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Community Hospitals

Q2.[47950] Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): If he will make a statement on the Government's policy on community hospitals.

The Prime Minister: We certainly recognise the strength of feeling that people have for their local

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community hospitals. Community hospitals can play a role in the national health service, particularly offering a safe, clinically effective and efficient service for their areas. They must of course meet the same high quality standards and fairness and efficiency tests as any other hospital.

Mr. Burnett: I have just come from a meeting of many community hospital representatives, who are here because 27 community hospitals are either definitely to close or threatened with closure. How does the Prime Minister reconcile that fact with his oft-stated commitment to save the national health service?

The Prime Minister: The programmes of closure are proposed by local health authorities; there may be varying reasons for them. In certain areas, closures are proposed because health authorities genuinely believe in reorganising hospital provision. It is important to ensure that the reasons for any change in community hospital provision are genuinely concerned with the national health service and its interests. That does not mean that, if other provision is being made, every hospital closure must necessarily be wrong. That is not so in all 27 areas. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is to sit in on appeals against several of those cases. However, not every programme of reorganisation must be opposed.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): Does my right hon. Friend agree that after the closure of Edgware hospital by the previous Government, this Government have been making great strides in restoring services to the new Edgware community hospital, and that the new waiting list money will go a long way in helping that process? Is he also aware that after the rundown of the hospital by the previous Government, one of the problems is getting over to local people that there are services at Edgware hospital, and that it is alive and vibrant? Will he use his best endeavours to ensure that we can get that message over to the local community?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that my hon. Friend has just done that, and I back him up entirely. Edgware hospital provides a valuable service to local residents and will continue to do so. It is, of course, under this Government that the largest hospital building programme in the NHS is being put through. After years of delay, we are getting that hospital building programme under way, and five are already starting up.

Ministerial Visits

Q3.[47951] Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): What plans he has to pay an official visit to the St. Ives constituency.

The Prime Minister: I have no immediate plans to do so.

Mr. George: That is a pity. In my constituency, we are concerned about the NHS. When will the highly committed NHS staff of three of the four community hospitals in my constituency that I visited this weekend be told whether they have hospitals to work in and jobs to go to? Their jobs have been on the line since October last year, and the plans have been on the desk of the

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Secretary of State for ever and a day. When will they know whether they can join in the 50th anniversary celebrations of the NHS?

The Prime Minister: The plans have not been there for ever and a day. It is correct that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has to make his decision in due course. He will examine the proposals carefully to make sure that they represent the best way forward for health services in Cornwall. On underfunding, we accept that the NHS needs more investment. That is precisely why the comprehensive spending review is geared and designed to make sure that the health service has the resources it needs.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome very much what the Government have done in Europe to try to make sure that Cornwall, with its special circumstances, is treated as an area in its own right for the purposes of regional aid. That is a different topic, but we are trying to do our best for the people of Cornwall and will carry on doing so.

Engagements

Q4.[47952] Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): How can the Prime Minister, as an elected Member of this House, be satisfied that he presides over a Government who, time after time, trail important policy announcements in the press before they are made properly to this House? Is he determined that, in future, policy statements will be made by unelected and unaccountable spin doctors, lobbyists and cronies?

The Prime Minister: In respect of the leak of the strategic defence review, I have made it clear that if anybody in government has been connected with that, they will be dismissed forthwith. The leak inquiry will try to get to the bottom of the matter, but I do not believe that anyone in government has been involved. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in saying that if the review has been leaked not by someone in my party but by someone on his side, that person should be dealt with by his leader.

Q5.[47953] Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West): Can the Prime Minister confirm that an undiluted, full-strength, 22-carat freedom of information Bill will be in the next Queen's Speech? Does he agree not only that

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that would redeem a key manifesto pledge, but that it would be the best way to stop lobbyists and other parliamentary parasites trading, because it would, by making Government information available to the many, not the few, devalue the very currency in which they trade?

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend appreciates, I cannot start saying what will be in the Queen's Speech, but a freedom of information Act is a key part of our constitutional reform programme. We have set out proposals in the White Paper, and the next step is to publish the draft Bill for further consultation, as we shall in due course. It remains a key Government commitment.

Q6.[47954] Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Yesterday, a Labour peer--and former Labour Minister--described the measure whereby students from Northern Ireland, Wales and England would pay £1,000 more in fees than students from Scotland and the rest of the European Union as repugnant and as discrimination against our fellow countrymen. Will the Prime Minister explain why students from Manchester will have to pay £1,000 more than students from Milan and why students from Liverpool will have to pay £1,000 more than students from Lisbon? To get through the message that that is nonsense, will the students have to club together to hire a lobbyist to contact one of his cronies at No. 10?

