All that can be done without any direct chain of command.

I wonder whether the Government, given the threat that we face, have paid any serious attention to something that I know does not appeal to those who believe in the freedom of cyberspace. It is something which I know would be technically difficult, but at least it could be worked upon, perhaps on a voluntary basis, with the internet service providers that are responsible for managing a great deal of the material that goes into cyberspace.

Serious talks should be held between Government agencies and with the firms responsible for the management of the content of the internet, with a view seriously to assist in limiting the potential for renegade individuals, copycat terrorists and various other deranged enemies of a free society to obtain ideas, instruction and deadly plans as a result of internet cyberspace communications.

4.14 pm
Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

I share some of the concerns of the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) about the use of the internet in this context.

I offer my support to our armed forces who, day in, day out, prepare for and take part in defending our country, and creating and maintaining peace in many key parts of the world. Over the past year, the Government and the nation have been asking more questions about our relationship with the rest of the world. We have been asking how our values and ethics should be reflected in our defence and foreign policy. Arms exports must form a central part of this discussion.

The Government have been congratulated on passing the Export Control Act 2002, which should help limit the flow of arms to conflicts throughout the world. However, we need to ask more fundamental questions about arms exports and the subsidies that the arms trade receives. The Ministry of Defence justifies defence exports, broadly for two reasons, one economic and one political. The economic argument runs that arms exports are supposed to be a money maker for the United Kingdom, given our need to have some arms, and that mass-producing them makes them cheaper. Supposedly there is a direct financial benefit to the economy and an indirect one given the number of people employed in the industry.

The economic argument fails. The MOD supports huge subsidies to the arms trade. The most recent study of UK arms exports by the Oxford Research Group and Safer World estimates that UK taxpayers provide subsidies to the arms trade of £420 million per year. That probably comes third only to agriculture and transport. The subsidy is hundreds of times more than state aid for tourism, the media and culture, which are more likely to be the industries of the future. Each job in the arms industry costs £1,000 a year of taxpayers' money. A quarter of that sum is paid through taxpayers' money to media, culture and tourism jobs.

I realise that there is a need for defence and arms. However, inappropriate promotion of the arms trade, and too much of it, promotes conflict. If the choice is between subsidising and promoting British bombs and bullets, with all the destruction and misery that we know they can cause, or subsidising and promoting British media, tourism and culture, with the ability to expand people's opportunities and increase opportunities to entertain and inspire, all at a quarter of the price of each job when compared with the cost of £1,000 in the arms industry, surely the second approach should win time and again.

It is not only campaigning organisations that have established the costs of arms exports. Two senior MOD economists worked with two other economists to publish the "The Economic Costs and Benefits of UK Defence Exports", which I shall refer to as the York report. The report quantified the economic and employment impacts of a 50 per cent. reduction in defence exports over just two years. It was concluded that the economic costs of reducing defence exports are relatively small and one-off …the balance of argument about defence exports should depend on non-economic considerations. Even one-off costs need to be considered seriously. Jobs are important, and I want to see people fully employed in productive and satisfying employment. The York report highlights the capital intensity of the defence industry. It is estimated that halving defence exports would lead to the loss of 49,000 jobs in the short term but the creation of 67,000 new jobs in the civil economy over five years.

Mr. Joyce

I presume that my hon. Friend recognises that in recent history there has been a shift in the economy from manufacturing to service industries. There are areas that rely heavily on manufacturing jobs. I think that defence economists generally accept that the new jobs that would be created would not be in the same areas. They would tend towards the south-east and away from the areas that rely on manufacturing jobs.

Ms Drown

There are a couple of points to make on that. First, retraining is always possible. Secondly, I recognise that we need to do much more with regional planning to ensure that we do not continue to suck more and more jobs, together with more and more housing, into the south-east. That is not welcome in the south-east or at the edge of the south-west, just as it is not welcome in other parts of the country.

Moving from old trades to new trades without job losses is the key to serious defence justification that the country needs.

Mr. Kevan Jones

It seems that my hon. Friend is referring to the arms industry as rather like sin, and that she is in favour of a little of it but opposed to a lot of it. In the north-east, for example, there has been a shift from manufacturing. The new jobs that are coming on stream are very high tech and service related, and many of them have an important role to play in the defence industry in this country and internationally.

Ms Drown

I shall explain why it is appropriate for us to support defence and arms. At present, it is not easy to support our position if we support an ethical foreign policy.

Mr. Keetch

In my speech and in the speeches of other hon. Members in the defence in the world debate two weeks ago, we covered large aspects of the hon. Lady's argument. She mentioned ethical policy. Does she agree that, there is nothing unethical about supplying our allies and friends with the arms to defend themselves? That is right and proper. The real problem for the arms trade is that we sometimes supply weapons to countries that are not our friends or that may turn out not to be our friends in the future.

Ms Drown

If the hon. Gentleman will let me continue in a little more detail, he will see that his position is not so different from my own.

There is much talk about the fact that the current labour market is much more flexible than ever before, and that full employment cannot always mean the same employment. The success in my constituency is due to the flexibility of the work force. Swindon lost thousands of jobs when the railway works closed, but our highly regarded work force have adapted to change, and we enjoy near-full employment, with more manufacturing than many other parts of the country, as well as a strong service sector and many UK national and international headquarters based in the town.

People who work in the defence industry are highly skilled and well trained. Managed right, with proactive defence diversification, we should be able to get those skills into new and more productive fields without redundancies or unemployment.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger

In my constituency we have a Royal Ordnance factory. Workers there cannot easily be retrained. Their specialist employment is making explosives. Can the hon. Lady explain where we are to get retraining and re-employment for people in Somerset?

Ms Drown

Retraining is the key to a successful defence diversification policy. I have every faith that the hon. Gentleman's highly skilled workers can be retrained. We in Swindon had to do it with our railway workers. who produced some of the best engines that any country has ever seen. They are now doing different jobs in high-tech firms—more productive firms. It can be done if there is the will to do it.

Perhaps the York report has persuaded the Ministry of Defence that the only argument left is the political one. The Minister with responsibility for defence procurement has said: The Government supports defence exports primarily on the grounds of their benefit for defence and international security policy. So arms exports are supposed to be about benefiting our friends and allies, helping to deter aggression and keep the peace. That should mean that such exports help legitimate regimes. That is why the Export Control Act 2002 is so important. It allows the Government to refuse export licences to regimes that do not embody the positive values that we want to spread—regimes that flout human rights—or to stop the purchase of arms that would not support sustainable development.

The problem with that argument is that we currently export arms to regimes that clearly fail to promote those positive values. British arms exports to Saudi Arabia have helped legitimise a corrupt and undemocratic regime with one of the worst human rights records. Systematic torture and ill treatment in prisons and the imposition of corporal punishment such as amputation and flogging continue there. The political argument for arms exports cannot be listened to sympathetically while we continue to support arms sales to regimes that do not uphold human rights or where they are used to fuel aggression.

Ministers and hon. Members may have heard on the "Today" programme a couple of weeks ago that in Jordan, Ministry of Defence officials, UK Government employees, Prince Andrew and a Defence Minister were in the same hospitality suite at an arms fair as Saddam Hussein's cousin. That arms fair was attended by delegations from Syria, Libya, Iran and Iraq. The Government had 40 employees there and Britain was the biggest seller, besides Jordan itself. Every half an hour, Army display teams were showing off weaponry like a live television commercial, so even those threatening us are given intelligence on our weapons.

The Minister said that it was fine for Iraq to come and look, but because of the UN embargo, it cannot buy. That does not stop the Iraqis getting intelligence on our weapons. They were invited to see them, even though they cannot buy them. What do the Government do to protest about the fact that Iraq was represented at the arms fair? When there is an arms embargo on Iraq, what are Iraqis doing at an arms trade fair? The fair was held in Jordan, which the Scott report identified as the main route for arms to Iraq. When questioned, the Minister said that those countries are moving towards democracy and are forces for stability in the region.

Let us wake up. The truth is that the UK is such a massive exporter of arms that our threshold for friends must be very low. We are friends of India and Pakistan. That is right, but there are serious questions about selling weapons to those two countries, given the dispute over Kashmir. Given the concerns in the middle east, selling parts to Israel via America is also wrong. Having such a low threshold for friends is morally and economically wrong. It warps the Government's serious attempt to maintain an ethical foreign policy. We need a much higher threshold in place to ensure that we do not export arms to countries that could pose a threat in the future. The Government need to open their eyes to that danger and take action before it is too late. That is even more important, in the light of new international work on tackling terrorism and promoting peaceful and democratic regimes.

Obtaining approval of arms exports from a House Committee rather than from Ministers would be one way to make the system more transparent, and would better show each export on its merits. Similarly, all subsidies for projects should be reviewed to look at how much tax money is going into each project and whether it could be better used elsewhere. In addition, we need to take a serious look at moving skills from defence jobs to more productive areas. We will still need some defence jobs, but not as many as we have at present. The result would be a better use of taxpayers' money, more jobs and a more stable world.

Having heard the comments made earlier, I cannot leave a debate on UK defence without making a few comments about the UK's recruitment of child soldiers.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) suggested to the hon. Lady that she was in favour of virginity, but not all the time— [Interruption.]—or rather, in favour of sin, but not all the time. Perhaps she could set out, for the benefit of the House, what defence exports she believes to be justifiable, and to which countries she believes exports to be legitimate. There are a great many people in this country represented by hon. Members in all parts of the House whose jobs depend upon the defence industries, and our armed forces are dependent on those industries as well. Furthermore, those defence industries feed through to civil applications, from which Britain makes a great deal of money.

Ms Drown

If the hon. Gentleman reads my speech in Hansard, he will see the ethical principles in which I believe. I would be surprised if he supported exporting arms to every country in the world. I pointed out that our present threshold is not at the right level. I hope that he will reflect on that and bear it in mind when he considers his own policy on these issues.

I shall speak briefly about child soldiers. The United Nations committee on the rights of the child produced its report on the UK this month. It stated: The Committee is deeply concerned that about one third of the annual intake of recruits into the armed forces are below the age of 18 years, that the armed services target young people and that those recruited are required to serve for a minimum period of 4 years raising to six years in the case of very young recruits. The Committee is also concerned at the widespread allegations that young recruits have been the victims of bullying and at the fact that children below the age of 18 years take direct part in hostilities overseas. The Committee recommended that the UK Government ratify the optional protocol on the involvement of children—

Bob Russell

Will the hon. Lady confirm that she previously made that point to the Prime Minister at Prime Minister's Question Time, and that he thoroughly disagreed with her?

Ms Drown

The hon. Gentleman is right. I have raised the matter, and the Government have not moved to change their opinion. I believe that they should keep the matter under review. The current position is not right, and that is why I shall continue to challenge it.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger


Ms Drown

I have taken several interventions, and I want other hon. Members to be able to speak.

The committee wants the Government to ratify the optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict and to take all necessary measures to prevent the deployment of persons below the age of 18. It also wants us to strengthen and increase efforts 10 recruit people of 18 and older.

The Minister talked of the need to follow international obligations and one would have thought that the UN convention on the rights of the child would be central to that. In response to my intervention, the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) said that recruiting under-18s was a successful way in which to staff the armed forces. How do other European countries manage to staff their armed forces without having to do that? Why cannot the Government introduce a separate training organisation for 16 to 18-year-olds and give them the choice when they become 18 of whether to join? What objection can there be to that? That should be combined with more work on recruitment and retention of those over 18. I was delighted to hear from the Minister earlier that recruitment is going well. We need to keep working on that because that is the way to solve the problem.

The hon. Gentleman twice said that 16 and 17-year-olds are not children, but to say that is to ignore UN rules, which, given the international situation, is a dangerous precedent to follow. When UNICEF sought to deal with the problem of the 11 to 13-year-olds who are recruited in some of the poorer countries, about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned, those countries ask why it is raising that when the UK itself recruits children. There is an issue there about the Government having the moral authority to play their part in challenging the even more outrageous recruitment of very young children throughout the world.

