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Mr. Blunt: I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way again. I refer him to the issue of openness. The SDR has been like a black hole: it has sucked everything in. However, Ministers have failed to expose any of the difficult issues and arguments with which we know you are having to grapple. You would have had the sympathy of everyone in the defence establishment and the academic defence establishment if you had exposed those ideas, but you did not.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must remember that he is addressing the Chair.

Dr. Reid: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Bayley: The second division of land command is currently based in my constituency and its future will be affected by the outcome of the review. I have had a very helpful and open relationship with Ministers--

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): And a negative one.

Mr. Bayley: It is not negative at all--far from it. Because Ministers have taken an interest in my comments, the Department is now considering a wider range of options, which I believe will benefit the review. Two dozen parliamentary questions have been answered. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Minister of State have met me on the issues. The process has been as open as it could be at this stage of the review.

Dr. Reid: I thank my hon. Friend for his robust defence of the manner in which we have approached these matters.

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My hon. Friend is not the only person who has been consulted. Discussions have taken place and people have been invited to seminars that have taken place in the House. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, has been involved in discussions. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), the shadow Minister for the Armed Forces, and the hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), the Liberal Democrat spokesman, have been involved. The Select Committee on Defence--the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), who has already asked a question, is a member of it--has also been involved. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) was in my office only 48 hours ago to discuss these matters with me.

I could refer to another dozen individuals who have been involved. The openness of the consultation exercise has been unparalleled, and it has not finished. Once decisions have been taken, they will be incorporated in a White Paper that will be put before the House. We shall then have further debates on the issues.

I am prepared to accept that everything is relative. However, in relative terms, I would challenge Conservative Members to find any exercise that has taken place over the past 50 years inside the Ministry of Defence that was conducted with the openness of intent an inclusiveness of membership that have characterised the strategic defence review.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): The Minister has referred to great openness. Can the hon. Gentleman now answer the two questions that I asked him last summer, which he has been unable to answer so far? Will he now publish the foreign policy base line, which is the most important element of the strategic defence review? Has he yet been able to come up with the mission statement for the Ministry of Defence which he promised last summer?

Dr. Reid: If we do not accept a premise, we shall not be able to reach a conclusion. I do not necessarily agree that the foreign policy base line, in the abstract, is the most important element. The force planning assumptions arising from the foreign policy base line are probably more important.

The foreign policy base line that the hon. Gentleman seeks to extract in some abstract fashion from the previous and sequential analysis has been outlined on any number of occasions in speeches and articles delivered and written by my right hon. and hon. Friends.

The hon. Gentleman, like an American advertising executive, seems obsessed with the mission statement. We have discussed aircraft carriers, strategic analysis, fast jets, intervention in Bosnia, humanitarian missions and global analyses, but the hon. Gentleman keeps coming back to the "major" issue of a mission statement.

Having reflected on the matter about 10 months ago--I nearly forgot to tell him this, but I shall update him--it seemed to me that it was probably more sensible to wait until we had completed the strategic defence review before incorporating other elements into it. I shall send the hon. Gentleman a personal invitation and probably give him an engraved copy of the mission statement when we finally produce it.

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I return to the more substantial elements--while still trying to be as inclusive as I can.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): In the context of all the openness to which the Minister has referred, I hope that he may be able to agree to the meeting for which I asked at the end of 1997 to discuss the position of RAF Uxbridge, which he was then unable to grant me.

Dr. Reid: Is the hon. Gentleman saying that we have refused a meeting with him? I see the hon. Gentleman nodding. To my knowledge, I have never refused a request from any Member to meet me. When the hon. Gentleman refers to the end of last year, I can only suggest that perhaps he made his request immediately before the death of my wife, and that somehow it was lost. The request was not brought to my attention. I shall discuss any matter with the hon. Gentleman. If he wishes to write again, we shall make some arrangement.

In the context of the strategic defence review, we fully recognise the unique and distinctive contribution made by all three services to our country's military capability. We will not sacrifice that, and the future of the RAF will be safe. That is not to say that there will be no changes. We did not embark on the SDR to maintain the status quo. It is clear that, in the new strategic setting, there is much greater scope for our armed forces to be able to operate together.

The House knows all too well that when we came to power we inherited shortfalls in key areas of capability. These are being shown up during the SDR. I hope that all of us will apply our minds to how we can best backfill the areas that have been hollowed out. They include strategic lift and logistic support.

We must be able to send our armed forces rapidly wherever in the world they are needed and, crucially, to support them there. This requirement is more demanding than during the cold war, where we expected the enemy to come to us. In future, we may need to transport our forces more quickly and over longer distances to emerging crises, whether in Europe or beyond. We must also work to resolve the inherited problems of overstretch and undermanning that put such a strain on service personnel and their families. These will be some of the key elements in the SDR.

Part of the inclusive process of listening will involve the next four hours. During that period I shall listen, as ever, to the comments that are made in the Chamber. If I am lucky enough to catch your eye towards the end of the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall attempt to elaborate at greater length and in more detail on aspects arising from the SDR. I hope to say more at that stage about our defence equipment programme.

In the meantime, I hope that we can look forward to an interesting and lively debate on Royal Air Force matters this afternoon. Before we embark on that debate, I say to those men and women who play such a vital role in our services that they should not in any way mistake differences of opinion expressed from either side of the House on how we best approach the future of defence as representing divisions over the commitment to the Royal Air Force and over our support and appreciation of those people who serve in it. Whatever party we represent in this place, and on whatever side of the Chamber we sit, there is a full commitment to and a deep appreciation of the service that the men and women of the Royal Air Force give to the country.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act:

Bank of England Act 1998

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Royal Air Force

Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.

