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Mr. Mark Robinson (Somerton and Frome): We could have been forgiven a few weeks ago for thinking that Saddam Hussein had simply gone away. But, of course, he had not. Once again, he popped up on the Kuwait border. That, more than anything, illustrates the increasingly idiosyncratic world that has followed the post-cold war era. That is why hon. Members on both sides of the House should welcome the Prime Minister's statement in Bournemouth last week that

"The big upheavals in our armed services are over."

What a contrast that statement makes with the amendment that the official Opposition have at last tabled. What is the defence review that they want? I do not think that any Conservative Member or anyone in the country would believe that such a defence review would lead to an increase in defence spending. Of course it would not.

The Opposition condemn the Government in their amendment and use the words "piecemeal cuts". Given the safety curtain that they have drawn down over their defence policies--a defence review--are we to assume that they are really talking about wholesale cuts? Time would tell, in the unlikely event that they were given such an opportunity.

By continuing to bang on about the need for review--we have heard about it in speech after speech--the Opposition continue the uncertainty for our armed forces. The one thing that those forces need is a period of stability and that is what the Prime Minister offered them in his speech last week and what my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence offered them in his speech yesterday.

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North): Is that the reason why the 22 motions criticising the Government at the Conservative party conference, plus the motion calling for a full defence review, were not discussed at that conference?

Mr. Robinson: No, that is not the reason. We had a sensible and worthwhile debate on defence at our conference, in which one theme emerged again and again--that our armed services need a period of stability, following the very necessary changes that we made. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) gave the game away in his amendment, as did the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) in his speech. In that amendment, we still see the true face of the Labour party on defence matters.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State rightly emphasised the path for Britain in the post-cold war period, when he stressed the need for

"armed forces that are flexible, mobile and able to respond to the very curious world in which we now live".--[ Official Report , 17 October 1994; Vol. 248, c. 37.]

"Front Line First" has been a constructive and important contribution to the process of change and it has not been delivered from on high, but worked up through the armed forces, which were involved in it.

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The royal naval air station at Yeovilton in my constituency plays an increasingly important part in our nation's defences and I am pleased that "Front Line First" reaffirms that role. The base has a vital contribution to make to Britain's effectiveness and it has done so in many conflicts, including the Falklands and the Gulf war. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the unsung but crucial role that Sea Kings from that air station have played in humanitarian relief operations in Bosnia. That brings me to the crucial role that helicopters have to play to enable us to respond flexibly to unexpected or uncertain conflicts. Although Westland is not in my constituency, many of its employees live in Somerton and Frome, including the chairman. In the EH101, that company has produced a world-beater for the next generation of support helicopters. Merlin aircraft are already destined for the Royal Navy and the NAPNOC--no acceptable price, no contract--negotiations mean, at long last, that a decision on the EH101 order for the RAF is imminent.

I hope that the specifications that are being sought remain realistic and that the matter can be brought to a swift conclusion. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement has had an opportunity to fly in the EH101 and I am sure that he will have seen for himself the aircraft's remarkable capabilities. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has already said that he is looking for a balanced fleet of support helicopters, incorporating the EH101 and the Chinook. The two are not mutually exclusive. A confirmed order for 20 or so EH101 helicopters would be a tremendous boost to the work force at Westland and also to the export opportunities that lie ahead for that aircraft. I hope that once the NAPNOC process is concluded there will be no further delays and the matter will reach a satisfactory conclusion. Future orders for attack helicopters will also be important to the operational abilities of our armed services. Bidding is in progress and I had the opportunity to see some of the competitors at the Farnborough air show. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement to achieve a contract by mid-summer 1995. That objective has been reaffirmed on a number of occasions and I hope that in this instance it can be adhered to.

Naturally, there has been concern about reports in the press of cost overruns on the Eurofighter 2000. I am heartened by my right hon. and learned Friend's continuing support for that project. I am sure that the many sub-contractors who will benefit from it will also be heartened, including companies such as Normalair Garrett in the south-west. Once again, that aircraft is a tribute to the part that Britain can play in co- operative European ventures.