I support greater financial investment in the staff of our armed forces, and we need to look further at intelligence, as the hon. Member for New Forest, East said, because that is crucial to protect the country. We can do that by diverting some of our funds and support for arms exports into personnel issues. I end where I began, supporting those personnel, those armed forces, who protect the country so well.

4.32 pm
Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater)

I was interested to hear what the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) said. Like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I was a Territorial Army officer. I held the rank of major in the Northumberland Fusiliers, and I led many young people who were extremely good. They were dedicated, tough and knew what they were doing, and they were not children. They were people on whom I would rely and for whom I would lay my life on the line to lead them. They were very good. In the Gulf, where our 3rd Battalion took a friendly-fire incident, which the hon. Lady may remember, those young people did not stop. They carried on with their job and went through with it. I have great respect for the young people of Britain. They do a great job. They are not children but have minds of their own. If we treat them like children, we shall never get over the stigma. We have a young military force called the Combined Cadet Force or the Cadets.

Ms Drown

I in no way suggested that those young people are not as fantastic as the rest of our armed forces, but why does the hon. Gentleman object to those people, who have a separate training organisation, making the decision to join the armed forces when they reach 18?

Mr. Liddell-Grainger

Why not before? I do not understand the hon. Lady's arguments. I strongly believe that young people must be given the right to make up their own mind. If one wants to start work at 14, one can do so. If one wants to train for a trade, one can do so.

Patrick Mercer

I had the pleasure to command junior leaders who were 16-year-old soldiers. The regime was benign and there was discharge as of right. In other words, any young soldier who asked to be discharged could be discharged automatically, unlike an adult soldier. There is indeed a separate training organisation for young soldiers called the army foundation college in Harrogate, which trains young men and women most carefully, in a paternal fashion, with completely different military regulations. There is also—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Order. That is rather long for an intervention.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger

My hon. Friend makes a most eloquent point, with which I completely agree. There are strong safeguards to ensure that young people are trained to the standard at which they can do the job. My hon. Friend was commanding officer of a fine regiment that took young people to Bosnia and brought them all home. That shows the dedication and ability of the young people.

I come now to the Territorial Army.

Ms Drown

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that discharge as of right applies for only six months, and it is iniquitous that when young people sign up they have to do so for six years, whereas 18 and 19-year-olds usually sign up for four years?

Mr. Liddell-Grainger

I am reliably informed by a whisper in my right ear that they have the right to be discharged throughout their training.

Ms Drown

indicated dissent.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger

I had better move on. If the hon. Lady shakes her head too much, it may fall off.

The TA has given great service in the defence of Britain ever since it was a militia. It has a unique ability to be a local defence force. It knows its area. There is no better organisation to defend a local area, because it already knows it. If one wants to deploy troops with the ability to defend strategic sites, such as the nuclear power station in the constituency of the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) and the ammunitions factory in my constituency, there is no one better than the TA because it knows precisely where such sites are. Following 11 September, many such places were protected. I am grateful to the Minister for allowing Skyguard radar to come down to the Minehead area where it did an invaluable job in checking the height of aircraft across strategic locations in Somerset.

I was interested to note that one of the problems of the CCRF, which will be made up of 14 battalions of 500 men, is recruitment. I do not know whether the level of recruitment in the TA has changed, but the turnover used to be near 30 per cent. I suspect that it has not greatly changed. If one tries to maintain training so that soldiers can be used effectively in the field, there must be a nucleus of people who will continue to be able to train others. It might be worth considering having a core of people, for not just training for external operations but internal operations. I thoroughly agree with the idea of having 280 command and control personnel, but it may be better to expand that to have a core of people who could train in homeland defence for people such as the TA. The regular Army is stretched and being able to retrain personnel to do that in the long term may be not only uneconomic but almost impossible given the other roles that all troops nowadays are expected to carry out.

Having undertaken a Government course at Easingwold on emergency planning as a councillor, I know how difficult it would be, should a petrol tanker explode in a town in the north-east where I was, to ensure that those 280 personnel were trained to a level at which they could cope with such disasters. At the moment, the police, fire and ambulance go to a command centre, and, if Army personnel are used, they must be trained to that level. When I was in the TA we used to try to do that for larger operations. We would have to go to north Yorkshire from Newcastle. That may not seem a long way to hon. Members but it is if one has only a weekend.

One has to put time and energy into achieving a level where such jobs can be carried out. In my experience of training at Longmoor for operations in this country, I never felt that I had got my men to a level at which I could guarantee that they could do the job in the field if they were pushed in straightaway. The problem with homeland defence is that one does not know what the threat is. It could be anything from white powder to something major in London or elsewhere. People may have to be deployed who, through no fault of their own, are not up to scratch. We must ask ourselves whether we as a Parliament are prepared to take action. We have one chance in such circumstances and no more. In Russia, people made the decisions that they felt to be right. I cannot fault that. Commanders on the ground will have seconds, minutes, half an hour or possibly an hour to make the decision to deploy troops and to ensure that they get it right.

Mr. Kevan Jones

I no longer feel that I can sleep safely in my bed in Durham in the knowledge that the hon. Gentleman has moved to Somerset.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Government have recognised that there was a co-ordination problem between the military and the civil authorities at a local level and have taken action to improve that co-ordination? I was a member of the Defence Committee when it dealt with the matter. Does he not agree that the Government have reacted and tried to solve a key problem in communication at a local level between the Army, the other forces and the civil authorities?

Mr. Liddell-Grainger

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I hope that he will start to sleep soundly, or I will come back and haunt him. He is absolutely right; the training always has been good. Having participated in the Government course, I strongly advocate it to anybody, but a level must be attained at which it is possible to continue to keep people fully trained for eventualities.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) made the very good point that we do not know where the threat is coming from or what it will be. Unless the nucleus is kept going, it will not be possible to train people to a proper level.

Equipment is another important issue for the Territorial Army. It has been pointed out that the TA tends to be given the cast-offs of the regular Army. When that happens—I have direct experience of it—TA personnel are left to use inferior equipment to do exactly the same job as their regular counterparts. I remember opening packages containing chemical warfare suits that almost fell to bits, although that happened a long time ago, before the Minister was in situ. The equipment that is provided to the Territorial Army must be up to scratch, especially where chemical warfare is involved. If not, we know who will suffer.

The bane of my life and that of the Minister is the Royal Ordnance factory in Puriton in my constituency. He knew that that was coming. I was interested recently to note that BAE Systems, another great British company, shamelessly played the patriotic card in its campaign to win the £2.9 billion contract to build two aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy, warning that a win for its French rival would seriously damage the UK's industrial base. That is what The Guardian said. The Times stated: BAE Systems' chief executive, Mike Turner, has…demanded that his company be given the job because of the strategic need to retain big projects in this country. I have spoken to the Minister about the Royal Ordnance factory in Puriton, which is now owned by BAE Systems. Why has the company still made no decision what it will do with the factories? There are three large Royal Ordnance factories in this country. If they are closed, production will go to America, but the chief executive of BAE Systems is jumping up and down saying that it wants to keep big manufacturing projects in the UK. Hypocrisy is one thing, but it is another for a company to contradict what the Government recommend in terms of the control of our strategic ability to supply our armed forces with British-made and British-secured ammunition and explosives.

What I do not understand is why BAE Systems is being so vocal and the Government so silent about the need for the company to ensure that the supply of ammunition is maintained within the UK. I do not understand why we cannot ensure that it does so. Interestingly, the aircraft carriers will carry 800 tonnes of ammunition when they sail out of port. I would love it if the explosives were made in Bridgwater. That would certainly keep the jobs there, although I am sure that the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) would have something to say about that.

The defence of the UK is in the hands of an overstretched military who do not always have the capacity to do what we ask of them. They do what we ask because they are the highly professional organisation that we know and have come to respect. I urge the Minister to remember that young adults can be taken into the cadets and on to the regulars and that we should try to keep them there. People have left the territorials and regulars as reserve soldiers. We should do everything that we can to keep them. We have a nucleus of people and the terrorist threat to this country will not go away, no matter what we do. The one thing with which everybody in this House is charged is the defence of the homeland. The Americans take one view; we take a different one. We have had a lot more experience of defending our homeland in the past few generations.

Patrick Mercer


Mr. Liddell-Grainger

I agree. I think that there is only one year since the war when British forces have not been in action, so we know the level of our people's commitment.

It is important that people such as those in the Territorial Army be given clear structures, but if we do not recruit sufficient numbers to supply the troops and keep them in the field in the long term, whatever attack we face, we will fail in keeping it out.

4.46 pm
Laura Moffatt (Crawley)

It is certainly a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger), because he clearly has enormous experience of the armed forces. I could not possibly match it, but I hope that I can join him in expressing tremendous support for our armed forces.

My interest began when I was a young girl who joined a uniformed organisation called the Nautical Training Corps, which was wonderful. That superb organisation taught me about life, took me out and about and got me in touch with lots of sailors, which was very helpful. We should be very proud of our uniformed organisations, which play such a large part in helping young people to understand what they want to do in life. Forgetting those wonderful sailors, if I had not met my husband at school—I remain with him—I would myself have joined the armed forces to do my nursing training. I was keen to do so.

My interest continued long before I became a Member of Parliament. Many of us who have had jobs involved in the defence industry have begun to understand its complexities. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) rightly talked about the difficulties that are faced by our armed forces and the defence industry in producing the goods that are needed so those forces can do their job properly. That will never be an easy matter to solve or one of those issues that we can allow to toddle along without taking great cognisance.

I was therefore deeply proud that, after the 1997 election, I was placed on the Select Committee on Defence. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) and I were immensely proud to be the first two women to serve on the Committee. I am not sure whether I am pleased that the Chairman is present, because I am going to be cheeky. My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) was a superb Chairman. Although some people may say that he did not encourage women to serve on the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South and I say differently. We were given the same tasks and asked to be just as robust as the men. We were given no concessions, not even for shopping when we went abroad. He was truly wonderful.

Mr. Kevan Jones

My hon. Friend's experience on the Defence Committee has obviously been invaluable. She has one advantage over male members, in that she does not have to share a tent with my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) when we go away.

Laura Moffatt

I shall not intrude on past sadness. Sadly, we did not share a tent. [Interruption.] I should perhaps rephrase that.

Mr. Bruce George

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Will you exercise the discipline over my Committee that I cannot?

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sure that the hon. Lady will resume her speech and relate it to the debate.

Laura Moffatt

I do not know whether my right hon. Friend will be disappointed but I was sad that the women, including the staff who accompanied us on visits, were not placed in tents only because we were put in strange outbuildings and were freezing while the men were in fabulous comfortable tents. That was a mistake, and I hope that it will not be perpetuated.

Although my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Defence Committee was superb, he famously said when my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South left the Committee—

Mr. George

No, don't say that.

Laura Moffatt

I shall not be bullied by my right hon. Friend. That shows that I have done well to cope. He famously said, "One woman down, one to go." [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] Yes, indeed.

The diversity and robust nature of the Committee are vital. Two members belonged to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. That is right and proper. Let me say a good word for the Whips, who often come in for criticism. I cannot imagine why; it is a mystery. I was delighted to be put on the Defence Committee, but I approached the Whip and asked whether it was a mistake. I had heard tales about its being manufactured and that no one who presented difficulties would serve on it. I admitted that I was a member of CND and asked whether the decision was correct. The Whip said, "Of course it's right. We should have a diverse Select Committee that can examine all aspects of defence." Of course, we are not there for our own purposes; we should he able to examine matters across the board.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger

I do not recall people in CND being anti-military. They were against weapons of mass destruction, not this country's capacity to defend itself.

Laura Moffatt

I am delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman say that, because there is a feeling that a CND member would not be welcome on the Defence Committee. That is clearly untrue and I am pleased to be able to say that.

