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Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point): If the hon. Gentleman is interested in rising above party politics, will he congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on his excellent and statesmanlike speech at Bournemouth? Will he join my right hon. Friend in congratulating the 9,000 British troops with IFOR in Bosnia, who have delivered on disarming and separating the forces and on a successful election in September?

Dr. Reid: All right, just for the sake of consensus, I do so on both counts.

There are matters on which the House can agree, some of which have been mentioned already. They include the rationalisation of our reserve forces, which has been undertaken by the Minister of State for the Armed Forces. He consulted widely beforehand, gave some thought to the detail and listened to criticism from ourselves and others. On that basis, we gave the legislation a fair wind.

Again, this year's aims and objectives of the Ministry of Defence, as outlined in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates 1996", includes the obligation

All I can say to that is hooray, but we should not have had to wait 17 years to find that strategic direction is one of the objectives of the Ministry of Defence. It should have been an objective at the start of the Tory Government, not in their dying months.

Progress has also been made on joint operations. It makes sense to have joint training of helicopter pilots from all three services. The establishment of a joint permanent headquarters is a significant advance in operational capability, and I am grateful for the access and briefings that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces gave me on that matter. But even where both sides of the House have agreed on those trends, the Government have found it impossible to avoid the incompetence that has marked so many of their ventures.

A number of the ventures relate to their approach to joint service activities--for example, the tragic and shambolic plans for the joint staff college, which seems to be in a constant state of flux. The sell-off of the Greenwich naval college was decided on the basis of figures which, on investigation, the Defence Select Committee subsequently found to be inadequate and incomplete. The Secretary of State was forced to do a U-turn on his plans for the unfettered right to sell off the college willy-nilly to whomever he chose.

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We then found that the plans to site the joint college at the Army college at Camberley were delayed by a lack of suitable accommodation. Temporary resiting to the air staff college at Bracknell was then accompanied by an announcement that private funding would be sought not only for the extra accommodation needed but for the whole staff college project. With the best will in the world, and trying to be as non-partisan as possible, I believe that, if we manage to reach a general agreement on consensus, it will be difficult to sustain it, given such shambolic incompetence in what should be a relatively simple decision.

On the subject of the joint rapid deployment force, we welcomed the Secretary of State's announcement 18 months ago. We welcomed his reannouncement of it three months later and we welcomed his third announcement. At the time, I said that the only rapid things about the force were the rate and consistency with which it was being reannounced.

As soon as the force was set up in August, the Secretary of State made yet another announcement. A press report stated that Britain's elite rapid deployment force was to lose an entire battalion of paras just three weeks after its launch because of huge overstretch. The rapid deployment force, which was not formed too rapidly, then had no one to deploy. In the face of such incompetence, we have difficulty maintaining cross-party consensus on essentially good ideas.

We have complained that, even when the parties agree on issues, the Ministry of Defence must be constantly goaded or prompted into action which must ultimately be taken and from which it could derive some credit if it did so without being badgered. Hon. Members have mentioned some examples. The MOD was goaded constantly to respond adequately on the issue of Gulf war syndrome. I do not question Ministers' sincerity on that issue: they are in a difficult position, as they must be judges regarding what happened, prosecutors when seeking evidence about what might have occurred, and then defendants, as ultimately they will be liable if it is found that something went wrong.

Nevertheless, Ministers should have realised earlier that important issues regarding our obligation and our loyalty to service men and women will not go away. If we find that there was negligence initially or subsequent negligence in investigating the matter, leading to accusations of a cover-up, Ministers must take the strongest possible action.

The MOD was prompted to take action about the treatment of our service men and it has been pushed to adopt a rational view regarding service women. I do not know exactly how much we have paid out to pregnant service women, but it is more than £50 million. If the MOD had listened to those who warned of a problem, we would have been spared the indignity of treating women in that fashion and saved £50 million in hard-earned Treasury money, which could have been spent on much-needed equipment.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): The hon. Gentleman's argument would carry more weight if he did not speak for a party that is committed to adopting the

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social chapter, which we opted out of in the Maastricht treaty. It would impose more rules and regulations across all sectors of British life.

Dr. Reid: I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I wish that he were sure of his facts. The social chapter specifically excludes the armed forces and therefore is not relevant to my point about pregnant service men and women. [Interruption.] I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am trying to be politically correct--as my party knows, I have a long history of political correctness.

The matter of the Commission for Racial Equality was raised yesterday. No one suggests that the ministerial offices of the Crown are filled with racists, but there is something wrong when the Commission for Racial Equality must threaten to drag the Ministry of Defence through the courts to force it to implement plans with which the MOD says that it agrees. Despite the comments of the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, the truth is that the MOD was over a barrel due to its tardiness in making advances on the question of recruitment from ethnic minorities. It was an abject surrender. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) described the MOD's backdown to the CRE as the first unconditional surrender by British forces since Yorktown.

Despite that, we have much to be proud of. As the Minister said, we are blessed with the quality of our service men and women and, similarly, of those involved in our manufacturing industry. Two weeks ago, I was privileged to visit the Royal Armoured Corps with Sir Charles Guthrie to view Challenger 2. It is a marvellous example of British engineering which is manned by skilled, highly trained crews from the Royal Armoured Corps. I will not go so far as to say that it floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee but, for something that size, it is an impressive example of British engineering and martial skill.

Our manufacturing record is, however, continually marred by the Government's apparent incapacity to produce the goods on time and at cost. I do not blame the MOD entirely, but several weeks ago I was interested to read one of its press releases about the Phoenix spy plane. Hon. Members probably know that the plane is extremely effective but seldom comes back in one piece--which somewhat limits its operational usefulness. It is like a boomerang that goes only one way. The press release stated:

The plane is now expected to be in service by 1998, which is great--except that it was due in service in 1989. The MOD is proudly boasting that equipment which is seven or eight years overdue will be delivered in three or four years.

We do not blame the Government for every delay. However, any objective observer who examined the pattern of consistent delays would conclude that it was the only area where the Government appeared to have a strategy. I am reminded that Napoleon once instructed Bourrienne not to open his letters for three weeks and, after that time, expressed satisfaction that most of the correspondence had resolved itself. I have a feeling that the Secretary of State is adopting a Napoleonic strategy to defence procurement: if we delay indefinitely, the need will go away. But it will not.

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Similarly, we do not blame the Government for every cost overrun--we know that there are technical difficulties and updated requirements. However, at the end of the day, we seem to spend much more on almost every project--except Trident, of course. The Minister spoke about that at great length today. I do not know whether he is good with figures. I know that he is a Chancery lawyer--I discovered that before he came into the Chamber. I do not know what that is--perhaps it is someone who defends chancers, which would explain why he is at the Ministry of Defence. The Minister is certainly not good with Roman numerals, since he spoke to me recently about our proud role in winning world war eleven.

I think that the cost overruns are due to something in the system rather than to the personal inadequacies of the Minister of State for Defence Procurement. At least tonight we can welcome the fact that he referred to the system of procurement. He mentioned data information systems and the need to bring the three services together. That is a great idea. However, by chance I met a man on a train who worked in that area and he told me that the three computer systems were incompatible. I pass on that information from someone at the coal face; I do not know whether it is accurate.

We agree on many issues. There is no major difference in our views on NATO: it is the cornerstone of our policy. We believe in developing the Western European Union and that it should not be part of the European Union.

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