5.7 pm

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): I begin by associating myself with the Minister's opening remarks. He will be relieved to hear that I do not plan to speak for more than an hour. Many of my hon. Friends who sit behind me have a great deal to say and I know that they would not thank me for speaking for longer than an hour.

The Minister started by mentioning the agility, versatility and reach that are attributes of the Royal Air Force. However, as shown by my hon. Friends the Members for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) and for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark), agility, versatility and reach are also hallmarks of the Conservative party when it comes to discussing aircraft types.

My speech will be largely complementary to what the Minister had to say and not repetitive. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House will be pleased to hear that.

I, too, wish a happy birthday to the Royal Air Force in this very important year for it. I wish especially to include in these birthday greetings the former as well as the currently serving men and women of the Royal Air Force. They have a proud record in the battle of Britain, in the Berlin airlift, in the Falklands, in the Gulf and in Bosnia, where humanitarian supplies were delivered to Sarajevo in the great tradition of the RAF. Those missions and the RAF's work in the no-fly zones over Iraq are remarkable achievements, as is its continuing, quiet and unsung work in Northern Ireland, to which the Minister also referred.

I should like to link with those compliments the Ministry of Defence's civilian employees, the scientific civil service and the industrial civil service. The management structures with which they live change, the agencies change and the nature of the work changes, but usually the same people are on the ground--or in the air--as for example at Boscombe Down in my constituency.

I include in my remarks the wider Royal Air Force community; all the wives, husbands and children, the proud relatives and the proud local communities who live with the Royal Air Force. Wherever there is a Royal Air Force station in Britain--or elsewhere in the world--associated with it will be pride, loyalty, a special sense of community and, of course, additional economic prosperity, which spreads far beyond the perimeter fence. Civilians may not like the noise, as the Minister said, but they would surely miss the Royal Air Force if it went.

The Opposition warmly welcome the debate. It is always important that the House has an opportunity to be heard on our services. We were delighted and surprised that the Government's business managers chose this moment for the Royal Air Force debate. I suspect that the Ministry of Defence was also surprised, although perhaps not delighted, with the timing. The debate takes place in a vacuum. It is too late to have much influence on the strategic defence review and too early for Ministers to report the results of the review to the House. There is, however, a great deal to say about the Royal Air Force.

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Can the Minister give any indication when we can expect the single-service debates on the Royal Navy and the Army? The Minister and I have been in the House long enough to know that there are occasions when, through the usual channels, business can be arranged to avoid Divisions on particular evenings. I suspect that this is one of those evenings, as I notice that the Labour party has a £500-a-ticket fund-raising thrash to which Labour Back Benchers have clearly flocked--I don't think. It is in everybody's interest to have some idea about the timing of the Royal Navy and Army debates and how they might relate to the strategic defence review announcement.

Can the Minister give us any more information about the progress of the strategic defence review, which is already very much delayed? We were told that it would be a six-month process; it is now getting on for a year. We all hope that the fruits of the labours of the three services and the Ministry of Defence will be agreed byCabinet and, perhaps, exempted from the Treasury's comprehensive spending review, although I doubt it, as it is scheduled for completion in June.

It would be serious if the SDR slipped into the comprehensive spending review, and if publication was delayed beyond July. A six-month review that slips to 12 months would be damaging for the services and for the whole defence procurement industry. Damage has already been done to morale in the services and to defence procurement. We encourage Defence Ministers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) said, to fight their corner hard with the Cabinet and the Treasury, and we shall do everything we can to help them.

Looking ahead, and in the wake of the strategic defence review, will Ministers think about the future format of our defence debates? For two years running we have not debated the defence estimates. We deplore that. We expect a substantial debate on the outcome of the SDR, but in future years, and in view of the changing nature of joint operations between the services, should not the House have one tri-service debate on operations and personnel, one on defence expenditure and another on defence procurement? Those are areas that we could explore in future.

The Conservative Opposition follow the established and respected tradition of supporting our services whole-heartedly. We know that almost all our service men and women want defence to be above party politics. It is unthinkable that the Government of the day, of whichever party, would commit forces to action in theatre without the support of the Opposition. It is important that Opposition spokesmen and Opposition Members are briefed by the military and visit our forces on base, station, and ship and in theatre. That cements the commitment of Parliament to our forces and of our forces to the Crown. We are grateful to the Government for their continuing courtesy in enabling us to perform our role efficiently and effectively.

The Minister will know from his time in opposition--and will agree--that the Opposition must energetically pursue their proper role, and we shall. We shall listen to the forces, the academics, the procurement industry and our constituents. We shall probe, prod and cajole Ministers. We shall tell them things that they would rather not hear, and tell them things that those with whom they work would rather keep from them.

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The Government know that we did not support their need for the SDR. There had been enough reviews and studies. We have promised the military a period of stability. When the SDR is eventually unveiled, we will want to know when we can expect the next review. Will the Government revert to a tradition of annual, rolling reviews linked to the public spending round, or will they follow the American or other traditions of quadrennial or quinquennial reviews?

Our response to the SDR will be positive. We will probably oppose some of the leaked proposals, such as leaks about the territorial services, because we believe that they are wrong, but we will consider the review carefully and thoroughly. No doubt we will hope to be able to support much of it, but our first reaction on the day of publication will be followed by a period of careful evaluation. It is true that there has been much opportunity for comment and consultation, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate said, it all went into something of a black hole. Apart from a couple of coded messages, we still know nothing about the secret foreign policy baselines on which the SDR has been based and it is empty to suggest otherwise, however much one scrutinises the speeches of the Secretary of State and others.

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