The Select Committee on Defence was able to examine the big issues of the day, including extremely troubling matters arid others that were heartening. It was pleasing to examine in detail the strategic defence review. It was a trailblazer in terms of trying to define our armed forces and the way in which we ensure that they have the necessary equipment. The new chapter shows a commitment to ensuring the flow of resources and making sure that we listen to the people who do the job on our behalf and undertake such valuable work.

A major difficulty persists in the Defence Medical Services. As a trained nurse for 25 years, I am especially interested in them. The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), who is no longer in his seat, told us about the shortfall that the Defence Medical Services face. The national health service also faces such difficulties. The close link and interchange of experience and technical expertise between the health services means that they suffer the same problems. We should therefore not be surprised that recruitment difficulties are the same for both.

The problem is being tackled in a way that I believed impossible. I did not believe that representatives of the NHS and the MOD could sit down together and consider carefully methods of recruiting from the NHS. They examined ways in which to release staff. That is an extremely difficult problem to tackle, but it is now being done in a way that will bear fruit. In that regard, the Centre for Defence Medicine will create extra expertise and be of tremendous advantage to us all. It is wonderful that the Select Committee is able to tackle those issues. Issues such as terrorism and ensuring that we properly address the difficulties that we face today are also, rightly, in the hands of the Select Committee. I was pleased to read its report, because hon. Members who have left the Committee remain engaged with the valuable job that it undertakes.

It is impossible to ignore the economic impact of our defence industry. I have mentioned some of the jobs that are so crucial to Crawley. The reason I am so supportive of those jobs is that they help to ensure that we have decent communications and proper simulator training facilities. Those jobs are at the soft end of the market; we do not produce arms in Crawley. I do not, therefore, find it difficult to support them. I know that the impact that they have on my town is a positive one, and one that I feel completely comfortable about supporting.

We need, however, to tackle certain issues, and we now have the Export Control Act 2002, which allows us to examine what is happening in relation to defence exports. The annual report also plays a vital role in that regard. We need more openness, however, and we need our Select Committees to have more involvement than the Quadripartite Committee simply meeting the Secretary of State to discuss these matters. We also need more input from the Floor of the House. We have nothing to hide. This is a decent country, and people do decent jobs for decent companies that provide a real service. We have everything to be proud of, and more openness will not be a constraint. I would like to see more of it, and a more prominent role for Parliament in these matters.

I want to discuss the impact of those defence industry jobs—of which there are now several thousand—on Crawley. We often think of the south-east as a high-employment area with no employment problems. Why, therefore, should we think of maintaining those defence jobs in Crawley and the south-east? I would like to make a plea to my right hon. Friend the Minister that it is crucial that we maintain those jobs there. We often think that we should direct our attention to other parts of the country where unemployment is an issue, but we should still think seriously about contracts that are important to the south-east.

Gatwick airport is in my constituency and has 36,000 employees across the board. Many of those jobs are in the service industries, however. They are good jobs, with reasonable pay, which provide full employment. One could argue that we should not he moaning. It is clear, however, from visiting defence industry companies such as Thales, that the jobs that they offer are degree-entry jobs. They are fantastic jobs for those coming out of universities and colleges, and the companies provide superb training, including apprenticeships, to ensure that the jobs are of the highest quality. We would have serious difficulty with the diversity of jobs available if those defence jobs were not there for our young people. I make a plea: when acquisition issues are considered, we should not think, "Let's not worry about the south-east and acquisitions from companies there."

Mr. Kevan Jones

Following my sin analogy, my hon. Friend obviously agrees not only with sin, but with quality sin. Is it not the point that a lot of those high-tech jobs in the south-east support long supply chains, including industries in the north-east of England and small and medium-sized enterprises that rely on such contracts for their livelihood?

Laura Moffatt

I thank my hon. Friend, who is right. It should not be assumed that research and development work such as that being done in Crawley has no impact on the final product, often outside our own constituencies. It is important to remember that the defence industry is global in nature. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State addressed a defence industry conference a couple of weeks ago, he pointed out how complex the matter is. We are talking not only about British-based companies, but about companies with major interests in the UK, and we need to support those jobs.

I am pleased that, after donkeys' years, Thales in my constituency has recognised the trade unions, which it did not do in its previous life. That is a step forward; therefore Thales is, and is seen as, an excellent employer. The Chairman of the Defence Committee may have another view—I am sure he does—but the fact is that such companies are important to our economic base and we should remember to be careful about and sensitive o f that. We must not say, "They are foreign owned and therefore not important to this country." Clearly, that is not the case.

It would be extremely silly of me to sit down without making a plea for two really good procurements that I feel deeply about and which will strengthen the technology base in the UK—Watchkeeper, and the advance vehicle training system, which will give our armed forces the ability to train without causing huge disturbances to our countryside. Those technologies will allow training to take place in circumstances that are almost real, so it is important that we develop them. That is at the core of the work going on in Crawley. Having mentioned it, I hope that regard is paid to its importance.

These debates are significant. We range widely, even though we are discussing defence in the UK, but it is important to understand that everybody involved in defence is part of a process and likes to feel part of that process. Even those working in defence companies that are manufacturing goods for our armed forces have something special about them. They understand what they are doing and what contribution they are making to defence in the UK. We need to recognise that their work is important.

Competition is right—of course it is. We must ensure that we get the best value for money at every turn and that whatever is procured is fit for the job, but we must value those who work so tirelessly to ensure that our armed forces are the pride of the world and have first-class equipment.

5.4 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

I am grateful to be called in a debate on such an important subject. I shall raise two specific issues relating to defence in the United Kingdom—the new chapter of the strategic defence review and the outcome of the Government's related consultation exercise on the role of the reserves in home defence and security as well as the UK's resilience against attack and the connected topic of emergency planning.

The new chapter of the SDR was issued to update UK defence policy in the light of the events of 11 September. The first paragraph states: Following the appalling events of September 11th, the Secretary of State for Defence announced that the Ministry of Defence would look again at its defence posture and plans to ensure that we have the right concepts, the right forces and the right capabilities to meet the additional challenges that we face from international terrorism and asymmetric threats (defined as the threat of attack by unconventional methods which would have a disproportionate effect). In response to the paper, a number of organisations and individuals—of whom I was but one—argued that the Territorial Army and other reserve forces should be given an enhanced role in helping to provide for the security of the UK against such asymmetric attacks.

The MOD subsequently issued a more specific paper on the role of the reserves in home defence and security. At the heart of its suggestion was the establishment of what were then called regional reaction forces, in most cases formed around one of the remaining TA infantry battalions in each region, which would give a UK-wide total of around 6,000 personnel in that role. Reaction forces could be called on at short notice to assist the police and civil authorities in the event of an impending or actual crisis. I agree with the reaction force concept, and I therefore welcome the Minister's announcement this afternoon—although perhaps the MOD could have come up with a slightly sexier name for the units to encourage recruitment and retention.

When I served in the Territorial Army, I specialised partly in what is now called chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological warfare—CBNR in the current jargon. That gave me at least some conception of how lethal biological agents, or small quantities of chemicals such as VX and sarin, can be. If we were subjected to any kind of attack with such weapons, particularly if it were a concerted assault rather than a one-off, the consequences could be truly awful. Given the media hysteria that would inevitably result, there would be a pressing need for considerable numbers of trained troops to give protection and reassurance to the civilian population, in order to allow some semblance of normality. The regular Army is simply too small to provide such protection on its own, and besides it will always be partially deployed overseas. I believe that a revamped and retrained TA could fill the gap by providing units specifically trained to deal with homeland security and chemical and biological first aid.

I ask Ministers, including the Minister who is present, to consider establishing a specialist CBNR platoon in each TA battalion, with a higher readiness than the rest of the unit, which might be expected to provide a trained response on the ground within hours of an attack—to act, as it were, as a CBNR spearhead in reacting to an incident such as a chemical attack on a local railway station, when CBNR troops in kit would probably be needed to assist the blue-light emergency services, very few of which are CBNR-trained and equipped. Such a platoon could also act as a specialist CBNR cadre for the rest of the battalion and, indeed, other elements in the regional reaction force.

Let me put it succinctly. If someone were to launch any kind of concerted attack on the civilian population of the United Kingdom, we would need far more specially trained troops than we have now. I agree that the TA would provide a very cost-effective solution.

I want to say something about the resilience of the UK in the face of terrorist attack, and the related issue of emergency planning. I have done some research, and have received direct briefing from local government officers with responsibilities in this field. I thank, among others, Mr. Charles Thomas, the emergency planning officer of Rochford district council—with whom, incidentally, I served in the TA—and Mr. Peter Pearson, the emergency planning officer of Essex county council.

A number of serious challenges need to be addressed if we are to improve the resilience of the United Kingdom to any type of asymmetric attack. First, emergency planning is woefully under-resourced. The Government spend only around £19 million a year specifically on that, compared with a defence budget of billions of pounds.

Most district councils have no full-time emergency planning officer at all. The person who holds that role is usually double or triple-hatted, has other responsibilities and so can spend only a proportion of each day preparing for potential disaster. Most county councils and unitary authorities do at least have a full-time emergency planning office but even the largest county councils have only a very small staff—what amounts to a planning cell—to deal with these issues. Most of the "buffer stocks" from the cold war era have disappeared. Much of the planning to date has been London-centric, rather than addressing the problem across the UK. In short, most local authorities lack both the specialist staff and the resources in sufficient quantities to respond adequately to a real attack as opposed to a theoretical exercise.

Secondly, lines of command and control in emergency planning are unclear, a point that was made both by the Chairman of the Defence Committee and by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson). Emergency planning is a classic example of a cross- cutting issue. It involves not just the MOD but other Departments, including the Cabinet Office, the Home Office, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department of Health, to name just a few. That raises the issue of who is in charge in the event of an attack. There is still considerable confusion about the relationship between the civil contingency secretariat, the military, chief constables and local authorities in the event of an emergency. We need to cut through that Gordian knot while we still have time to do so.

The handling of the foot and mouth crisis—I stress to the Minister that I am not seeking to make a partisan point—provided a clear example of what can happen when lines of command and control are unclear. In the event the Army responded excellently but it was several weeks before it was fully called in. We would not have several weeks to react, or even several days. We may have only a few hours to save potentially thousands of lives in the event of a substantial asymmetric attack. The stakes are that high. We must clarify exactly what our response mechanisms are and, having done that, rehearse them thoroughly.

Dr. Julian Lewis

I am listening with great interest to what my hon. Friend is saying about the serious situation that he is describing. In his discussions with people in local authorities with responsibility for emergency planning, did he find out whether they had been supplied with equipment to enable them to discover when a biological attack was under way? It is not easy to know initially whether such an outbreak is the result of an aggressive action. Although NATO is taking steps to ensure that our armed forces are prepared, I have not heard anything with regard to the civil powers in that respect.

Mr. Francois

My hon. Friend makes an important point. My understanding is that some local authorities—I emphasise the word "some"—have limited stocks and protection equipment, much of which is effectively outmoded, and that others have virtually no equipment whatever. Therefore, they would be extremely hard-pressed, if casualties were beginning to appear, to ascertain quickly exactly which agent was at work, which would be vital in co-ordinating a response. Much more needs to be done to get that equipment into the field, as it were, where it could be of material use were it ever needed.

That brings me to a key issue. As the excellent report by the Defence Committee pointed out, there is a crying need for new legislation. The statutory framework which governs emergency planning is now very outdated. There have been three paradigms of emergency planning in the UK since the second world war. The first might be defined as the cold war paradigm in which our emergency planning was configured largely to responding to a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. Following the collapse of the Berlin wall, we moved into the second paradigm, the post-cold war paradigm of the 1990s, when Governments of both political colours stood down much of the infrastructure that had been put in place. The 10-year rule started to creep in and we believed that perhaps there was no direct and immediate threat to the security of the United Kingdom. After 11 September we moved into a third and new paradigm—the real threat of asymmetric attack with the potential use of a variety of weapons of mass destruction. Our existing legislation relates to the first paradigm, but the world has moved on. We now require new framework legislation and the resources to make it effective to address the scenario that we face in the 21st century rather than the 20th.

