HC Deb 19 July 2004 vol 424 cc17-8
11. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD)

If he will make a statement on the implications of the comprehensive spending review for the number of front-line service personnel. [184478]

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

The spending review settlement will provide an additional £3.7 billion for our armed forces in 2007–08 compared with 2004–05, with average annual real growth of 1.4 per cent. It will allow us to take forward our modernisation plans, so that our forces are ready for the challenges of the 21st century. I expect to announce the detail of our plans to the House on Wednesday.

Dr. Cable

The spending review suggests that additional funding for front-line staff will come by cutting 15,000 support staff. Is the Secretary of State in a position to say where those redundancies will occur and whether the staff concerned have yet been told?

Mr. Hoon

Obviously, the precise details will be announced on Wednesday. The usual process of consultation will take place: indeed, I attended a meeting this morning with some of the trade unions to discuss with them the ways in which programmes will be taken forward. By and large, given the time scale of the proposals, we hope that it will be possible to ensure that those redundancies occur without involving significant harm to the work force—generally through natural wastage.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

But why are we so dependent on Commonwealth recruits, and particularly on recruits from Fiji? I have the figures in front of me, and it appears that the British Army could not function without Fijians? Will the spending review allow for more UK recruits to be attracted into the British Army, and what exactly is the problem with recruitment?

Mr. Hoon

I am sorry that my hon. Friend responds in that way to the valuable contribution that citizens from Commonwealth countries are making, and have always made, to Britain's armed forces. Their contribution to our armed forces is tremendous, and long may that continue. He is also wrong to suggest that there is not an increase in the number of recruits coming from the United Kingdom—that is the fact, and it is revealed in the latest survey of where our recruits come from.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con)

We must wait until Wednesday to find out how large the cuts in numbers and in the training of our armed forces will be, but may I remind the Secretary of State that the last time the Conservatives held a big defence review, just after the Berlin wall came down, there was a war going on in the Gulf? May I suggest that this is no time to be thinking about cuts? Let us see the Iraq crisis through, and think about cutting afterwards.

Mr. Hoon

The fact is that this Government are spending more on defence. We planned to spend more on defence in each of the last six years, and that will continue in the latest spending review round. The Government who directly preceded us could not make such a claim; indeed, they presided over a cut in defence spending of some 15 per cent. That was not during the period immediately after the cold war, but during a period following the Gulf war, when it was clearly necessary for us to improve our armed forces in the light of lessons learned. The hon. Gentleman's comment—which he will no doubt repeat on Wednesday—could be taken a good deal more seriously if he recognised the cuts imposed by Conservative Governments, and also recognised that this Government are significantly increasing our defence spending.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that over the past 20 years this Government's spending round has provided more money for the armed forces than that of any other Government? In fact, the two Opposition parties are set to cut spending. Would my right hon. Friend not describe that as a testament to the Labour party? Is it not the case that defence is safe in Labour's hands?

Mr. Hoon

I would have some difficulty in disagreeing with my hon. Friend, and let me say for the record that I do not intend to. As Conservative Members wind themselves up and as those in Conservative central office prepare the script for next Wednesday's announcement, they should recognise that we are seeing a sustained increase in defence spending over a longer period than was ever possible under the Conservatives in recent times. That is something of which we are proud, and on which Conservative Members should congratulate us.