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Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness): I very strongly welcome and support what my right hon. Friend has announced to the House. I congratulate him and other Ministers in the Department on making the right decisions on difficult issues.

I strongly welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement about the replacement of the aircraft carriers, which will be good news for my constituency. Will he spell out in more detail the time scale for that procurement objective? What further work will be put in place now to prepare for the replacement of the carrier programme? Will he say more about the Government's plans for our nuclear attack submarines? In particular, what decision have the Government made about ordering the additional two Astute class SSNs, which, as he will

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understand, formed part of the original decision last March under the previous Administration, who ordered three, with an option for two?

Mr. Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend very much for his understandably warm welcome for the review and its conclusions. As he is the Member for Barrow and Furness, which is the birthplace of HMS Invincible, I can understand his attachment to the concept and actuality of carriers. The time scale that I have made clear is an in-service date of 2012. That is the date which the Royal Navy believes to be sensible and achievable. Any acceleration was not viewed as practical.

On the new attack nuclear submarines, the existing plans remain as they are, and we are committed to taking delivery of the Astute class.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in allowing me sight of the White Paper some four and a half hours ago, which is about 50 per cent. longer than his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I were allowed to study the contents of the Scott report.

I share the Secretary of State's indignation at the leaking of the White Paper. Whoever was responsible for that insulted not only the House of Commons but the men and women of all three services, whose lives and jobs may well be affected by the White Paper's conclusions.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not be surprised if the response to his White Paper is relief, and not necessarily one of rapture, on the somewhat dubious ground that the reductions are not as severe as was originally feared.

I welcome the premium to be placed on flexibility, mobility and rapid deployment, the decision to restrict the number of Trident warheads, the confirmation of the commitment to Eurofighter and the emphasis on joint operations and planning. Will the Secretary of State explain why the White Paper of a Government who, rightly, want to play a leading role in Europe makes such scant reference to the opportunities for defence integration in Europe--a mere 22 lines or so on page 10? Will he tell the House what consultations took place with our European allies in the thinking that lay behind the White Paper? Will he also tell the House what account was taken of the current strategic concept review being carried out by NATO?

Finally, can the Secretary of State confirm that the expeditionary strategy that lies behind the White Paper will be pursued in the interests of the United Kingdom, and in accordance with our treaty and other obligations--as, for example, to the United Nations--but will not be based on an automatic assumption that the United Kingdom will, in all circumstances and in all parts of the world, underpin United States foreign policy?

Mr. Robertson: I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for his welcome for the key items in the review. I register his thanks for the time that was made available to him to read the report. I suffered 18 years in opposition, constantly complaining about the amount of time available to the Opposition to read documents before statements had to be made. I am very glad that, at the first major opportunity, I was able to do as I said for so many years; I believe that it makes for a better debate.

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This is a good review by any standards. The force structure was put together following the foreign policy baseline establishment, and the force structure reflects the country's foreign policy priorities, which I believe are generally agreed and appreciated. Only after that was done were the proposals presented to Government, and the resources discussed and debated.

The force structure that was recommended by Defence Ministers, with the full support of the chiefs of staff, was accepted by the Government in its entirety--that is a crucial point for people to register. I believe, and they believe, that the finances that are available for it, given the new configuration of forces and the targets for efficiency and for asset management, are demanding but achievable, and will still give us the ability to pack a punch in the world.

The hon. and learned Gentleman's criticisms were more moderate than those that we received from the Opposition Front Bench. It is strange how keen the Conservative Front-Bench defence team are to spend more public money, when the shadow Chancellor does not spare an opportunity, any day of the week, to say that the Government are slack on public expenditure. I wonder whether they would deliver in government what they are so keen to say today.

On Europe, we have been engaged in a permanent consultation with our allies about the strategic defence review. On Monday night, at Lancaster House, where I met the Defence Ministers of Germany, France, Sweden, Spain and Italy and outlined where our review had taken us, they welcomed it with considerable congratulation. I hope that when they read the review when they get it in the post tomorrow, they will find something there of interest and value. NATO colleagues have also been consulted as we have gone along, and the formulation of the strategic concept takes very much on board many of the ideas in the review.

We are not tied to any particular alliance or to any individual country, because Britain needs and demands a right to be able to act alone. However, we take our treaty commitments enormously seriously. We take our alliances seriously, and our deep and lasting continued friendship with the United States of America underpins a common view that we have about many of the problems in the world today.

Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Speaker: Order. I seek the co-operation of the House. There has been an opportunity for only three questioners in three quarters of an hour. There must now be very brief questions; I am sure that the Secretary of State will co-operate in his responses.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): I welcome the outcome of the review and welcome the reduction in operational nuclear weapons, but I note that annual savings could be doubled if Britain concentrated on non-nuclear defence. I ask my right hon. Friend a single question: from this review, will the Government be in a position to get rid of nuclear weapons in the period following the next general election?

Mr. Robertson: If there is progress in multilateral negotiations, and if there is to be a balanced reduction in

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nuclear weapons leading to their elimination, we shall play our part in that, but today I have announced reductions in our nuclear forces. We shall maintain the minimum deterrent to which we committed ourselves before the general election--a commitment on the basis of which my hon. Friend and I were elected--but we have done so in circumstances where we have made a contribution to a process which, I hope, will eventually lead to a nuclear-free world.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey): The House will have had considerable sympathy for the Secretary of State as he searched for something to say about the strategic defence review that we have not been able to read in the newspapers over the past four weeks. In terms of the leak, if the Ministry of Defence is so insecure, one wonders whether it can be entrusted with our country's security.

The right hon. Gentleman made a welcome announcement about increasing the establishment of the Army by 3,300, and he mentioned pay and conditions of service. Could he be specific about those? He will be aware that there was already a shortfall of 5,000 men in the infantry, and I cannot think of what he can announce in the SDR that will enable 8,300 more soldiers to be recruited and others to be retained.

Mr. Robertson: Let me deal with the leak. I am not prejudging the outcome of the inquiry or who leaked the document and how it was disseminated. Let us wait and see, and hope that everybody condemns it because it was wrong and whoever did it, if that person is found, will be treated appropriately. However, let us distinguish that leak, which was wrong and improper, from the widespread consultation through the year on all the issues on Britain's defence, for which I apologise not one bit.

I listened to the views of many sections of the community. The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) who is a distinguished former Secretary of State for Defence, came to me and offered his view and advice, as did Lord Younger of Leckie; Lord Carrington; Lord Healey; Sir Geoffrey Pattie; Pat Duffy; the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark); the former shadow Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young); and a host of others. We listened carefully to military and non-military views, and they were debated in the country as a whole. I am proud that although the review may not be a surprise today, it will be seen as common sense, the way forward on which we should all be able to unite because of that consultation process.

The hon. Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) mentioned the increase in Army numbers. That is welcome, and is in line with the Army's ideas. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, like his predecessor, is making valiant efforts to turn round the recruitment position that we inherited. The Army was 5,500 short, but we think that we have turned the corner and that recruitment is making up the deficiency. Through the other enhancements, and especially through the learning forces initiative, it is up to us to make sure that we get the right people of the right quality for the future.


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