I stress as strongly as I can that we need to act before it is too late. The threat is very real, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) pointed out with great clarity. It may seem curious to argue that one of the most important things that we need to shore up the defence of the United Kingdom is a wad of paper, but in this case I believe it to be true. We need an emergency planning Bill in the Queen's Speech to clarify exactly who is responsible for what and when, and to update statutory responsibilities so that those people who hold these important—indeed vital— responsibilities in local authorities will have some chance to obtain resources in the face of all the other pressures on their budgets.

Mr. Kevan Jones

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest. It is not that we do not know who is in charge at local level. The real problem relates to the co-ordination of different local agencies and how that fits in with what the military are doing. I do not think that there is any confusion as to who is in charge of what; we need to work out how to get them working together.

Mr. Francois

I can only say that, having talked to practitioners in the field, my impression is that there is definitely some confusion about how it all knits together, who is responsible for taking decisions and the timing of the process—whether it be in relation to the civil contingencies secretariat intervening at national level, or chief constables acting in the county, or emergency planning officers, or regional military commanders. Who will give orders to whom and who is in charge when they disagree? I do not think that the military have a problem; rather it is those around them. One of the maxims of successful military operations is to have a clear chain of command and control. We do not have that. I am stressing this issue because if there is a crisis we will have only hours to deal with it, and if we do not sort things out in advance, people will die.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger

My hon. Friend is making some extremely good points. Having been a Territorial soldier he also knows that in the event of an emergency incident it is extremely important to set up a command centre. Does he agree that the command centre system needs to be re-established so that people can get to an incident and take command?

Mr. Francois

I agree entirely. That command centre needs to be chemically and biologically secure. I understand that during the cold war local authorities had a statutory responsibility to maintain such a command centre, at least in a state of readiness. I further understand that that responsibility no longer exists, but should be included in a new emergency planning Bill.

I shall conclude my remarks as others wish to speak. Hindsight makes geniuses of us all. Many of us are wearing poppies this evening in recognition of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, partly because of mistakes made by our predecessors in this place. Perhaps, for once, we could at least learn our lessons in advance, because history shows that if we learn them after the fact, the cost, in all senses, is infinitely higher.

5.20 pm
Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West)

It is a pleasure to take part in the debate. There have been a number of high quality contributions. I listened to the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) with great interest, although I do not necessarily agree with all his points. Relatively recently, however, I visited Falkirk council's emergency planning services covering my area. Because my constituency is underlaid by pipes going to and from a refinery over the boundary, I have always thought that there must be at least an element of risk, as the pipes are only 3 or 4 m below the surface. I am pleased that the local emergency service officer has taken that into account.

The hon. Gentleman's points were well made. I am not sure about including proposals in the Queen's Speech, but this is a very important area. I was aware in a previous existence of the importance of emergency planning by local authorities under the old system. We may never get back to that, but it is an area that local authorities must consider.

I have a few comments about some of the other excellent speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) spoke about the UN and child soldiers, as she described them. Although I suspect that I share my hon. Friend's world view in some respects, I get a wee bit fed up—not with my hon. Friend—when UN reports directed at Britain refer to child soldiers, when clearly it is very peripheral. Since I have been in the House, I have been lucky enough to visit Africa a few times to see that very real phenomenon about which many international agencies write and talk. To see 13 and 14-year-olds taking part in combat—indeed, we saw a couple of 11 and 12-year-olds in Sierra Leone, who were quite infamous for a while—using weapons, killing and being killed, is not just slightly but enormously different from the situation in the UK.

As the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) said, there is an enormous difference between military training and education for 16-year-olds in this country and what is described as training in foreign armies. The UN is concerned about where training takes place and people being of a sufficient age to be involved in military operations because training in some African states takes place pretty much in theatre. There is no separation between training, having a weapon, being 15 and taking part in operations. I urge people who criticise our system, in particular the UN panel, to visit an Army apprentice college or training establishment to see the quality of the education, which is second to none and compares to that in any civilian college. No one takes unnecessary risks. Even when those still under 18 go into an operational theatre, commanders, by and large, take account of their age and they will often be given duties that are at the less risky end of the spectrum. I think that the UN should take account of that in its reports.

My hon. Friend also mentioned diversification, and I intervened on her at that point. Diversification is a perfectly sound concept; indeed, the Government have a diversification programme, although a fairly modest one. However, people, perhaps understandably, sometimes miss the fact that the Ministry of Defence is the single largest customer for British industry, and its impact on the economy is enormous. I would not want procurement used simply as an economic device—the aim is clearly to procure the best equipment for the armed forces—but it is nevertheless significant for a number of constituencies. Retraining does not exactly deal with the issue, which is about movement—the jobs tend to move to the south-east. Studies have shown that jobs tend to move to areas that are better off and away from those that are worse off.

Although job mobility is very important, the fact is that movement created by excessive diversification adversely affects areas, such as Scotland, which is experiencing a net loss of people We would like to keep them there if we possibly can. I suspect that that possibly also affects the north-east, although I take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon that there is also a translation from the lower skilled end of the spectrum to the higher skilled, new economy jobs in those areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) alluded to industrial procurement issues, but it is worth flagging up—this has not been discussed today—the extent to which expenditure on military equipment in Europe is enormously inefficient compared with the United States because we have different interests in various countries and there is enormous duplication. The Government have to consider this country's interests, but in due course there will have to be far greater co-operation between companies and countries, so that we can get a far greater bang for the buck—or euro, or whatever currency we are spending—in comparison to the Americans. At the moment, we in Europe punch far below our weight in procurement and capability terms.

I want primarily to talk about something that was raised earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen): international law, which we hear quite a lot about in the Chamber. I have great respect for international law and the UN—we all do—but people sometimes miss the point about the nature of international law when they refer to it as being written in stone and considered very objectively by judges.

I am not a lawyer. Some might say that I have not been blessed or cursed with a legal training depending on their perspective, but I understand that international law is, by and large, made up of a number of different instruments: the UN charter, resolutions passed by the General Assembly, by the Security Council and in a number of other places. That is very different from domestic law. If any lawyer wants to intervene, I shall happily take the intervention.

We have a set of laws. We have judges and juries and, by and large, our legal system's interpretation of the law is pretty objective, but that does not exist in international law. We can all refer to international law and aspire to its ideals, but ultimately, most of the time, international law will be interpreted very subjectively and in a way that reflects the interests of states that are members of the UN, which tends to be the arbiter of such things. More than just being subjective, the interpretation will be a matter of politics.

I am as much a fan of the UN as any other hon. Member. I really do believe in its ideals, but the UN is made up of a very large number of nations, half of which, or more, do not have democratic systems such as ours. We say that the UN should be the arbiter of all things good, but we have to qualify that in some way. I will not suggest today how to do so in all senses, but we must qualify what we mean when we refer to international law, on one hand, and the UN being the supreme moral arbiter on the other.

Annabelle Ewing


Mr. Joyce

Before I give way to the hon. Lady, I should say that I have noticed the Scottish National party's presence on the Opposition Benches—it is wonderful to see someone there—but I have also noticed that, although she wants to take part in this important debate, she has done so very asymmetrically, so that she cannot be challenged. However, I am happy to deal with whatever opportunistic point she wants to make.

Annabelle Ewing

In fact, the hon. Gentleman invited any lawyer in the Chamber to intervene on the specific point that he made about the position and status of international law. I wonder therefore whether he can share his thoughts on the role of the International Court of Justice, which is located, in case he is not aware, in The Hague, in the Netherlands.

Mr. Joyce

The hon. Lady—I say this with great surprise—raises an interesting point. There is a place for that to which she refers, and the International Criminal Court is still embryonic, in a sense, as the United States has not yet signed up to it—for reasons with which I slightly sympathise—although I hope that it signs up in due course. It is in exactly those cases that one can have a little more confidence in a proper judiciary that can make objective judgments. Most of the international law cases that we see or hear about at the moment, especially in view of the international situation, refer to UN charters, resolutions and so forth, which are much less concrete matters than those dealt with by the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court.

To return to my point about how we interpret the UN, its will and international law, it seems to me that a number of countries are prepared to say, "These are the values inherent in our system, which we think are quite good—democracy being one of them—and they can be universalised. Those values must be an important aspect of how international law is interpreted." At the same time, however, it must be recognised that no law stays in place for ever, and that all laws should be challengeable and changing. When we make judgments about what we should do, and whether we should deploy our forces in a particular context, we should be cautious about legitimising those decisions according to what is international law at present. Sometimes, it is a slightly ethereal concept, and while we must maintain general respect for international law, a particular role exists for countries such as ours, which have a democratic system, a set of values that we respect and that we would like to see across the world, and which are prepared to take action to spread those values. I urge hon. Members to develop ideas about how we might make changes to aspects of international law in a way that reflects that general trend, rather than accept the questionable idea that all members of the UN should have an equal input into how we interpret that international law.

Before I conclude, I want to refer to the laws of armed conflict. The Geneva conventions are a good case in point. We need to update the way in which we determine what it is acceptable for our armed forces to do. The Geneva conventions are very close to the heart of anyone who is interested in defence issues, and rightly so. Increasingly, however, the UN is deployed not so much in peacekeeping operations but in a potentially warlike context. The UN is not clearly covered by the Geneva conventions, however, as, effectively, it would be policing itself, which raises certain issues. In addition, peacekeeping troops are not technically covered by the laws of armed conflict when, in effect, they are involved in a warlike situation. There are difficulties in that respect. Can the Minister, who is not in his place at present, say whether the Ministry has given thought to those issues? Sometimes, it is difficult to raise issues about the Geneva conventions or international law without seeming as though one is challenging the whole concept, which I am certainly not doing. It is important, however, that the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office should consider those issues to see whether changes can be made.

This has been an interesting debate, and I could talk at greater length about some of the other contributions, although I will not do so. I look forward to the next defence debate, however, when the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) will be able to make a speech, and perhaps we will be able to intervene on her.

5.34 pm
Patrick Mercer (Newark)

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce), who makes his normal trenchant points so clearly. In response to the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), her husband's gain was certainly the Royal Navy's loss. If I may, however, I shall expand for a moment on the comments of the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown).

I regret that the Minister is not in his place, as, for once, I was going to be complimentary about the way in which junior recruiting has been handled over the past four or five years. The hon. and gallant Member for Falkirk, West understands the issue in great detail and I am sure would make the point better than I can. The fact remains, however, that another Administration wrongly ensured that juniors were no longer recruited into the services. That was a great error. A number of regiments, in particular the highland regiments, suffered egregiously as a result. Only now, with the interjection of money and forethought, are the Scottish regiments beginning to recover and the lifeblood of our technical arms beginning to come out of the Army Apprentices College and the Army Foundation College.

Were the hon. Member for South Swindon in the Chamber, I would reiterate the hon. Gentleman's words. There can be no similarity between the infants—I use the phrase advisedly—that he saw in Sierra Leone and with whom I served in Uganda, and the juniors who serve in the British armed forces. The training is carefully organised. It is deeply paternal and protective. The instructors rightly understand that they are in loco parentis.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)

HMS Raleigh, through which all Navy recruits pass, is in my constituency. It holds passing out parades almost every week. Parents and families see their relatives go through six, seven or eight weeks of training and are extremely proud of their achievements. They also remark on the incredible change in them. That is much to the benefit of the individual who goes through the training, but it also means that the Navy is held in high regard. There is tremendous affection for the way in which the recruits have been carefully nurtured and trained, which makes a fantastic difference to their lives. We should recognise that the families and parents who see that happen to their children know what is happening.

