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1.55 pm

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): Kosovo has dominated defence and foreign policy issues for some three months now, almost to the exclusion of everything else. I shall use today's debate to talk about one or two other issues that may not have had the attention that they deserve during the last three months.

The Secretary of State spent a lot of time talking about Kosovo, and not much on other issues, perhaps because, as appeared, he did not have anything new or interesting to say about them. However, there have been some interesting developments, and I want to spend some time on the European security and defence identity.

Before I do so, I shall say a word about the timing of the debate. We have one debate a year on defence policy, which is important. Defence is not high on the political agenda at the moment, but it is fundamental to our security. It is the only one of three debates in which the Secretary of State has spoken, yet the Government have scheduled it on European elections day, when they must know that hardly any hon. Members will be here. I am sure that it is not the day that the Secretary of State himself would have chosen, but will he have a word with the business managers to see whether future debates can be held on a day when many more hon. Members are present? A Thursday would usually be a good choice, but not when the European elections are being held.

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I want to consider one or two issues briefly before coming to the European defence identity. Defence industries are undergoing a major restructuring. I am delighted to see the British Aerospace-Marconi merger, which I hope will successfully jump all the regulatory hurdles.

The policy pushed by the Government and initiated by other European Heads of Government to try to create a European defence and aerospace conglomerate was misconceived. If we do not maintain a transatlantic link, we shall not be anywhere. The fortress Europe against the fortress America model, which that would have created, would have led us down a blind alley. The Americans spend three times as much on defence research as Britain, France and Germany combined. If we had cut ourselves off from the United States in terms of markets and technology, we would have gone down a blind alley for which we would have paid for a long time.

The commercial realities that British Aerospace and GEC have introduced give us some hope that one of the three or four global defence companies, which I imagine will develop during the next few years, will have a significant British component and British base, both in employment and technology. I hope that those commercial considerations will continue to prevail, that transatlantic links will be developed between European and north American defence corporations and that we shall not try to corral people into United States and European manufacturing fortresses.

The Secretary of State touched on the strategic defence review, rather optimistically because Kosovo has revealed some weaknesses in that in terms of a mismatch between resources and commitment. Overstretch is getting worse. We shall want to take a detailed look at that when the war is over, as that will probably be the right time to do so. We do not know what the long-term troop commitment to Kosovo will be, or whether it will extend into other parts of the Balkans, as I suspect that it will. I suspect that we shall have a long-term commitment in Bosnia and Kosovo, and perhaps elsewhere as well. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) will deal with that in more detail when he replies.

What is happening with regard to the Bloody Sunday inquiry is appalling. I wrote to the Secretary of State about that some time ago. I know that the Ministry of Defence is trying to help those involved, but, if the inquiry has handed over the names of serving paratroop officers to lawyers for the victims, that is an extraordinarily cavalier way to deal with people's lives and safety and the security of their families. I know that the matter is back in court for judicial review of the inquiry's ruling, and I do not intend to talk about the ruling for that reason, but I urge the Secretary of State to do everything that he can to make sure that that simply does not happen. If anything happened to those families or those soldiers, it would be an inexcusable lapse of duty--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. I think the hon. Gentleman has made his point and it would be advisable if he did not pursue it any further.

Mr. Maples: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: My hon. Friend has mentioned the part that is being played by the Ministry of Defence

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in supporting the soldiers concerned in their legal costs, and that is to be welcomed warmly. Is he aware that I wrote to the Prime Minister, who has ultimate responsibility for those matters, on 11 May and 8 June, and that I have not had the courtesy of a substantive reply from him? Is that not disgraceful?

Mr. Maples: Yes, it is, but I must say that I received a reply from the Secretary of State and we have talked about this matter, which my hon. Friend has pursued assiduously; he represents Aldershot, where the Parachute Regiment is based, and I hope that he will continue to press his case. The solution to the problem is in the Government's hands and they could alter the terms of reference of the inquiry to provide anonymity.

Mr. George Robertson: There is a judicial review; the matter is in the courts today and it would be highly improper for any of us to discuss it in Parliament. However, the hon. Gentleman chose to raise the issue of the allegations that are being made about the disclosure of some of the soldiers' names. That is, first and foremost, a matter for the independent inquiry and its spokesmen have said that it is investigating the circumstances in which the documents were released and the status of those papers in terms of their earlier public availability. We are of course concerned about the safety of any individuals and we are urgently considering what needs to be done.

Mr. Maples: Some matters are absolutely for the inquiry; I completely agree and I have not touched on those.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I repeat what I said earlier: nothing more ought to be said on that particular subject and we ought to move on.

