HC Deb 03 November 2003 vol 412 cc518-20
3. Norman Baker (Lewes)

What his policy is on the extent to which UK armed forces should be able to operate independently of the United States. [135545]

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

Our policy is to continue to develop balanced, flexible forces able to undertake a wide range of military tasks, normally alongside the forces of other NATO and EU countries, in support of the United Kingdom's security objectives, but, as I have repeatedly said, it is highly unlikely that the UK would be engaged in large-scale combat operations without the United States.

Norman Baker

I agree with that answer, but is not the reality that the relationship between the two countries is one of subservience rather than closeness? It is inconceivable, for example, that Britain could use its so-called independent nuclear deterrent without US approval and technical co-operation. Is not the reality that those who are concerned about the potential loss of sovereignty over foreign affairs and defence to the EU under the EU constitution should be far more worried about the loss of such sovereignty to the United States?

Mr. Hoon

I simply do not accept that. Obviously, the views of the United Kingdom and of the United States closely coincide on a great number of important defence and security issues. Therefore, it is vital that we can operate alongside the United States, our key defence ally in NATO, and, indeed, bilaterally. The United Kingdom offers expertise, defence capability and advice, which is valued by the United States, as is currently being demonstrated in Iraq.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

On the question of military co-operation with the United States, did the Secretary of State read the article in the Independent on Sunday, which showed that a British company, BNFL, which is owned by taxpayers, is seeking contracts to develop America's next generation of nuclear weapons of mass destruction? If that is the case, does he agree that, in doing so, we would be in breach of article I and article VI of the non-proliferation treaty, to which we and the United States are signatories?

Mr. Hoon

Obviously the nature of the work entered into by BNFL depends entirely on its judgment as to business opportunities, but I agree with my hon. Friend to this extent—it is important that the BNFL board ensures that all its business activities comply with the United Kingdom's nuclear non-proliferation obligations.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Ignoring the anti-American sentiment of the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), does the Secretary of State agree that the coherence that the NATO structure has brought to the command and control systems that have so benefited the defence of this country for many years is in danger of being undermined by a lack of coherence on the part of some of our European partners? Does he agree that the call from Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and France for a separate defence structure is hugely unwelcome and likely to be very damaging to the coherence of NATO?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman is correct, and that is why the Government have made clear our unwillingness to accept the Tervuren proposals, as they are known, and why we have emphasised repeatedly the importance of the primacy of NATO command and control in delivering precisely the benefits to European coherence that were set out by the hon. Gentleman.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

What assessment does the Secretary of State make of the contribution that the proposed armaments capability agency would make to building capacity in Europe, because the question is not whether we work independently of the United States or not, but what capacity Europe and the UK have to be able to do so?

Mr. Hoon

I have repeatedly made clear the importance to the United Kingdom of ensuring that European allies can contribute effectively, specifically to NATO operations, but also to other European operations where NATO is not engaged. That means developing European military capabilities. The agency is designed to achieve that, to identify existing gaps in capability and to recommend ways in which those gaps might best be filled. That is why the United Kingdom has been such a strong supporter of the agency.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

Whether our armed forces can or cannot operate independently of the United States obviously will depend on our resources. How will the Secretary of State fund the necessary investment required to enable us to operate alongside, let alone independently of, the United States? He talks about the massive amount of investment needed for new technology. but we are now told that the two new carriers will be smaller than anticipated and that there will be a reduction in the numbers of the joint strike fighter aircraft. New Labour, like old Labour, is basically about defence cuts. Even the Department's own accounts—for the second year running—only receive a qualified certificate from Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General. If they were the accounts of the Secretary of State's political association, it would have called in the receiver by now.

Mr. Hoon

I have made clear to the House repeatedly—I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman seems to have overlooked it—that recent announcements about the amounts available for defence demonstrate that we have the largest planned increase in spending in more than 20 years. The huffing and puffing that he brings to the Dispatch Box might be taken a little more seriously if he and his Front-Bench colleagues were able categorically to state that they would match those spending plans. We have not heard them make any specific contribution to that effect. This is an opportunity for them to say that they will match those spending plans pound for pound.

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