Patrick Mercer

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that and underline those points. A recruiting initiative among families of juniors when they attend such parades is encouraging and welcome.

The hon. Member for South Swindon got it terribly wrong. Those young men and women are the lifeblood of our three services, especially the non-commissioned officers' and the petty officers' messes. To categorise those young soldiers, sailors and airmen as children is wrong.

Laura Moffatt

I want to drive home that point. I might have agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon until I met two young people who were school-phobic. They were difficult young men who were not attending school and were being naughty on the streets. They joined the foundation and are transformed. They are now enjoying a fantastic experience. That completely changed my mind.

Patrick Mercer

The hon. Lady is right. I can give many examples from Newark and Retford of young men and women who have been changed wholly by the scheme.

The young soldiers are not usually allowed into action. There is no question of that happening in Northern Ireland. In other circumstances, it is considered carefully in light of the campaigns to which under-age soldiers, sailors and airmen might be deployed. In general, youngsters—I use the phrase advisedly—are not allowed or expected to fight.

Mr. Kevan Jones

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the armed forces provide great opportunities to many youngsters in former mining communities, such as my constituency and Nottinghamshire where I grew up? Without those, they would not have the chance to get the skills and expertise offered at an apprentice level, to see the rest of the world or to get well-paid and fulfilling, meaningful jobs and careers.

Patrick Mercer

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and, I might add, for his normal sensible point of view. I could not agree more. The armed forces provide a wonderful opportunity, particularly for young men and women from depressed areas such as the hon. Gentleman's constituency and my own. I am not slow to make that point in trying to create jobs for young people in my constituency and, I hope, others. I know from my regiment that junior soldiers continue to provide the vast majority of the non-commissioned officers and the sergeants' mess. If we tinker with that system, as has been done in the past, we tinker with our lifeblood.

There is no point in my talking about 11 September because everybody knows what it meant to America, but it is interesting that two other nations now claim that they have experienced their 11 September. The first is Australia, after the appalling attack in Bali, and the second is Russia, following the so-called siege last week in Moscow. That nation has suffered grievously at the hands of terrorists or freedom fighters—take your pick—and is well used to terrorism, war and suffering.

The Government have an extremely difficult task ahead in preparing this country, not only physically but mentally and ideologically, for our 11 September, which must surely be coming. There is an inevitability about this event. We are very aware of the Nisha incident, to which hon. Members have referred, which happened at about this time last year. I do not know the details, but I believe that it was an attempt to detonate a weapon of mass destruction on the shores of this country. I believe also that one of Her Majesty's warships was about to be attacked in the straits of Gibraltar and that a number of other attacks have been seen off, foiled or nipped in the bud. I pay tribute to the men and women of the intelligence services, which make interdiction of these events possible. One day, however, and in my opinion it will not be long in coming, one of these attacks will succeed. Hon. Members must forgive me for using a cliche, but the terrorist needs to get lucky only once and we so-called civilised societies need to be lucky all the time—a trite old saw, I know, but it is true.

We have had a reasonable amount of experience of such attacks at the hands of the Provisional IRA, but it is interesting to consider the mentality of the two countries that have been struck recently. I am sure that other hon. Members were as shocked as I was to see, after the Bali bombing, how the press took every mawkish advantage of the Australian relatives and the survivors; how the western press wrung every little bit of pathos out of those unfortunate individuals; how Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen were seen to cry on television, and how the Prime Minister of Australia, clearly affected by the event, had every ounce of grief and passion wrung out of him.

Last week, as I have already mentioned, I was in Sebastopol, a Russian city, albeit in the Ukraine, watching the events in Moscow unfold on the television. Many of the people in Sebastopol had relatives in Moscow or serving in the Russian armed forces, and the city was badly affected when the Kursk went down some time ago. There is no doubt that the reaction of the Russian people was wholly different from anything that we could expect in this country.

There was a certain amount of celebration at the killing of the terrorists and blind acceptance of whatever the security forces did. A certain number of casualties were acceptable, as long as mass casualties were prevented. As I have said, when the television crews unveiled their ghastly shots of gunshot head wounds of terrorists killed in the centre of Moscow, the people with whom I was watching were up on their feet, clapping their hands and shouting their approval. I am neither approving nor disapproving; I am merely saying that that nation is coming to terms with an event that we too are likely to face.

It is interesting that the so-called liberal western press went to town—"Massacre in Moscow". Massacre of whom—terrorists or their own people? I would ask the people who penned that line, "That's fine, criticise as much as you like, but what was the alternative?" It was 1,000 dead—700 civilians and terrorists and 300 security forces. That is what Mr. Putin was talking about—those were the stakes. We must come to terms with the fact that we are going to have to deal with that sort of problem—that is the challenge facing the Government.

Chris Grayling

My hon. Friend is making some extremely succinct and pertinent points. Could he clarify something? One striking thing about the situation in Moscow was the scale of the attack, which gave rise to the question of how it was possible for so many armed terrorists to be within the confines of the city. Does my hon. Friend think that that was a one-off event or is it possible that large numbers of terrorists could be operating in other places in the developed western world?

Patrick Mercer

I do not want to go too far down the track of dealing with the origins of the attack, whether it was a Chechen Government-inspired attack, a freedom fighter attack and so on. However, the great danger after 11 September is that other terrorist organisations will strive to emulate and improve on what was achieved then. We are vulnerable in other no less serious ways to a similar form of attack. That is the challenge facing the Government. Ultimately, that is what the debate about defending the nation is all about. The Government must achieve a higher level of awareness among the target population—ourselves—without scaring the pants off us.

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

Not an easy task.

Patrick Mercer

I am grateful to the Minister—I am sure that that is true.

Without undermining our national confidence, we must be made more aware of and alert to what lies around the corner.

Mr. Keetch

I shall not detain the hon. Gentleman long, as I know colleagues wish to speak. The other interesting thing about the Moscow attack is that it underlines the international nature of terrorism. The uncle of Mr. Barayev, the leader of the gang who was killed in the attack, was generally responsible for the kidnap in Chechnya of four British Telecom workers, including someone from my constituency, who were beheaded. It is also the case that Osama bin Laden used Chechen fighters, so there is a link to international terrorism. That is one of the defining differences in dealing with that kind of terrorism and the Irish terrorism to which he referred earlier.

Patrick Mercer

Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Spicer spoke earlier this week, and compared al-Qaeda to mercury. To borrow his words, if you strike mercury with a hammer, all it does is splinter and become more dangerous. The problem is tricky—we must make sure that we spread the word without aiding and abetting the terrorist's cause. His aim is to terrify. Any hon. Member who has spent time in Northern Ireland or lived there will understand how difficult it is to tread the tricky path between alerting people to danger and wrecking their quality of life, which is what the terrorist strives to achieve.

I should like to reflect on the forces available to deal with the threat, and shall speak up on behalf of the police. Police forces generally have done a wonderful job of deterring and detecting terrorists, as well as causing their attrition.

I make a plea for the handling and organisation of special branch. I appreciate that it is not the Minister's particular consideration, but I am sure that special branch would benefit from a regional organisation or possibly a national one. Currently its structure is extremely disparate and relies on the patronage of each chief constable. I should be grateful if the Minister would pass on my comments to the Home Office.

The fact remains that it has been announced that the police force will have extra policemen. Perhaps that is for street crime, for everyday detection of ordinary decent crime. However, there will be more policemen under arms, under truncheons and under helmets in the next few months and years.

Mr. Kevan Jones

Thanks to a Labour Government.

Patrick Mercer

I am interested in that comment. Thanks to any Government, one would hope in the circumstances, but credit where credit is due.

Mr. Jones

I am grateful to find a Conservative Member who recognises the valuable contribution that the Government have made to increasing police numbers. I suggest that he reinforce the message to the Leader of the Opposition.

Patrick Mercer

Again, I am grateful for the intervention. Nottingham has yet to see any extra policemen. In my constituency, police are being taken away from us to police the town of the hon. Gentleman's birth.

Mr. Jones

If the hon. Gentleman had been in the constituency in 1984, he would know that the then Conservative Government had no shortage of policemen in Nottingham.

Patrick Mercer

I shall move on.

The armed forces remain deeply stretched. I will not iterate all the eloquent points that have already been made. Currently, however, the armed forces are facing the possibility of having to handle firefighting, to operate an increased number of troops in Northern Ireland against an increased threat and to prepare for a putative war in Iraq. Why will the Government not grasp the nettle and say that there will be more men and women put under arms? Why will they not say about the armed forces what they are saying about the social services? We appear to have no difficulty in asking for more nurses, teachers, policemen or firemen. Yet never do we ask for more troops, sailors or airmen.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster)

Although the decision on whether action will be taken against Iraq must be taken within the next few weeks, I am worried because the Government have to make a choice: whether the firefighters will receive more money or whether the armed forces can be used in a conflict in Iraq. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is extremely worrying for everybody that the armed forces are so finely and tightly stretched that such decisions have to be made at a time when there is no real threat of conflict, apart from one of our own making?

Patrick Mercer

I am not sure that I agree with everything that my hon. Friend says.

Having acted as a strikebreaker in 1977 during the last fire strike, I can assure the House that it was an exceedingly invidious duty. It turned firemen against soldiers and soldiers against firemen, from which the fire services and the armed forces are still trying to recover. 1 regret that. However, many Members have spoken about our reserve forces. Why should those forces not be used for firefighting duties? What is wrong with that? When we face all these challenges, why cannot our reserves be used for more active and vibrant jobs than at present? I am not criticising the excellent work that is done by the reservists and Territorials. For instance, intelligence cap badge units have been called up.

It is perfectly possible to recruit. Many Members will say that we cannot add more troops, more seamen and more airmen to the order of battle because we cannot recruit. The fact is that we can. It is entirely possible. At the risk of boring the Minister even more than I normally do, there are any number of techniques that have yet to be practised by the Army Training and Recruiting Agency to bring men and women under arms. The commanding officer of 1 Royal Tank Regiment has experimented in Liverpool with schemes that are wholly different from anything that is centrally directed. Ask that commanding officer where he has gone for expertise. The answer is not to the recruiting group. That said, I congratulate the Minister on the recent recruiting successes, I only wish that the training organisation were in a position to accept recruits into training in a rational and sensible fashion.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger

My hon. Friend makes a good point about the success in recruiting regular soldiers. He will be aware that the recruitment of territorial soldiers has been less successful. Does he agree that one of the problems is that employers are increasingly unhappy about releasing soldiers for territorial duty?

Patrick Mercer

There are two points. First, if territorial duties were made more interesting, more exhilarating and more exciting, recruiting would be easier. Secondly, I believe that the Government are already trying hard to square the circle with employers. However, more needs to be done.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) touched on the numbers of our special forces. I do not want to labour the point, as it is a sensitive matter, but our special forces are being overworked, in the same way as some of our specialist troops. I ask the Minister to examine carefully the selection process for our special forces, the use of special forces reserves, and the present level of overstretch that these precious resources are facing. I have no doubt that with a little more imagination and a few more shibboleths being knocked over, the Special Air Services and the Special Boat Squadron can be expanded considerably through recruitment, despite what some of their own members would say.

If the Minister wants any evidence—I know that he does not, as he keeps a close eye on the situation—he should look at the divorce rate. He should go into the centre of Hereford, as I know at least one other hon. Member frequently does, look at the number of SAS divorcees in that town, and see how many children no longer have fathers. We are putting enormous pressure on those gallant men—I use the word "gallant" particularly in light of what is happening this week, when the conspicuous gallantry crosses, the military crosses. the George medals and the mention in dispatches will be bestowed upon those brave men by Her Majesty the Queen. The pressure being put on those gentlemen—I can use that word—is almost unbearable.

The challenge before the Government is to prepare the nation not just physically, but emotionally, for what lies ahead. I believe that a substantial attack on this country is inevitable. I hope very much that the casualties that we take are minimised. Perhaps the attack will not develop, but if it does, we must be ready for it, not just in muscle, but in mind.