Perhaps this is an appropriate moment to mention the future large aircraft, which has been mentioned by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Much has been said about proposals for the FLA. I would simply say that it should not be forgotten and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will not forget it, although it has been forgotten in certain marketing quarters--conveniently, perhaps--that orders for the C130J are worth as much as £1 million per aircraft to United Kingdom sub- contractors and those include Westland.

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Just as I do not see the EH101 and the Chinook as mutually exclusive, I do not see the C130J and the FLA as mutually exclusive. They are different aircraft with different capabilities, in different stages of design. Feasibility studies on the FLA have not concluded, although I had the opportunity to see a remarkable mock -up at Farnborough, which was created in just a few days.

The decision to replace the oldest Hercules aircraft with the C130J will not jeopardise the FLA's future prospects. It will have to stand on its own feet after the conclusion of the feasibility studies. There are many unanswered questions about where the money will be found to secure the development of that aircraft.

Meanwhile, the Hercules has done a remarkable job in many theatres. I have been on Hercules aircraft involved in relief operations in Bangladesh and many colleagues have witnessed the aircraft's flexibility. It is smaller than the FLA would be, which is why, even if the latter were built and orders announced, there would be room for both as part of our future defence needs.

Procurement is important. It is important to British industry and to jobs and it is important that people overseas recognise that Britain still has a prominent part to play in the production of aircraft for world markets. We look to our Ministers to support our companies when they try to win orders. We know that they sometimes have to do so against the odds because other countries use different methods and different financing to support their order books, which often makes it more difficult for us. We compete and we win because we produce good aircraft. We have the technicians and the aviators, and I see many of them in my frequent visits to Westland and to another area of the defence industries, Marconi Underwater Systems at Templecombe in my constituency. Defence contracts are very important to the south-west. We need them, and we need the support of Ministers in winning export orders.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse): Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I remind the House that speeches must now last for no longer than 10 minutes?

6.10 pm

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton): I should like to focus my comments on weapons proliferation issues, and I shall refer first to chemical weapons.

I echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) that the Government should push ahead with the ratification of the chemical weapons convention. The G7 commitment has been mentioned, and we should find parliamentary time to ratify the convention. I know of no hon. Member--certainly no Opposition Member--who would oppose such a Bill. I wonder whether the Government have other things on their mind. For example, the September issue of Chemistry in Britain --the magazine of the Royal Society of Chemistry--carried an article entitled:

"Heseltine drags feet on CWC."

The article said that the President of the Board of Trade "has not been prepared to introduce the bill. Post office privatisation is more important in his view."

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The proper implementation of the chemical weapons convention should be a defence priority, and I call on the Secretary of State for Defence to press in Cabinet for Britain's ratification to be pushed forward with all speed.

When the defence estimates were published, the Secretary of State told a press conference that

"the ability to undertake a massive nuclear strike is not enough to ensure deterrence. We need the capability to undertake nuclear action on a more limited scale in order to demonstrate our willingness to defend our vital interests to the utmost." That is a very silly and dangerous approach which, in effect, amounts to lowering the nuclear threshold.

The Government should instead concentrate on strengthening the nuclear non- proliferation treaty. The NPT was agreed in 1968 and entered into force in 1970--a few months short of the 25th anniversary of the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. Twenty-five years on, the NPT faces a crucial milestone in the decision to be taken on its extension.

The NPT obliges parties without nuclear weapons to refrain from acquiring them. In return, states with nuclear weapons took on obligations of their own. The preamble to the NPT talks of "strengthening the trust between States in order to facilitate the cessation of the manufacture of nuclear weapons; the liquidation of all their existing stockpiles; and the elimination from national arsenals of nuclear weapons, and the means of their delivery". Article VI of the NPT obliges the parties

"to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament".

How has the United Kingdom fulfilled those obligations? The short answer is that it has not, and that makes Britain's position on the international stage very difficult. It is the utmost hypocrisy to say that other states do not need nuclear weapons, while maintaining that they are vital for Britain's defence.

The United States and Russia should be congratulated on the progress that they have made in cuts in nuclear arms. Those cuts, though substantial, are only the first step, and much more will be needed. President Yeltsin told the United Nations General Assembly on 26 September that nuclear arms reductions should include Britain, France and China--quite right, too.