Mr. Maples: A public consultation is taking place on the Government's proposals for the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, and we will respond in some detail to that, but we are concerned about total privatisation. Certainly partial privatisation--[Interruption.] No, the reason is that some agencies of government are not performing quasi-commercial activities and the Government need them as an independent source of advice and evaluation. They need such advice on computers and telecommunications--they have an agency, which they have not privatised--and I think that they need it on defence.

If the Government were to rely on commercial organisations--which are motivated by commercial considerations and could be in partnership with a competitor to a bid that they were evaluating--it would be difficult for them to know that they were receiving independent, objective advice. Whatever the outcome and whatever the solution, we want them to make sure that they have available to them independent and objective evaluation of, and advice on, defence proposals and technologies. It is, of course, important that the manufacturers involved in Government deals also have confidence in that arrangement.

Before moving on to European defence, let me say a word about Bishopton. We have the basis of a problem in other areas because, in pursuit of reduced costs, the Government are inviting people from around the world to bid for contracts. Foreign suppliers bid on a marginal cost

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basis, but the Governments for whom they work do not usually put their own contracts out to tender. In the case of Bishopton, foreign companies were able to bid on the basis of marginal cost and their costs were financed by contracts with their own Governments, which were not put out to tender. Royal Ordnance, however, has to bid for such contracts on a full-cost basis. That may save the Government some money, but an absolutely inevitable consequence is that organisations such as Royal Ordnance will disappear and we will be reliant on foreign suppliers. We have been in trouble with that in the past.

The Secretary of State said that he was not prepared to spend £20 million--arguably, the figure is considerably less than that--but we have to be 100 per cent. certain that we are prepared to rely on foreign supplies for ammunition. It is one thing to buy aeroplanes or tanks from foreign countries--once we have them, we have them--but buying renewable supplies such as the ammunition needed to make aeroplanes or tanks of any military use at all is a different matter altogether.

I turn to the development of the European security and defence identity and its relationship with NATO. We have seen a 180 degree U-turn in Government policy. This was not Government policy during the election, and it was not Government policy during the strategic defence review, whose report made no reference to the European Union's having any role here. In fact, it said:

At the Amsterdam summit two years ago, the Prime Minister spoke of the proposals to which he signed up in Cologne last week. He said that Europe's defence should remain a matter for NATO and not the EU, which had proved itself unable to run a successful foreign policy.

    "What matters is what works; and what works for Britain and for Europe is NATO,"

he said. The Franco-German plan was

    "like an ill-judged transplant operation".

What was an ill-judged transplant operation in May 1997 has apparently become the solution to all our problems in May 1999. That is a 180-degree U-turn, of which we have had absolutely no explanation. It is no use the Secretary of State pretending that it is not a great big change. Whether it is right or wrong is a matter for debate, but to say that there has been no change is to fly in the face of the evidence.

It all changed in the run-up to the Portschacht summit in Austria at the end of last year. While the debate on the strategic defence review was proceeding in the House, the Prime Minister was briefing the political editor ofThe Times that he was prepared to drop Britain's long-standing objections to the EU's having a defence capability. That was confirmed at the Portschacht summit, when the Prime Minister spoke of developing mechanisms that were "complementary to NATO"--not part of NATO, but complementary to it.

As I have said, this represents a fundamental shift. On 19 October--on the same day, and probably at the very same hour, that the Prime Minister was briefing Phil Webster--the Secretary of State told the House:

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    European Union is . . . to apply the common foreign and security policy to events".--[Official Report, 19 October 1998; Vol. 317, c. 974.]

That reiteration of the Amsterdam position took place exactly when the Prime Minister was doing his 180-degree U-turn.

Winding up the debate on the following day, the Under-Secretary said exactly the same. He had not been brought up to speed at that point. He said:

The Prime Minister is clearly talking about the possibility of doing something outside NATO.

Others realised the significance of the Prime Minister's point. In "Bulletin Quotidien Europe" of 26 to 27 October, a couple of days later, the Prime Minister was seen as going much further than he had in his Times interview. This was considered to be the sign of a true reversal of British policy, which was traditionally hostile to the European Union's responsibility for security and defence matters. It may not have been seen as a reversal of policy by Defence Ministers, but that is how it was seen by our allies and partners in Europe.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) was so concerned about the change of attitude that he secured an Adjournment debate. [Hon. Members: "Where is he?"] I have no idea where he is, but I am sure that he will he here on Thursday to make his points in the Kosovo debate.

My hon. Friend performed a useful service to the House, because, in replying to his Adjournment debate, the Under-Secretary rather let the cat out of the bag by saying that his aim was

It had taken a couple of weeks to bring the Under-Secretary up to speed, but he was up to speed by then.

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