5.58 pm
Bob Russell (Colchester)

I shall concentrate on the retention of our armed forces. It has been pointed out that recruitment is not as difficult as it was in the past, but in the defence of the United Kingdom we need military personnel who are experienced and who wish to remain in Her Majesty's armed forces. Within the Ministry of Defence, the Government need to do more to create a culture for the retention of our soldiers. We recognise that they are well trained, highly motivated, qualified professional soldiers.

I regret that only last week the Conservative defence spokesman referred to soldiers of the Colchester garrison as "squaddies". I hope that in his summing up, the Minister will confirm that as far as the Government are concerned, our Army is made up of professional soldiers, who should not be described in such a derogatory way.

Patrick Mercer

In my 25 years' service in the Army, I never found anything pejorative in the use of the word "squaddie". None of my Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire soldiers regarded it as a pejorative term. The hon. Gentleman is wholly unfair to say that.

Bob Russell

I appreciate that intervention, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that in the garrison town of Colchester, which I think he would acknowledge is the premier garrison town in the country, that is a derogatory term.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I remind the hon. Gentleman that Aldershot is the home of the British Army and is the pre-eminent garrison town in the United Kingdom.

Bob Russell

That is obviously why the Government decided that the Parachute Regiment should move from Aldershot to Colchester. I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention.

I am particularly concerned about the quality of accommodation for our married soldiers. Can the Minister say why the defence housing executive upgrade programme is so far behind? It is my understanding that only 60 houses have been completed and in Colchester garrison more than 500 remain to be done.

I recognise that the Conservative Government's disgraceful decision to privatise the married quarters of soldiers in Britain was not in the best interests of our soldiers, but equally it is this Government's responsibility to ensure that all married quarters are brought up to the high standards that we and any other responsible employer would expect.

Annington Homes, the privatised landlord, in Colchester, as elsewhere, is selling off houses at huge profits. The Government should recoup that profit to plough it back into the married quarters so that our soldiers and their families can have the best possible accommodation. We are talking here about retention, which is what my contribution today is about.

Work will start in the next year or two on the new Colchester garrison under a massive private finance initiative. The Minister knows that I do not believe that such private finance initiatives are in our long-term financial interests, but they are the only game in town, so we go for them, and the Minister knows that I back him 100 per cent. I welcome the assurances that I have been given that the single soldiers' accommodation will be of a quality of which they will approve and that there will be quality technical support and training facilities. Only the best will do.

But there is more to this than just the housing of our military personnel. I draw the Minister's attention to an Adjournment debate two or three years ago that I secured on the education of the children of our soldiers in garrison towns and naval and air bases throughout the country. More investment is needed in those state schools with a high proportion—90 per cent., 95 per cent., and sometimes 100 per cent.—of pupils from military families who suffer from what is known as the turbulence factor. We had an interesting debate in this Chamber. Unfortunately, the Government do not recognise the special needs of such children, which result from families moving backwards and forwards, with fathers and mothers being sent elsewhere in this country or overseas on tours.

Chris Grayling

The hon. Gentleman puts his finger on an extremely significant issue. He asks the Minister to bear in mind his previous comments, but could he enlighten the House on what he feels should be done to address the specific circumstances that Army children face?

Bob Russell

The Department for Education and Skills bases its recognition of need on the number of free school meals that a school provides. The nature of the circumstances means that very few soldiers' children—if any—are entitled to free school meals, so none of the deprivation or other factors that might apply in a mainstream school on an estate next door will come into play. As children from military families can be moved mid-term and their father or mother can be sent on a tour away, there should be greater recognition of such anxiety and upheaval and additional resources should be put into the schools. That is the turbulence factor, which exists even though the usual education criteria ignore or overlook schools whose pupils are predominantly, if not exclusively, the children of military personnel. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's intervention, as he made a serious point. I hope that it will be addressed, as sadly, it was not dealt with following my Adjournment debate.

On military personnel who require medical attention, there is no problem with the primary care that is provided on site, but what I am told is called secondary care hospital provision is often not supplied in the locality. When that is the case, personnel can be bussed long distances to military hospitals. We do not have such a hospital in Colchester. Indeed, there are very few such establishments, which is why personnel are sometimes taken long distances to receive medical attention—another area of anxiety. None the less, I welcome the news that a regional rehabilitation unit for injuries is to be established in the Colchester garrison next year. That is certainly something to look forward to.

I have mentioned the new Colchester barracks, and this is an opportune moment to place it on record that the garrison commander, Colonel Julian Lacey, retires on 15 November. That may be good news for him, but it is certainly not good news for the new Colchester garrison project. I express my appreciation of all that he has done. I hope that the Minister will ensure that all his expertise and knowledge will somehow be retained in respect of the new garrison project, which I believe is the largest such development in the UK in PFI terms.

The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) painted a grim picture of what might happen in this country. I sincerely hope that his worst predictions do not come to pass, but he brought to our attention the need for vigilance from everybody. We should not rely only on the armed forces to provide that vigilance. There is obviously widespread intelligence, but the whole of society needs to be on alert.

We all pray that the fire dispute will not happen. Will the Minister discuss with his colleagues elsewhere in government a suggestion that I made four years ago when Essex had one of its fire strikes? We have such strikes from time to time and the Green Goddesses were on the road in that instance. The serious point is that, as other hon. Members have mentioned, we will be sending out our soldiers in fire appliances that are almost museum pieces. Would it be possible for the territorials or one or two regiments of the British Army to be trained as a skilled auxiliary reserve that is capable of operating the sophisticated fire appliances that are otherwise available'? I recognise that we cannot expect soldiers to go straight from their current duties to operating such appliances.

Patrick Mercer

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but it would make territorials difficult to recruit. Anyone who wants to be a territorial solder joins the Territorial Army. Anyone who wants to be, for want of a better phrase, a "territorial fireman", becomes a retained fireman. Is not there a danger of a conflict of interest?

Bob Russell

I do not believe so. I was trying to embrace the hon. Gentleman's earlier point about the territorials. I am happy to stick with my original proposal of four years ago of one or two regiments with an auxiliary role. Their members would be soldiers first, but have a second skill, which would not necessarily be the ability simply to cover the sort of dispute that may happen in the next week or two. They would constitute an auxiliary force to deal with not only fires but emergencies. The fire service deals with more than fires.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but last year, troops were involved with the foot and mouth epidemic, flooding and many other things. How would the auxiliary forces be trained to the appropriate level to ensure their effectiveness in emergencies?

Bob Russell

We acknowledge that the modern fire appliance cannot be operated by simply anybody; it has to be used by trained personnel. One or two regiments of the British Army could be trained to enable them to offer something extra in an emergency.

I urge the Ministry of Defence to accept that we must do much more to encourage people to remain in the Army and not to leave in such large numbers.

6.11 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

My hon. Friends are well aware of the passionate opposition of some of us to military action against Iraq in the current circumstances. However, the debate is not the occasion on which to go into that.

On 29 October, at column 683 of Hansard, Mr. Speaker gave me permission to present a case for a debate under Standing Order No. 24. In the course of that application, I asked 14 questions, and I have written to 14 Ministers to ask for their comments. I have also asked for the comments of the ambassadors of France, Russia, China, Qatar, the Emirates, Jordan and various other countries.

I want to reiterate five of the questions, which pertain to the Ministry of Defence. The fifth question was, will British troops, if they are captured, be entitled to protection under the Geneva convention? The sixth question was, will British troops be under the orders of American officers and will they be required to serve in an army of occupation? There has been much speculation about an army under General Franks. Those matters have to be thought through before we even approach such a situation.

My 10th question asked, what rights will Iraqi soldiers captured by British forces have, and will they qualify for the protection of the Geneva convention? My 11th question was, what will be the position, under military law, of members of the British armed forces who refuse to fight because they believe that a war waged against Iraq that has not been authorised by the United Nations could lead to their being charged at a war crimes tribunal under the International Criminal Court", which the British Government rightly support.

Mr. Joyce:

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Dalyell

No, because of time. The 12th question was, how would the position of British troops charged with war crimes differ from that of American troops, given that the United States has declared itself exempt from any international criminal court?"—[Official Report, 29 October 2002; Vol. 391, c. 683–4.] I do not expect my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to answer those questions this evening, but they are serious matters, which require reflection.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. The hon. Gentleman has asked his questions and I leave it to the Under-Secretary to decide whether to respond. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the title of the debate is "Defence in the UK".

Mr. Dalyell

I would like to add two more points. It is sometimes said that the forces are narrow-minded on these matters, but they certainly are not. There has been serious discussion by Brigadier Patrick Cordingley and many others, and I certainly would not have been invited by narrow-minded people to discuss these issues at the Royal College of Defence Studies. The forces are serious about these matters, and should be commended for that.

Much has been said about the difficulties relating to the toughness of training. National service men went through very tough training indeed. All right, it was more than 50 years ago, but I shall not forget being made, rightly, to crawl up drainpipes at Catterick camp on the North Yorkshire moors. It is not the toughness of training that has led to the recent difficulties.

6.15 pm
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

I congratulate the Chairman and members of the Defence Select Committee on their work on civil defence and the defence of the homeland of the United Kingdom. No debate in the House would be complete without a little party political repartee, but the issues underlying the report produced by the Committee, which were discussed by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and others, are fundamental and go beyond party politics. It is the duty and responsibility of the Government of the day—with the support and, rightly, the scrutiny, of the Opposition parties—to ensure that we do the right thing to protect the people of this nation against a threat that is undoubtedly present. I share the fear of my hon. Friend that it may become much more of a threat in the years to come.

I welcome the Minister's comments about the steps that the Government are taking to strengthen the role of our armed services, our reservists, and the Territorial Army in preparing for an eventuality that we all hope will never happen, but which could happen none the less. The culture of cross-cutting, of which the Government make so much, needs to be placed firmly at the heart of the work that the Minister and his colleagues in other Departments are doing to ensure that we are prepared for a threat that I hope will not materialise. In particular, I hope that the Government will consider the possibility of creating a single Minister with cross-cutting responsibilities, who has the right to work within the Ministry of Defence and other Departments to ensure that we have a joined-up approach to civil defence. We must ensure that we have not only a clear point of responsibility but full and properly integrated structures between the civil and military spheres to ensure that we are adequately prepared.

After 11 September, I discussed with the chief executive of my local borough council the work that we do in our area to prepare for a major civil disaster. It became clear to me from that conversation that relatively little work is done. The local authority has a nominal responsibility, and it will do some work, but we all know from experience how hard-pressed local authorities are. It was clear that the actual work being done was far too thin on the ground. It was equally clear that there was relatively little contact between the local authority and other agencies, particularly the armed services. Closer working partnerships between the armed forces and local authorities in preparing for such eventualities will be extremely important in the years ahead, and I hope that the Minister will ensure that that takes place.

The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) talked about the fire strike. It seems ludicrous that modern fire equipment is not accessible to or usable by our armed services, and that the appropriate training does not exist. If we go beyond the short-term issue of the fire strike, it seems possible that a situation may arise in which that training will be required. I hope that the Government will consider delivering proper training on modern fire equipment within the armed forces.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger

Does my hon. Friend agree that one reason for the difficulty of access is that firelighters attend many road traffic accidents, and the equipment used in dealing with them is highly technical?

Chris Grayling

My hon. Friend makes a good point, but the same skills could be needed at a time of disaster.

Will the Minister give some thought to how we can use the older members of our armed services? We let our public servants go far too early in a society that is considering pushing up the retirement age, so the expertise of members of the armed services who retire after 20 or 30 years is lost, even though knowledge of many issues we have discussed today—terrorist threats and how terrorists work as well as weapons of mass destruction and their medical and other implications—resides within them. We should take greater advantage of that expertise and not necessarily let such people leave the armed services in so fixed a fashion.

I hope that Ministers consider whether there are ways to retain and use that expertise, possibly by keeping people on in the armed services for longer in different roles. If they do, I shall be grateful.