Against the trend, Britain is preparing to double the number of strategic nuclear warheads in its stockpile--a maximum of 96 on each Trident submarine against a maximum of 48 on each Polaris submarine. Aside from the deployment of actual weapons, the Government's policies on nuclear testing have been detrimental to the progress towards a comprehensive test ban treaty, which is currently being negotiated in Geneva. If the Government had not spent so much energy in Washington lobbying hard against a test ban, the talks in Geneva might have started a year earlier. China would not have carried out its nuclear test 10 days ago, the second this year. Those tests should be robustly condemned. Although there is no legal link between the comprehensive test ban and the NPT, there has been a growing political link in the eyes of many states. Speedy progress in Geneva is therefore essential.

In my view, action will be needed in other areas. First, there is the distinction between favoured and non-favoured states, and the blind eye which is turned to favoured states that may be breaching international norms. For example, although Israel is not a member of the NPT,

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there has been no public pressure from our Government for it to give up on nuclear weapons. However, Pakistan--also not a member of the NPT--has been roundly condemned for having the same ambition. There should not be one set of rules for some favoured states and another set for other states. The spread of nuclear weapons must be condemned at every turn by every country.

Why do non-nuclear states want nuclear weapons? They want them because they think that it is in their interests to obtain them. They should be convinced otherwise. One step that nuclear weapons states could take is to strengthen security assurances--a demand made by many developing states.

A formal agreement on security assurances could be linked to an agreement on "no-first-use" of nuclear weapons; something which China has declared an interest in seeking. That could be part of a deal to encourage China to stop testing and to phase down its nuclear programme. However, Britain is opposed to general security assurances and to "no-first-use" assurances for political reasons. The Government want to retain the option to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states, and that is quite wrong.

That is proved by the distinction that the Government make between sub- strategic and strategic nuclear weapons. The distinction used to be made on the range of the weapons, but now that the sub-strategic so-called "deterrent" is to be carried on Trident missiles, the distinction has become peculiar. As they are identical warheads on identical missiles, the distinction can be made only in the way in which they are used or are threatened to be used.

The truth is that if any nuclear weapon landed on Britain, it would be seen as strategic. Yet, with this distinction, we are trying to say that that is not the case. If it is the case for Britain, it is the case for all other nuclear weapons states. It is clear that the sub-strategic Trident could not be used against any other nuclear state. Who would the weapons be targeted against? The answer is non-nuclear weapons states, and that is the real distinction between strategic and sub-strategic weapons that the Government have made. It is wrong to adopt the attitude that we would attack non-nuclear states with nuclear weapons.

A radical review of nuclear policy in this country is needed. Last year, Rear Admiral Edward Scheafer Junior--the head of US naval intelligence-- said that

"somewhere, some time in this decade, someone is going to set off a nuclear weapon in deadly earnest."

The prognosis need not be as bad as that, but action must be taken now to avoid such a situation.

Ted Galen Carpenter, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato institute in Washington, wrote in an article in Foreign Affairs this year:

"The United States can take some steps to help make a multipolar nuclear world marginally safer. Under no circumstances, however, should Washington place this country at risk in purely regional disputes that have nuclear dangers . . . the reality is that conflicts between long-standing rivals are an ever-present danger." He concluded by saying that although nuclear weapons had made the super-powers cautious in their cold war rivalry,

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"it is a leap of faith to assume that the existence of nuclear weapons will produce similar restraint in much more volatile regional settings."

That, again, is a most important argument in favour of extending the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and making it effective worldwide.

As I have just one minute left in which to speak, I want to emphasise that we need to strengthen security safeguards governing the civil and military use of atomic energy. We could have, for example, a fissiles materials cut- off agreement. We need to strengthen export controls on dual-use technologies as well as nuclear ones. It is scandalous that the current export goods control order, a statutory instrument which was passed at a time of war in September 1939, allows no scrutiny of exports from this country. We should have the right to inspect exported equipment in operation at its destination and to check that it is being used--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): Order.

6.20 pm

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden): The hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) will forgive me if I do not pursue his argument. We should, however, have a day set aside for a debate on the nuclear proliferation treaty because it is vital to us that we understand what we are on about. Such a debate should command the undivided attention of the House.

The Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), said that he was surprised to learn from a research organisation that Britain could not perform certain missions on its own. I shall not go into the detail of that research, but I am not altogether surprised because I do not know of any country, apart, possibly, from the United States, that wishes to or could undertake any serious military mission without the help of some organisation or other country.

Such co-operation is the theme of the Government's defence policy and it runs through the White Paper that we are discussing today. The Government believe that our security operations will increasingly be pursued multilaterally. If the hon. Member for Swansea, East does not understand that, God help the country if the Labour party came to power.

It is right to pursue that theme because our foreign policy and economic interests are linked increasingly to international partners. The chosen instrument for co-operation has been NATO and continues to be so. After the end of the cold war, some people wrote NATO off in quasi-fourth form essays entitled, "Whither NATO". They implied that the end was nigh. As a long- standing member of the North Atlantic Assembly, I have observed how NATO's structure, including that of the assembly, has adapted to the uncertainties of the post-cold war period.

Mr. Donald Anderson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith: No, I am sorry. I hate the 10-minute limit on speeches, but I have never been able to speak without it, so I shall use up my time.

The NATO summit of last January marked an important step in its evolution, because it reaffirmed the interdependence of the alliance, its important links with the United States and the need to strengthen the European

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pillar of NATO. As a consequence, France is now shedding some of its old suspicions and hostility towards NATO and its serving officers are working within NATO's command structure in Bosnia. The setting up of a combined joint task force, based on the principle that NATO should be able to deploy a headquarters combined task force to carry out a range of operations, whether under NATO, the Western European Union or the United Nations, illustrates the adaptability of NATO and the emphasis that it puts on the need for flexible and rapid reaction forces.

All those changes were foreshadowed in "Options for Change" some years ago and justify to the hilt the Government's decision not to indulge in the luxury of a defence review. Such a review, like a royal commission, takes minutes and wastes years so that it is out of date as soon as it is published.

I welcome the "Partnership for Peace" initiative, just as I welcome my right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) who have joined the ministerial team. They will add a great deal to our debates, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Yesterday, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State spoke about "Partnership for Peace" and of the magnificent contributions that we have made to that initiative. They have been widely accepted and we can be proud of that contribution.

It is worth considering our defence costs study and "Front Line First" in the context of our international commitments and our membership of NATO. One of the more unpleasant tasks facing a Secretary of State for Defence must be that of presiding over a policy that cuts defence expenditure. My right hon. and learned Friend cannot like that--his Ministers and hon. Members do not like it either. The Secretary of State is not unlike a general who is ordered to conduct an organised and disciplined retreat that could so easily turn into a rout.

The Secretary of State and his Ministers have been buffeted by the Treasury and understandably impelled by the public to seek a peace dividend. They can claim that their cuts have staved off disaster. The Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence no less, who has never been backward in his criticism, has congratulated the Government on the way in which the defence costs study has limited the damage.

We have had a reassurance from the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State that a line has been drawn and that no further cuts in the strength of the armed forces are contemplated. That assurance, together with "Front Line First", is the best news that we have had for a long time--and not before time either. Nevertheless the past few years have put an enormous strain on the morale of our armed forces. We should not forget that. Ministers are rightly impressed by their dedication and professionalism. They see them at their best, so it is not too difficult to accept from top military leaders that the talk of low morale is exaggerated. That is the way of service men and service women. Their own pride and loyalty to the services prevents them from bellyaching to Ministers.

I have no wish to exaggerate the impact of reducing the numbers in our armed forces, redundancies or forced amalgamations between units. I cannot, however, ignore that impact, nor should it be ignored. All I can affirm is

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that it would be astonishing if the changes of the past few years had not made their mark on men and women from whom the highest standards are expected.

We are right to be concerned; after all, we do not have conscription. Our allies expect us to make up for our lack of numbers with quality in personnel, training, equipment and research and development. We know that anxieties have been expressed about all those spheres. If one talks to some of our friends who are part of the alliance, it is particularly disturbing to discover that they have noticed those anxieties. One cannot expect to be a leader of Europe in NATO if those allies find defects gradually advancing in our defence structure. Although it is important to praise the professionalism of the services, that must be backed up with proper support. There should be no question of any further hints of reductions in expenditure on defence affecting the quality of either personnel or equipment.