The Prime Minister: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman paid any attention--I suspect that he did not--to what I said about Lord Dearing, who, as far as I am aware, is not known as a lobbyist. Lord Dearing has rightly pointed out that 354 students from other parts of the European Union are involved. If the proposals were limited to Scotland, the sum of money involved would be only £2 million. However, as Lord Dearing also pointed out, it would be wrong to suggest that students who do four-year courses in Scotland should be treated differently from those who do four-year courses in England--[Hon. Members: "That is what you are doing."] We are not doing that; that is precisely the point. If we were, the cost would be £27 million.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the £1,000 tuition fee will not be paid by the poorest third of students and that the next third will pay a reduced rate. The Conservative party proposals, however, would make all students, from whatever part of the United Kingdom, pay the full tuition fees. That would be wrong and would discriminate against those from low-income families.

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Strategic Defence Review

3.31 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Robertson): With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the outcome of the strategic defence review.

Today, I am publishing a White Paper setting out the conclusions of the review and a volume of detailed supporting essays. Copies are available in the Vote Office. Moreover, I have written, enclosing copies, to all hon. Members individually.

Before I deal with the review, may I first apologise to you, Madam Speaker, and to the House for the unauthorised and improper disclosure to some newspapers last night of the White Paper's contents? I am as angry and as outraged at this leak as any hon. Member--indeed, I hope that it will be condemned by hon. Members from both sides of the House.

I have today asked the Cabinet Secretary to authorise an immediate and thorough investigation into how the leak came about. The person or persons responsible will be dealt with severely. The leak represents a serious breach of an embargo designed to ensure that the detail of this major review was given first to the House of Commons, and I very much regret the fact that the House and Ministry of Defence employees heard first from the media. I take full responsibility for that, as my office demands, which is why I apologise to you, Madam Speaker, and to my parliamentary colleagues

The British people are rightly proud of their armed forces. They want--indeed, they expect--the Government to provide strong defence for their country. The strategic defence review does just that. It is the most radical and far-reaching reshaping and modernisation of our armed forces for a generation. It is unique in three key ways. First, it has been foreign policy led, not Treasury driven; secondly, it has been unprecedentedly open and inclusive; and thirdly, it has the whole-hearted support of all the service chiefs, for whose help I express my thanks.

The review will fundamentally reshape and modernise Britain's armed forces, sorting out the weaknesses, building on our strengths and providing a structure to deal with tomorrow's threats, not yesterday's enemies. Our forces will be more mobile, better manned, better supported and equipped, and better able to act as a force for good in the world, where we can and when we choose.

The world has changed out of all recognition since the end of the cold war. NATO remains the basis for defence and security, but, while the threat of major war in Europe is now a remote prospect, new threats confront us: terrorism; the international drugs trade; the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons; information warfare; ethnic rivalries; population pressures; and the break-up of existing states.

In the cold war, we needed large forces at home and on the continent to defend against the constant threat of massive attack from the Soviet Union, but now instability is the new enemy, and the need is increasingly to help to prevent, or to shape, crises further away, if necessary by deploying military forces rapidly before they get out of hand. In other words, we must now be prepared to go to the crisis, rather than have the crisis come to us.

The review has demonstrated that our forces are not properly adapted to the new environment. In today's world, we need to get our troops to trouble spots and crisis

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areas quickly and safely, and ensure they are properly supported when they get there. The review has highlighted the serious weaknesses that we inherited, most notably in heavy transport and in our hollowed-out and demoralised defence medical services.

At the same time, increased commitments have taken their toll on morale and on recruitment and retention, and have worsened the already very serious problem of undermanning in our forces. The review proposes major new investment and enhancements to improve our troops' ability to deploy more rapidly to trouble spots around the world.

We will acquire four additional roll-on, roll-off container ships and four large C-17 aircraft or their equivalent. To support and supply our troops once they reach the trouble spots, we will enhance the Army's supporting arms, so that, for the first time, they can undertake two operations simultaneously.

Because we have a solemn duty of care to our service men and women, whom we ask to put their lives at risk, we will make new money and personnel available to revitalise the defence medical services. In total, I am proposing an increase in the size of the Regular Army of 3,300: a change which will go a long way towards restoring vital parts of our armed forces that have been hollowed out.

Another key theme of the review has been a more integrated or joint-service approach to defence, to improve the operational effectiveness of our forces. We are introducing a series of radical changes, which include bringing together all our battlefield helicopters under a single command and expanding the responsibilities of the Chief of Joint Operations; a new joint defence centre to develop doctrine and other planning on a tri-service basis; and a four-star Chief of Defence Logistics, who will properly co-ordinate and standardise our three support services for the first time. I am pleased--I know that my pleasure will be shared widely in the House--to announce that the first such Chief will be Lieutenant General Sir Sam Cowan, who is currently the Army's Quartermaster General.

I am also responding in the review to an historic proposal by the First Sea Lord and the Chief of the Air Staff, by developing what will be known as Joint Force 2000, bringing together Royal Navy and Royal Air Force Harrier jets into a single organisation, able to operate equally effectively from aircraft carriers or land bases.

The most important of the joint initiatives is the creation of a new pool of joint rapid reaction forces, which will be the spearhead of our new modernised front line and will include all our high-readiness forces. Not only will they enable us to respond quickly and effectively to crises of all kinds and to build up larger forces should that be necessary, but--unlike today--we will be able to mount more than one Bosnia-type operation at a time.