6.21 pm
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

As always, this debate has been extremely well informed and the usual suspects are in their places. I venture to suggest that this occasion has become one on which consenting adults engage in discussion in public— although, looking at the Gallery, it may seem that our proceedings are taking place in private.

Mr. Speaker himself foreshadowed the debate's importance when, in answer to a point of order from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), he pointed out that we live in more dangerous times, which is why the security of the Palace of Westminster has been greatly strengthened in recent years and, indeed, recent weeks.

We have ranged well beyond security and terrorism, however, in discussing retention, boy soldiers, service accommodation, arms exports, reserves, and the sleeping arrangements of the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) on overseas visits with the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the Chairman of the Defence Committee. So I hope that the debate has been sufficiently interesting and demanding for the Hansard stenographers, ensuring that they have been able to stay awake.

I must single out one contribution, although I do not have time to deal with it in detail. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) made interesting suggestions about the profound difficulties that we face in dealing with international terrorism, particularly that involving an enemy that is, as Colonel Spicer has suggested, like mercury, in that when it is hit, it explodes and atomises, but does not disappear. I am not sure that we have yet found the solution to that problem.

Rather like the vicar, I shall, if I may, take as my text the words of General Sir Michael Rose, writing in the Daily Mail on 8 October: The difficulty facing today's defence planners"— which, of course, is very much the issue facing Ministers— is that the nature of conflict has fundamentally changed. While we still need to be able to fight conventional wars using sophisticated tactics and modern weapons systems, we are embarked upon a global war against terrorism. This demands a different mix of military capabilities involving considerably more manpower, the development of human rather than technical intelligence sources and an ability rapidly to project and then sustain force around the world. That encapsulates the problems faced by Ministers and Members of the House in dealing with those complex and difficult matters.

Two issues have emerged from this afternoon's proceedings—the Select Committee report and the Territorial Army. I remind the House of one of the report's conclusions: Overall we have concluded that there has been inadequate central coordination and direction. The Government has not taken the opportunity to conduct a proper and comprehensive examination of how the UK would manage the consequences of a disaster on the scale of 11 September. The report has been saluted all round, and senior officers recently retired, and some not so retired, have praised it as a comprehensive piece of work. The right hon. Member for Walsall, South said that other Committees had been invited to contribute to discussion of what was clearly an overarching issue that ranged well beyond clefence; but it was the Defence Select Committee that produced the report. It has been extremely well received by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), and, on behalf of the Committee, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and E well (Chris Grayling) for his praises.

In their response to the Committee's report, the Government say that they have been rethinking security across the board to identify the vulnerabilities and tighten existing security measures to make the UK even safer from terrorist attack". It is true that so far we have been spared a serious terrorist attack, and the vigilance of our armed forces and other agencies has undoubtedly been an important contributory factor, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) said. Terrorists—as he also said—need to be lucky only once. We know that, and we also know that the chances are that some day they may well succeed. Unlike the United States, we have been fighting a war against terrorism for the last 30 years, and we have not always managed to prevent the damage that that causes. This country has more experience of dealing with such a war than many others; but we cannot be complacent.

Responding to the Committee's suggestion that the Government were complacent, the Minister said that they are not. We accept that Ministers are trying to grapple with the complexities, and they have clearly taken some practical steps. The decision to upgrade quick-reaction alert facilities at RAF Marham, St. Mawgan and RNAS Yeovilton is welcome, notwithstanding the contradictory message sent by the disbanding of 5 Squadron Royal Air Force equipped with Tornadoes. We also welcome the appointment of Sir David Omand to head the civil contingencies secretariat, although I am disappointed by the Government's failure to accede to the Defence Committee's suggestion that it should have a different name. "Civil contingency secretariat" is hardly a sexy title that trips off the tongue. We felt that, for the purpose of reassuring the public, a name suggesting the handling of emergencies would better convey the function of the secretariat.

Having welcomed some of the Government's steps, I regret to say that little progress has been made in other areas. As both the right hon. Member for Walsall, South and my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) said, there is as yet no civil contingencies Bill to give local authorities a framework within which to organise their civil-emergency plans. Obviously the Minister cannot undertake today to include such a Bill in the Queen's Speech, but local authorities are eager to be given the framework that they need.

A year after 11 September, the Government have failed to give local authorities updated guidance to replace the weak guidance that was issued a year ago. I am told by Hampshire county council's emergency planning officer that the MOD at Winterbourne Gunner in Dorset is training police officers to handle nuclear, biological or chemical attacks, but I understand that so far only 14 officers in Hampshire have been trained. There is clearly more to be done. I also understand that no decontamination kit is yet available to enable disaster-handling organisations at local authority level to deal with an NBC attack, and that no such equipment is likely to be available before next Easter. If the Minister could tell us something about the extent to which preparations are being made, he would reassure not just us but the local authorities whose job it is to deal with emergencies on the front line.

We all understand that Ministers do not want to give too much information about their detailed plans, but the public need reassurance that those plans are underway. We all saw what happened in Moscow—my hon. Friend the Member for Newark mentioned it—and we know about the chemicals that were used, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen). We all know how leaky the Russian system is. There is always the possibility that some of the chemicals will fall into the hands of terrorist organisations. We could find that chemical being used against us. I heard on the radio—I do not know whether it is true—that the establishment at Porton Down is looking at the clothing of the two British hostages who were released to try to identify what the chemical was. The public need to be reassured. It is a question of striking a balance and not causing undue concern among the public. They want to be reassured that if there is an attack on the United Kingdom, the Government have taken steps to deal with it.

I do not know whether the Minister has had an opportunity to see the article in the Financial Times headlined Home Office sought poison gas". It said: Home Office officials have been investigating buying poison gases, similar to the type used in the Moscow hostage raid, to protect high-security government buildings against terrorist attack. The Home Office has said in reply: No specific application is being looked into at this stage. There is no question [gases] are anywhere near use and no question at this stage of any purchases. The House, or perhaps some of its Committees, needs to be briefed that the Government are alive to the risks and are positively dealing with it.

I turn to the Territorial Army. We welcome the Government's belated recognition that they made a serious mistake in slashing the numbers of the Territorial Army: from 56,000 to about 41,000. I hope that Ministers will accept that it was the official Opposition who warned the Government that their reductions in the TA were a big mistake, and that we were right and they were wrong. The effect of their decision was to close TA centres throughout the country. robbing valuable back-up and support for the regular armed forces, and many hon. Members of the only military facility in their constituencies. Many Labour Members have complained about the withdrawal of TA facilities in their constituencies. It was an appalling assault on an organisation whose members offer complete loyalty, give up their spare time and sometimes even risk damaging their careers to provide an essential service to their country.

At the time, the Defence Committee, on which I did not then sit but which was still under the able stewardship of the right hon. Member for Walsall, South said of the cuts in the TA: The view of the witnesses from TAVRAs"— Territorial Army volunteer reserve associations— was that the publication of the SDR was 'a black day for the Territorial Army'. We agree. Now the Government have been forced to heap a raft of new responsibilities on to the TA when it has reached its lowest ebb.

We welcome what the Minister announced earlier today, but it is a bit unfortunate that my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) did not know that the statement was being made. The letter from the Secretary of State went on the board, but my hon. Friend did not see it in time for this debate. I do not want to be too quibbling about the point but it would have been helpful to have a bit more notice.

Mr. Keetch

The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) was not here.

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend was here. I assure the hon. Gentleman that he has been around all day.

I am not sure how much the Minister's statement today adds to what we already knew from the consultation document. As far as I can see, what is proposed is an additional 280 reserve posts in Army division and brigade headquarters to provide regional planning, liaison, and command and control in defence operations. Clearly, we welcome that, but he said that in the event of an incident they would be capable of providing a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week command structure. They might be able to do that. However, in the new chapter we are told that reservists cannot be called out at less than 36 hours' notice. As several hon. Members have pointed out during the debate, if we are struck by an asymmetric attack, we shall need to react instantly. It cannot be a delayed reaction. Calling out reservists at 36 hours' notice may well be too late to deal with an incident in the most efficacious fashion.

The Minister says that there will be additional training, but that is no more than was promised in the consultation document. It is not clear how the Ministry of Defence will ensure that the necessary skills and training for even the tasks listed on its discussion document are to be found in a volunteer reserve force of 500 people per region and only five or six training days in a year. This is not a very extensive training operation. In a useful submission to the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) wrote: The central weakness of the proposal seems to me to be that it envisages drawing on groups of individuals, pooled together under such headquarters rather than calling out specific units. We need trained units. My hon. Friend continued: The idea that 'groups of the willing' could be brought up to working together to a reasonable standard in two or three weekends a year (even assuming 100 % turnout, something that will never happen) seems to be highly optimistic. The Government have to be a little clearer about exactly how their programme will work in practical terms and in terms of facing the challenge of dealing with an attack on the United Kingdom.

Those are two key issues that have been addressed in the debate. A number of hon. Members made the point that there is common ground on defence matters between the Government and the Official Opposition—indeed between all parties. We no longer have the stormy and vitriolic debates that we used to have in the 1980s. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk recalls those happy days somewhat nostalgically. We share an admiration for our an forces. We want the best for them and their families They are admired and respected throughout the world A number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), paid tribute to our service men and women and their families.

We share the Government's view of Britain's role in the world as a power for good. We also share their view on a number of procurement issues. We welcome the Type 45 destroyers and the new carriers. Albeit through gritted teeth, I welcomed virtually every dot and comma of the announcement on the carriers and the aircraft that the Government have chosen. They have done well, and we approve.

There are legitimate differences between us, however, on which it is entirely the duty and right of the Opposition to challenge the Government. First, we do not believe that there are enough people to meet the commitments that the Government have taken on. We have the smallest Army since the time of Wellington. A number of hon. Members have pointed out just how stretched our armed forces are. Secondly, we have insufficient resources to do the job and thirdly, as the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) pointed out, no allowance has been made for the unexpected—what Harold Macmillan undoubtedly would have described as "Events, dear boy, events". As my hon. Friend for Mid-Norfolk said, there is no spare capacity. This is the gravest accusation that I want to make of the Government tonight. They simply have not allowed sufficient resources of men and equipment to allow for the unexpected. Another 2,500 troops have been committed to Northern Ireland. That was unexpected, given the so-called peace process. Another illustration is the Fire Brigades Union strike.

We now have 10 warships sitting idle. As the Minister of State told me in a written answer he gave me last night, seven of them—HMS Exeter, HMS Kent, HMS Lancaster, HMS Manchester, HMS Norfolk, HMS Newcastle and HMS Portland—have been affected by Operation Fresco. Two ships are out of action because of collision damage, and HMS Sheffield is up for sale. The fact is that a third of our major surface fleet is out of action. That simply illustrates the point that the Government cannot do all that they want on the limited, lean and mean machine that they are offering. We need an expansion in our armed forces if we are to meet the unexpected.

I will conclude on a conciliatory note. I hope that the whole House can unite in praising the commitment, dedication and professionalism of our armed forces as they stand by, across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, to protect the lives of the citizens of this country in the event of a Fire Brigades Union strike. None of us wishes that to happen, but we can be proud of our armed forces and what they are doing. They have left their other jobs and taken to the task in hand with alacrity. They have adapted themselves and shown great professionalism.

I went to Netley on Monday to see Commander Durkin of the Royal Navy, who is in charge of the operations in Hampshire. I was hugely impressed with what they are doing and their capability. I know that the police service of Hampshire is equally impressed with the men and women who have been put in charge of helping them out. On that note of conciliation, I hope that I can unite the House in wishing good luck to our armed forces if they are called upon to stand in for the firefighters.