I am bound to be disturbed to hear of wives and families who have been put under enormous strain through the absence of their men folk; of difficulties in recruiting adequate numbers of adequate quality; of potential leaders at all levels leaving the services and, most important, of a lack of training at a level that exercises skills of command and the deployment of advanced technology well beyond those required for peacekeeping duties, important though they are. I cannot remember when we had our last divisional training exercise, except in the Gulf. Those problems are causing concern.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces referred to the Bett review on the conditions and terms of service of the armed forces. That, too, has caused concern. I hope that it will not cut across the established and well -tried practices that embellish and help to compensate service men and women of all ranks for the many sacrifices that they are called upon to make. Such a review should not be used, nor should we suspect it of being used, as a way of making substantial savings. I was pleased to note how the Minister reassured my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) that that is not the case. I hope that that is true.

I have two questions for my colleagues on the Front Bench. First, are we to take it that when troops engaged in Northern Ireland are no longer needed, there will be no yielding to further pressure for reductions in their number? Some people think that more than an extra 10,000 personnel is needed, but there should be no reduction in their number.

Secondly, if the savings identified in the defence costs study are not realised, can we be reassured that the defence budget will not be cut again or that orders for defence equipment that sustains the quality of our armed forces will not be postponed to a later date? We all have a shopping list. Mine is a simple one, based on the policy of flexible response, which fits in with NATO. I therefore want a decision on helicopters. There are nice people at Westland, but I am fed up with being bombarded by their questions about when an order will be placed for the EH101. We need that helicopter and we could throw in a Chinook as well, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Robinson) suggested. We have kept Westland waiting for too long. I have no doubt that we need an assault helicopter if we want a flexible, effective response. I fancy the Apache. Although I should not wish to repeat the experience, I

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have looped the loop in an Apache and can vouch for its rapid reliability. The need for a flexible and rapid response means that we must also replace the most aged of our Hercules transport. We cannot have those lolloping around for the next 10 years, waiting for an accident.

In those circumstances, I commend to my hon. Friends the fact that we have enormous support for what has been achieved. However, we hope that the Government will take on board the fears that some of us have expressed in this debate.

6.29 pm

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) in debate, if not in philosophy. I had not heard before that he had gone loopy in the past. I can commend some of his points to the House. We do not agree on everything, but he and I know full well the points on which we disagree. As well as congratulating the hon. Gentleman on a good speech, I commend the speech of the right hon. Member for Chertsey and Walton (Sir G. Pattie) and advise Ministers to heed the points that he offered the House. The hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), who has just left the Chamber, made a telling speech on medical facilities.

In the 10 unforgiving minutes allotted to me, I shall concentrate on three areas. First, I visited the Cambodia Trust in Phnom Penh and Kampot and saw there the work being done by a British charity to produce false limbs for the unfortunate victims of the hideous hardware left in that region as a result of the continuous war. The Cambodia Trust trains Cambodians to make false limbs out of materials produced in Cambodia. It then trains the best of those technicians to become lecturers in prosthesis and orthosis. It is currently training administrators and managerial staff to leave a self- sustaining working clinic there within three years, staffed by Cambodians, serving Cambodians, and making all the products in Cambodia. So it will not be dependent on any other state.

That charity seeks to extend its work into other areas of the world. To my knowledge, 27 other countries have huge problems of that kind. Within those countries, 100 million mines have been deployed and 1 million victims are already consigned to sitting in the dust until such time as someone can give them a limb on which to stand and help them to help themselves.

While in Cambodia, I saw at first hand the work of the Mines Advisory Group, which is supervised in the province of Xien Khouane by a man from the Western Isles called Donald Donalson, who was recently made redundant from his job as an RAF bombing range clearance officer. He is doing marvellous work in Cambodia with spirit and great humour. The work being done is admirable. In that region of south-east Asia, two aspects of the problem are being dealt with by British agencies: the need for amputees to receive provision; and the need for the eradication of weapons that should not have been there in the first place.

