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9.34 pm

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. James Arbuthnot): This has been a valuable debate. It has raised such a large number of issues of considerable importance that, inevitably, I shall not be able to deal with them all in the time available. I apologise for that. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forced or I will write to hon. Members whose points remain unanswered.

I have received a number of requests for contracts, for visits and for information. I think that the most delightful was the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre (Mr. Mans) that he not be forced to retrain on a different aircraft. I have bad news for him, because the

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Bulldog aircraft is used to provide university air squadrons and air cadets with air experience flying. Earlier studies suggested that there were potential value-for-money benefits in replacing the Bulldog early. That process is now under way. It is a private finance initiative project, and we aim to secure the best value for money achievable through a negotiated contract.

Mr. Frank Cook: Is there any truth in the rumour that the Bulldogs will be replaced by Sopwith Camels?

Mr. Arbuthnot: That remains for negotiation.

We aim to place a contract in 1997, so it is likely that my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre will have to retrain fairly soon. I suspect that he might like to do so in a Sopwith Camel, but he is a young man and I know that he will make it through without any difficulty.

We have heard some outstanding speeches in this debate, including those from my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes), for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), for North Tayside(Mr. Walker), for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), for Wyre and for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman), and from my right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope).

My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) made a powerful speech, which we have come to expect from him as Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence. One of the important points he made was the value that this country receives from buying equipment--as we sometimes do--overseas and from industrial participation coming into this country, making use of outstanding British skills and providing jobs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside also raised the issue--as did the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Spellar) and my hon. Friends the Members for Aylesbury and for Gillingham--of the married quarters estate. I am happy to accept the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside to dispel the misapprehensions that surround that issue. He referred to a recent letter of mine, in which I said:

of the married quarters estate,

    "almost as though there were some 'hidden agenda' to discourage Service families from living in married quarters".

That is absolutely not the case. We have no intention whatever of discouraging accompanied service. Obviously we will not force people to live in married quarters. We must recognise that many personnel have an understandable wish to live in their own homes, which we could not and should not sensibly try to frustrate. We are completely committed to the value of "the patch", to the value of cohesive communities and of mutual support, which do so much to foster the service ethos and to reduce unnecessary worry about families left behind when the services go overseas.

We are committed to providing the right quarters in the right places for service families who wish to exercise their entitlement. Charges for quarters--here I deal specifically with an issue that was very inappropriately raised by the hon. Member for Warley, West--are recommended not by the Ministry of Defence or by the Treasury but by the Review Body on Armed Forces Pay, a fully independent body whose independence should not be impugned or doubted.

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Also in my letter I referred to the second misapprehension:

That is not so. The real issue is how to reduce the high vacancy rate in MOD homes while at the same time keeping down social tensions, but that is going to be a challenge whatever happens to the estate.

Several hon. Members, including the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) and my hon. Friends the Members for Wyre and for Gillingham referred to the possibility of selling the surplus homes we already have. I agree that, if it were possible to continue to pursue the policy that we have been pursuing for a number of years, and if it had the effect that we would all like, we would do so, but, unfortunately, that policy has proved unsuccessful.

The change that occupants of the married quarters estate can expect from the transfer that we are proposing is that significantly more money will go to the upgrading of quarters where standards are poor. Without the sale, of course we would try to find the money and do our best as far as the money would stretch, but only a sale can give us the sort of capital injection we need to get what we want within a reasonable time scale and without it being subject to the ordinary and inevitable pressures of the public spending settlement.

The hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) asked about RAF Carlisle. I have two pieces of news for him. First, there is no market testing at RAF Carlisle. As he knows, we are closing the site progressively and looking for expressions of interest in it, but no decisions have been taken about the most appropriate means of disposal. Secondly, we have had no requests to store bonemeal at RAF Carlisle and, under current plans, no bonemeal is likely to be stored there.

Mr. Martlew: I am grateful for the Minister's remarks, and my constituents will be, too. However, is it not a fact that the MOD has said that it will withdraw from the joint venture and be subjecting the site to market testing? I have the minutes of the meeting in question if the Minister would like to see them.

Mr. Arbuthnot: I do not want to create any confusion in the hon. Gentleman's mind. Market testing is very different from asking for expressions of interest in the site. As I said just now, we have not made any decisions about the appropriate means of disposal of the site. When we start to make decisions, the hon. Gentleman will of course be one of the first to know.

The hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) made an interesting speech. He suggested that defence was a matter of consensus. I have news for him, too: the consensus is that Labour cannot be trusted on defence. Labour is committed to a fundamental defence review. That is no more than a device to cloak the party's desire, driven by Back-Bench and conference pressure, to cut defence spending. A review would cause precisely the instability that the armed forces wish to and must avoid, which the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), in an excellent speech, said that he did not want.

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At the end of the last decade, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) believed that all nuclear weapons should be removed from British territory. That position remains the gut feeling of the Labour party. Labour's problem is that defence is simply not one of its spending priorities. It would be its natural target for cuts to pay for things that are priorities.

One need only look at the letter from the Transport and General Workers Union, which has sponsored the right hon. Member for Sedgefield and one or two other prominent members of the shadow Cabinet. It calls for defence spending to be reduced from £22 billion to£4 billion. That reflects the genuine views of many Labour Members. I exempt from that accusation several Opposition Members who have spoken in this debate, including, for example, the hon. Members for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and for Stockton, North, who have always taken a very sensible view on defence. Unfortunately, that view is not shared by the majority of their party.

Mr. Hardy: Does the Minister accept that, year after year, the Labour party has made it clear that it is fully committed to membership of NATO? Does he also accept that over the past few years his party has sought to create division in the House of Commons in public party political utterances, but is desperately eager to present a united front when dealing with the Western European Union, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and so on? He cannot have it both ways. The Government cannot have our co-operation when we are abroad in serious debate and expect to play silly party games of the sort that he has just indulged in.

Mr. Arbuthnot: The hon. Gentleman is a valiant defender of defence, but he is a rare voice in his party. He asks what was happening year after year, and I will tell him. Year after year, Labour party conferences called for cuts in defence spending and for the removal of nuclear weapons. That is what the Labour party believes in.

Mr. Spellar: As has been pointed out to Ministers a considerable number of times, their Government have been implementing those cuts. Indeed, the Minister has not yet answered the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) about the level of cuts in the RAF being greater than those that the Conservative party claimed at the last election would take place under Labour. That is the reality: the Government say one thing and do another.

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