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

This has been an excellent debate. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State indicated when it began, the past year has been marked by both challenge and innovation. In the UK we have been challenged not only by the threat from international terrorism, but from other directions—by the fire dispute as well as dissident terrorism and communal violence in Northern Ireland. The armed forces have responded to these challenges promptly and effectively. We have taken military action, along with friends and allies, to deny al-Qaeda its base in Afghanistan—arguably the most important contribution the armed forces could have made to the defence of this country.

We have done much more than that. We have addressed the policy challenge presented by the events of 11 September. We have been able to do this on the basis of the strategic defence review completed by the Government in 1998, the value and worth of which has been so amply demonstrated by the events of the last year. We have taken a long hard look at our defence posture and plans in the light of the terrorist threat. We are making changes and improvements as a result of that long hard look. We have addressed the issue of attacks by renegade aircraft and ships. We are also making constant refinements to the well-established defence capabilities which respond to specific types of terrorist incident, including those involving chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear devices.

In his opening statement, my right hon. Friend announced our intention to implement in full our proposals for enhancements to arrangements to involve the volunteer reserve in home defence and civil emergencies. These proposals have been widely welcomed. They contribute to the changes to central Government mechanisms that the Government began last year and to the much wider changes that are taking place in the public and emergency services in response to the threat.

Enhancing the role of the reserves adds another element to the wide-ranging contribution that the armed forces already make in the response to civil contingencies and emergencies. This is not just a question of the response to the threat from terrorism. Our armed forces have a very fine record in recent years of providing support to the civil authorities at times of emergency, whether during the fuel dispute, floods, or foot and mouth disease. They stand ready and able to save lives should a firefighters' strike take place in the near future. Their capacity to respond to the challenge and the contribution they make to the community has never been greater, and I feel sure that the House will agree that their standing has never been higher. Having said that, however, we must ensure that the armed forces are properly supported and equipped.

Innovation has not been limited to enhancing the contribution that the armed forces make to the community but to wider questions, ranging from the defence industrial sector to the needs of the people who make this remarkable contribution to national life. Indeed, it would be wrong for us to spend our time finding new roles for the armed forces without addressing the wider issues. To do so would place an intolerable burden on the personnel involved.

In this sphere, as in others, we have taken nothing for granted, but we are determined to build upon the firm foundations that already exist, and to innovate, not for its own sake but for improvements' sake.

The need to ensure that armed forces personnel were suitability trained and motivated lay at the core of the 1998 strategic defence review, and that continues to be the case. The policy for people recognises that our defence depends on our armed forces personnel and their families as well as the civil servants who work alongside them. The armed forces overarching personnel strategy ensures that we bring to the armed forces the talent that is needed, irrespective of race, ethnic origin, religion, gender, social background or sexual orientation. It helps to ensure that we retain talent once it is recruited, by addressing pay, pensions, training and family needs.

Perhaps most important, we take very seriously the demands placed on our people. Although there may be times when the lives of armed forces personnel are disrupted by an emergency, we can, and do, ensure that the right balance is struck between operational commitments, the need of the families of armed forces personnel—we should not forget their contribution to the effectiveness of the armed forces—and the need for training and personal development between operational deployments.

I shall try to deal with some of the points that have been made today in the time left to me, which is, for a change, ample. Well, I assure right hon. and hon. Members that it is ample in comparison to what I usually get.

It is always unwise to trade statistics with a statistician, which is one of my jobs not mentioned by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson). His query about international comparators for the statistics that we use was quite interesting, but, alas, his suggestion is not practicable. One might think it shameful in this day and age, but there is no real standardisation of measurement between countries. There is a great paucity of information on many of the indices that we may want to consider.

Of course the appropriate health comparison is with our own general population, and the Registrar-General produces very comprehensive health statistics that provide a sound background against which our own epidemiology and statistics staff can conduct suitable work. Occasionally, as with Gulf veterans' illnesses, there is also the possibility of comparing those who went to the Gulf with a similar body of members of the armed forces who did not go to the Gulf. Overall, that is an important point, but it is not possible to use international statistics, much as one would like to do so.

I shall have to go through things as best I can arid refer to the notes that I have made as I go. Let me start with Apache. Yes, there have been delays with the Apache simulator. We have made the point that that contract was, of course, started by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo)—sadly, he is no longer in the Chamber, although he was here when it was first mentioned—but, fair enough, we allowed the contract to proceed, and our intention was to ensure best value for money.

Sadly, the resulting contract has faced delays. and it will cause delays in the full implementation of our capability in that important part of the armed forces, and we deeply regret that. Boeing—the principal actor—also very much regrets it and has publicly said so itself. We are trying to get things back on side as best we can. The simulator is now working in part. I shall reply to the detailed questions that I was asked about that later because they are lost somewhere in my notes. I have no idea where they are exactly. They were rather detailed points, so it is probably better if I answer them very accurately.

The possibly of compensation for cancelling holidays and so on was mentioned in an intervention. I confirm that service personnel who are required to cancel previously booked holidays as a result of changing service requirements are entitled to claim a refund of nugatory holiday expenditure provided that they were not warned of the operational deployment at the time of booking. For Operation Fresco, if service personnel have cancelled holidays as a result of such warning and subsequently have their leave reinstated, they are still entitled to claim for any nugatory expenditure, and I am sure that that will be welcomed.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

The specific issue raised with me is that the soldiers are being compensated for uninsured lost deposits, but what about the families as well?

Dr. Moonie

I will write to the hon. Gentleman on that point.

Operation Fresco and royal naval issues have been mentioned. Missile defence was mentioned in passing, but I am sure that hon. Members will forgive me if I return to it if I have time; it is really a subject for a full speech, rather than a 15-second interjection by a junior Minister at the end of a debate. Yes, ships are tied up—a large number of ships would have been tied up anyway—but we cannot conduct an operation of this size, and devote to it the personnel that we must, without reference to complement. I am sorry that one of the ships tied up is HMS Norfolk, to which my former military assistant, Commander Tony Radakin, went as commander earlier this year. I send him my commiserations and hope that I will still be able to see him in Aberdeen later in the year.

The majority of personnel have been taken from vessels not currently available for operations and in periods of maintenance and upkeep. In total, about 2,400 fleet personnel have been assigned to fire-fighting tasks, of which they are well capable, as I indicated in the debate in Westminster Hall earlier this week. With regard to training and the use of respirators, they also have considerable experience in that area because of the unique dangers of severe fires onboard ship. I hope that that sets some minds at rest.

In relation to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), I am sorry that I must disappoint him. It is not a case of knowing that there will be a Bill in the next Session but not telling him—in fact, I am not aware of whether there will be a civil contingencies Bill. That will be announced in approximately two weeks' time, and he will have to wait in patience like the rest of us to see if such a Bill is part of the Queen's Speech.

On the comments of the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) and Apache, I want to put him right on one thing. The figure of 130 relates to last year's shortfall in junior fast jet numbers—I think that he probably realised that as he was saying it. As of 1 October this year, that number has fallen to 93, and there is a downward trend. It is an easy mistake to make, adding numbers together, for a year-on-year trend—

Matthew Green (Ludlow)

The Chancellor.

Dr. Moonie

I was waiting for somebody to notice that, just as I was saying it. It is difficult to predict. overall numbers for the future, but there is an. encouraging trend. Although it will take some years for us to get back up to full staffing in fast jets, we are on our way to doing it.

On aircrew retention in general, which the hon. Member for Hereford also mentioned, the new professional aviator pay spine is due to be introduced on 1 April next year. Overall, as he knows, I think, although the Royal Navy has a shortage of Sea Harrier pilots, that is of less importance than it was because of the migration towards the new Harrier. Most of those left want to migrate to the GR9 in the fullness of time anyway. I think that that covers as much of that point as he would expect.

Armed forces recruitment remains one of our highest priorities. Recruitment of sufficient people of the right calibre is absolutely critical to the maintenance o f operational effectiveness. It is very easy for us to choose the statistical period that is of most value to our arguments, and I would not dream of doing so on this occasion, except to point out that the last three months have seen remarkably buoyant recruitment into the armed forces, which I hope will continue. A fair amount of time has been devoted to events surrounding Deepcut, and, in my wind-up, I merely want to stress what a distressing experience the families concerned have had, which has been made much worse by some irresponsible people trying to take advantage of it.

etention is of the highest priority, and is the other factor in manning balance. Improving personnel retention is a crucial factor in improving manning levels. Our aim is to maintain excellent levels of retention through policies that reflect those priorities. One of the main factors, of course, which has been mentioned again, is housing, and the void situation. There are just over 9,000 empty properties at the moment in the United Kingdom, and at least half of those are in the course of disposal or held for future unit deployments. With regard to the specific cases in Norfolk—in West Raynham and elsewhere—married accommodation is now under the ownership of Annington Homes. It is a clone deal. Much as I would wish to revisit what was not the best deal that the Government ever got, I have no option: I am stuck with it and have to live with it. When it comes to the sale of houses, I can make my views known to Annington, but it has no reason—

Bob Russell

No scruples.

Dr. Moonie

That is not for me to say, but there is certainly no need for Annington to take cognisance of what I do.

The welfare of military personnel and their families is paramount and we have to strike a balance. We are trying to upgrade houses. The money from the Annington deal was added to the pot. The maintenance budget is always strained. However, something like 90 per cent. of our families are in grade 1 and 2 accommodation. The picture is not as bad as some would paint it, although I accept that some of the accommodation is not good. We are constrained by the fact that we do not know where houses will be required in future. The last thing we want to do is to sell off houses and find that we need them. That would be stupid and we try to avoid that wherever possible.

I was asked whether Apaches could train together. We are procuring the collective training system and it should be due to enter service early next year, about the time we start training properly in groups with the Apache. We have not purchased a training laser. We are thinking about buying an eye-safe laser, which would enable collective training with ground troops so that we can deliver full air manoeuvre capability. Cape Wrath is the only range on which it could be used and is thoroughly suited to that purpose. I know that that makes some people angry and I have often declared my interest that, as a member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, I am happy for areas of the country to be denied to human transit because it helps our feathered friends.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) mentioned chemical weapons. I assure him that we are fully open about our chemical holdings. We declare all our substances in our annual report to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. We gave up offensive chemical capability a long time ago. Our holding of CS and CR gases is fully declared and fully permitted under the chemical weapons convention for domestic law enforcement.

Hon. Members mentioned the tragic events in Moscow last week. Any country could face a similar problem at any time. It is easy for us to pass judgment with hindsight. The fact is that many people are alive this week who I did not think would be alive. As a medical pedant, I must tell the House that if fentanyl was used, it is not a gas but a liquid and would have been delivered as an aerosol. It is not an anaesthetic. It is largely used as an analgesic. I have used it myself. My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead was right: it is a legal drug that is licensed for use in this country for, I should stress, medicinal use. It is highly effective. The great problem with it is that the difference between the pharmaceutical and lethal dose is small.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) defended her cause nobly. I did not agree with it, but I can give her some comfort by stressing that we value the contribution defence experts make to maintaining the viability of the UK defence industry, reducing unit costs of equipment and so on. We get huge benefits from that. After all, we have to pay for equipment to be introduced and the ability to sell it abroad reduces the overall cost to us.

On young soldiers, we signed the optional protocol to the convention on the rights of the child on the involvement of children in armed conflict in September 2000. The minimum age for recruitment is aligned with the minimum school leaving age. Everyone who joins the armed forces under the age of 18 must be genuine volunteers and have the written consent of their parents or guardians. We take great care in the deployment of under-18s to prevent their direct involvement in hostilities. For instance, no under-18s have been deployed to Afghanistan. I think that that approach will become the norm in the British armed forces.

I turn., in the minute left to me, to some general points about the TA. Some have implied a distinction between home defence and civil contingencies. We are not working to any dogma, and we do not intend to distinguish between the cause of an incident, whether it is a terrorist attack, a major accident or a natural disaster, in determining how we respond. We will continue to apply the current system using the most appropriate available forces, regular or reserve. Regular forces are likely to be the first choice because CCRFs are designed to cater for exceptional events—

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