The third aspect of the problem that needs a solution is the need for an expression of political will on a global scale. Governments must decide collectively to put a stop to the design, production, deployment of and training in

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such hideous hardware. The best military minds will agree that it serves no useful purpose. The deployment of those weapons serves only to deny the terrain to everybody else. In so doing, however, it is denied to those deploying the weapons, whether it be on their own land or someone else's. The whole thing is preposterous and serves no useful purpose.

I should like to say a brief word on the general thrust of the defence costs studies. I have already said more than once in the House--I disagree with many of my Opposition colleagues--that the only peace dividend available to us is peace itself. The world has changed so dramatically since the end of the cold war that we have yet to realise the scale of that change. The world is more unstable, there are more trouble spots and they are more unpredictable. The whole question of providing for them is enormous and we cannot predict events.

We have heard a catalogue of the good work done by the forces under pressure and difficulties. The Chairman of the Select Committee on which I serve has expressed concern about overstretching and I agree with him on that. In any given year, 265 nights out of bed is far too much to expect of anyone, even Cabinet Ministers. If the job is so hard and the pressures so high, why on earth are we cutting back? I do not consider that a fatuous question, but I consider the answer given to me a fatuous answer.

In response to questions put by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) on the closure of depots, the Minister said that the remarks were idiotic. I have a few idiotic remarks of my own to make, and they are all in the form of questions. I hope that I shall not receive idiotic answers. I wish to refer specifically to Eaglescliffe, the most modern storage depot in the country, if not in the world--it is brand new. It is remarkable and hon. Members should go and see it. Why has a decision been taken to close Eaglescliffe less than four years after we were assured that it would stay open, when we discussed the Pulvertaft proposals?

Why was the consultation document five years late, so non-specific and so limited that it was confined to four sides of A4 paper? I do not believe that it took five weeks to write four A4 sides. Why was the response to legitimate queries so dismissive and inadequate? Why was a two-week extension to the duration of the consultation period announced less than 24 hours before its closure date? And why only a two-week extension when the curtailment was five weeks plus the obstruction to the questions to the Ministry of Defence? The whole matter is so unreasonable that it makes nonsense of the term "consultation". It beggars description. It is so dismissive that it is disrespectful, and the people of Cleveland deserve a better response.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement and I have had a better than average relationship. I hope that that will remain. Occasionally, he has assisted me and I have sometimes recognised that assistance in the time- honoured parliamentary way. I shall not go into more detail. I have asked a number of pertinent questions tonight, as did the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) in his contribution last night. I do not often agree with him and I do not agree with everything that he said last night, but he made a good speech and the pertinent points in it deserve a response. I had hoped to hear a response to some of those arguments this afternoon.

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I am sorry that I could not be here for the first day of this debate, but I read the report of the proceedings this afternoon and saw that the Minister promised to respond today to the points to which he did not respond yesterday.

Mr. Soames: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Cook: I am sorry; I have only seconds left.

I was hoping that I would receive a response earlier this afternoon. I listened carefully and did not hear a response. I hope that the Minister, in replying to the debate, will respond to the arguments that the hon. Member for Stockton, South made and those that I made--or perhaps I may have a copy of the letter that he received. I look forward to it. I listen with interest.

6.39 pm

Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green): Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am grateful for the opportunity of catching your eye in this debate. I shall concentrate, in the time available to me, on two or three items.

I should like to identify myself with the views that were expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Robinson), who strongly expressed the case to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement that there should not simply be a one-sided argument about the order for the replacement of the Hercules. I speak with an interest in the matter, since Lucas Aerospace would be providing the FADEC, or engine control management system, for the C130J. I understand that perhaps 1,700 jobs at Lucas and possibly more elsewhere would be involved in about 36 British companies, which have been successful in bidding for part of that contract. I do not wish to take anything away from the excellent idea of the future large aircraft, but we should remember that that proposed aircraft is only at the feasibility stage at the moment; it has not been completed and it has not flown.