The review also introduces important new front-line capabilities. We will create a sixth deployable brigade, which will increase the Army's flexibility and help tackle overstretch. The parachute role of the current airborne brigade will also be transferred to the airmobile brigade, which will become a new powerful and highly mobile air-manoeuvre brigade or air cavalry when the Apache attack helicopter enters service.

To meet our longer-term needs, I am delighted to be able to tell the House that we plan to replace our current small carriers from around 2012 with two larger,

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more versatile, carriers--in effect floating airfields capable of carrying a more powerful force, including a future carrier-borne aircraft to replace the Harrier--the cost of which will be spread over about 20 years.

I can also tell the House that the review confirms that the acquisition of 232 Eurofighters remains central to our long-term plans, providing a step change in the RAF's combat ability. Changes in the nature and scale of operations mean that we need two fewer submarines, three fewer destroyers and frigates and 36 fewer combat aircraft. However, those changes will not lead to cuts in the overall strength of our regular forces since the manpower released by the reductions will be used to fill gaps in front-line manning, thereby easing overstretch.

For our reserves, there will also be important enhancements to the Royal Naval Reserve and the Royal Air Force Reserve. I am determined that the Territorial Army should become more relevant, usable and integrated with the rest of our forces. Those who want it to languish in an outdated cold war role do the TA no service at all. Although its numbers will be trimmed to 40,000, it will be given a real heavyweight role in our nation's defences and called up more frequently in times of crisis. For that, we intend also that it should be better trained and properly equipped.

Unlike other recent reviews, this review is designed to put people first. That is why I am today announcing a significant new training and education initiative to boost recruitment and retention. All recruits will be given the opportunity to gain the six key skills needed by all in the workplace, and all personnel will be given the chance to achieve qualifications recognised by civilian employers.

In addition, there will be a major new programme--the learning forces initiative--to expand education and training opportunities for the armed forces through the new learning credits, which may be claimed during service careers and for some time afterwards. Those proposals will boost recruitment and retention by increasing the already considerable benefits of a service career, and benefit defence by developing the skills needed for modern warfare. The economy as a whole will also benefit as better qualified personnel return to the civilian employment market after their service career.

For our service families, we are setting up a task force to address the special problems that arise from their particularly mobile life style. For Britain's ex-service men and women, we are setting up a new veterans cell to provide an access point for guidance and advice.

Of course, it is vital that our armed forces are properly resourced, but if defence is to command the support of the nation, it must also be seen as good value for money. By 2001-02, in three years' time, we will be spending £747 million more than this year. In real terms, allowing for one-off asset sales, that will be a reduction of£685 million or about 3 per cent. of the defence budget. That compares with a reduction of more than 20 per cent. in real terms in the last seven years of the previous Government. We will do that primarily through increased efficiency, smarter procurement and better utilisation of our assets. Because the review represents a three-year settlement, we will be able to bring a new stability to our defence planning.

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The Government believe that, in addition to caring for our people and defending our rights at home, we must also discharge our responsibilities in the world.

We must strengthen the effectiveness of the international community in peace support and humanitarian missions of all kinds, particularly through the United Nations. I can announce, therefore, that Britain will make a larger proportion of our front-line capabilities potentially available to the UN for peace support and humanitarian deployments, including all our rapidly deployable forces.

In a still uncertain and unstable world, we must be able to react quickly to crises as they develop, but we should aim to do more than that. We should aim to prevent conflict from arising in the first place. I intend to elevate conflict prevention--defence diplomacy, as I have called it--to be one of the eight core missions that will underpin our defence planning. That commitment will be backed up by a series of practical measures, including a new education and training initiative to help to develop and promote modern, democratically accountable forces around the world.

I turn now to the review's conclusions on our nuclear deterrent. The Government were elected on a promise that we would retain Trident. We have kept that promise, and we will continue to keep it. All of us want a safer world in which there is no place for nuclear weapons, but, while large nuclear arsenals and risks of proliferation remain, our minimum deterrent remains a necessary and continuing element of our security. We have, however, conducted a rigorous re-examination of our present deterrence requirements, and we have concluded that we can safely make further significant reductions from cold war levels. We will retain Trident as our sole nuclear system, but the single submarine on patrol at any one time will carry only 48 warheads. That compares with the previous Government's announced ceiling of96 warheads. By reducing our overall stockpile to 200 operationally available warheads, we will have cut the explosive power of the deterrent by 70 per cent. since the end of the cold war.

At the same time, we will press ahead with arms control, and will introduce much greater openness on nuclear issues, including on our stocks of fissile material.

All in all, these are sensible measures, and I am sure that they will be widely welcomed. This truly radical review builds on the strengths and successes of our armed forces. It rectifies the weaknesses that we inherited, and it modernises our forces to deal with tomorrow's threats rather than yesterday's enemies. It places the skilled, brave and versatile people on whom our defence depends firmly at the centre of planning, and it gives them a clear sense of direction into the next century. Above all, it delivers the modern forces Britain needs for the modern world. It is a good deal for defence and a good deal for the country. I commend it to the House.


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