Another aspect of the C130J speaks for itself. A huge amount of time, experience and dedication has been invested in that type of aircraft, especially by special forces. They have had to learn to fly it extremely low, sometimes to drop out of it without parachutes, and to drop equipment and sensitive material, with a great deal of expertise, extremely quietly in hostile territory, which would not necessarily be appropriate in a much larger, as yet untested, aeroplane. I say no more at this stage about that, but I hope that my right hon. Friend has listened. The two are in no way mutually exclusive.

I am in some difficulty, having listened carefully to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) at the time when he produced his "Options for Change", because he promised me then that he would go this far and no further. The announcement of last year's unified Budget on 30 November heralded a further reduction in the defence budget--the third significant defence reduction in four years. The overall effect has been to reduce defence expenditure as a proportion of gross national product to about 3 per cent., in stark contrast to the average of about 5 per cent. in the 1970s and 1980s. That is also in stark contrast to the French defence budget, which is currently 3.8 per cent. and increasing by 3 per cent. every year. Between £3 billion and £4 billion, whichever way one works it, has been cut from the defence budget since my right hon. Friend gave me those assurances.

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What does my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State think has happened in the past three years to justify the cutting of a further £1 billion or £2 billion from the defence budget? I ask because my right hon. and learned Friend has said from time to time that that is in keeping with the new world order, but that new world order, such as it was, was taken into account by the "Options for Change" exercise, which brought sweeping cuts in 1990. That acknowledged the collapse of communism, the responsibility hangover from our imperial past and the need to deter possible belligerents from the Falkland Islands or other areas as well as from Northern Ireland. It also provided an insurance premium against most serious post-Soviet threats, including nuclear proliferation spreading especially to religious zealots, whether they be in the form of Gaddafi, Saddam or the mullahs of Iran.

I remain to be convinced as yet that my right hon. and learned Friend has defended the defence budget in a way that I might have hoped that he would have been able to.

Specifically, I should like to identify my remarks about the overall strategy for defence expenditure with those of my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith), who said that what we really need is flexibility. I could not agree more. Flexibility is the key in determining the type of forces that we may have in the future.

I have been privileged, with the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire), who spoke so well yesterday from the Opposition Benches, to take part in the armed forces parliamentary scheme. We have visited installations, sadly about to close, both at Portland and in the area that she represents, in Rosyth, the minor war vessels centre, with which we were both inordinately impressed. They were both extremely well-run operations and I hope that my hon. Friends will give us some assurances that their transition to their new homes will be as smooth as possible, so that they may continue to operate in the extremely professional manner that they have done.

We have also had the opportunity to visit several other vessels, including HMS Nottingham sailing in the Adriatic. The one fact that I should like to share with colleagues in the House tonight concerning that ship was that the morale of its men, although excellent--they are doing an excellent job- -is being tested by the duration of their tours. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will be able to implement the harmony guidelines and to ensure that, whether the tours be in Northern Ireland or in such places, on board ships, their length will be reduced. That will help officers and crew and their families.

The Navy has worries about several matters which I hope my hon. Friend might be able to tackle. If we are to have flexible response, if amphibious capability is to be the watchword--the byword--of our future planning, especially in naval strategy, we must ensure that our units for that purpose are in tip-top working order. At the centre of those units we must consider our current fleet of aircraft carriers, which will need replacement by the year 2010 or thereabouts. I hope that my hon. Friends will not forget that we have various other areas of significant expenditure in our budgets, all of which may add to a rather nasty lump or blip during that period. While speaking briefly about deployment, I said in my previous contribution to the House how much I regretted the decision that was forced on my right hon. and learned

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Friend to scrap the Upholder class of conventional submarines. Those would have been especially useful for special forces deployment. I hope that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Ministers of State will give urgent consideration to fitting the sub-strategic nuclear submarines, which I understand might in future carry out such a role, with the necessary hatches or other equipment to enable them to do the job in the same way as the Upholders might have done. I am confident that they will perform that task admirably, but I hope that we shall not hesitate to make the necessary expenditure to ensure that it is as well and professionally done as it should be.

Whatever we may think about defence, the most important thing is that our service men believe that they are being well represented here and in the Departments. I have every hope and expectation that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend, whom I welcome to the Front Bench, will fight for their interests, as I know that hon. Members will.

6.48 pm

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