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5.59 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): We in the Chamber are indeed an inclusive body of men and women, although a number of colleagues have said that this important debate on defence policy has been unfortunately timed. I know, for example, that the Chairman of the Defence Committee has written formally to the Leader of the House--and, I believe, to Madam Speaker--to protest about the debate being held on a day on which, for good reasons, a large number of colleagues want to be in their constituencies.

Many hon. Members who would have liked to have contributed were unable to attend, and I mention two of my colleagues--such stalwarts as my hon. Friends the Members for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). I should also like to mention the absence of another colleague, but for a different reason. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) was unfortunately struck down with a brain tumour at the weekend, but I am glad to say that he is recovering reasonably well. I feel his presence in the Chamber; sitting over my left shoulder, he would have undoubtedly made a number of contributions, both from a sedentary position and from the Floor of the Chamber. I am sure that all Members of the House wish him the best for the future.

We have nevertheless had a good debate and we have heard 11 Back-Bench speakers, a number of whom have had to leave to vote or to return to their constituencies--to stir up apathy, in the words of Viscount Whitelaw. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) spoke about Britain and her role in defence. I do not necessarily agree with some of her conclusions, but she spoke warmly. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), who has done a considerable amount of work on ballistic missile defence, raised an important point, which I and other colleagues raised in the defence equipment debate.

The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen), who is a member of the Defence Committee, talked, in his inimitable manner, of his

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reservations about nuclear weapons. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), speaking on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, talked with great feeling about the situation in Kosovo and referred to cuts in defence expenditure. I have to say to him that it would have been helpful during the debate on the strategic defence review if the Liberals had voted for our amendment pointing out the cuts in defence expenditure and in the Territorial Army instead of abstaining.

The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Healey) rightly spoke about the outstanding part played by our armed forces, not only in Kosovo, Northern Ireland and Bosnia, but in the United Kingdom, where they work so hard. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who has been tremendously consistent in his view that what we are doing in Kosovo is right, once again gave us a superb tour d'horizon on nuclear deterrence and history.

I was surprised that the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) restrained himself and talked only about the effectiveness of the air campaign. I think that he asked only eight or nine questions of the Minister; somebody behind me jokingly said that he would ask about 79, but, in his own way, he has always been very consistent. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) used his speech largely to attack a number of hon. Members, many of whom were not in the House. I might disagree with those hon. Members, as might Ministers, but they nevertheless have the right to express their views.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), who completed long service with the Royal Air Force, spoke well on behalf of those who agree with his critique, saying that the European security and defence identity is no substitute for NATO. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith)--who, dare I say it, has considerable experience in defence matters going back decades--also spoke forcefully on why our main defence effort should be within NATO.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), who was the last Back-Bench contributor, brought to the debate his own perspective, which was gained from serving in the armed forces. All Members recognise the fact that, without the men and women who make up our armed forces, this debate on our wider defence policy would be rather academic.

The debate is taking place 10 months after the strategic defence review, and 11 weeks into the bombing campaign against Serbia. As many hon. Members have pointed out, it has been influenced by unfolding events in Kosovo: the welcome news of the Serbian agreement to the military framework, given by the Secretary of State last night, and the news that he gave us this afternoon about the decision by the Secretary General of NATO that we could end the bombing campaign.

I compliment Ministers, and all the military and civil servants in the Ministry of Defence. I understand the strain that they were under, and appreciate all the work that they put in. During the Gulf war campaign, I served as a special adviser to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), and I know what the responsibility involves. I pay tribute to Ministers on their ability--on the whole--to present information to the House, and to accept with considerable good grace the comments and, at times, criticisms made not only by Opposition Members, but by some of their hon. Friends.

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The paying of that fulsome tribute, however, will not restrain me from commenting on aspects of the Government's defence policy that I believe need changing or modifying.

All hon. Members have rightly said that the British armed forces are real force multipliers. Their sheer quality, their professionalism and the fact that--dare I say--they have a demonstrable war-fighting capability enable them to deter and, when they must use that war-fighting capability, to defend our freedoms. However, they obviously need the resources that will allow them to maintain that high standard: equipment, and the support that they and their families need.

Ironically, last night's statement, like earlier statements, is being overtaken by global communications. The same happened during the Gulf war. I am struck by the frequency with which Ministers who come to the House in all honesty to present what they think is information are behind the internet or, indeed, CNN. This is an opportune moment for us to assess British defence policy against the Government's own baseline, the strategic defence review. We need to assess it in terms of foreign and security policy, then in terms of commitments and resources, and finally in terms of equipment and people.

I must tell the Minister, in a gentle manner, that--along with many other hon. Members--I am still waiting for answers to questions that we put to Ministers during the defence equipment debate on 26 April.

Mr. Spellar: They have had nothing else to do since then.

Mr. Simpson: I am aware of that, but I have telephoned twice, and have twice been given promises--not by the Minister's office, but by another office. As I say, I am making my point in the gentlest possible way, but I must say that debates such as this are rather a waste of time if hon. Members who ask questions are given no answers.

The MOD will of course want to assess the role of the armed forces in the continuing conflict, but I think that many hon. Members expect both the Government as a whole and the MOD to make their own inquiries about the origins of the conflict--about where we made the right decisions, where we made the wrong ones, and how we should correct our mistakes.

Finally, let me ask the Minister when we can expect the publication of the defence White Paper which now replaces the statement on the Defence Estimates. Can we look forward to receiving copies before the summer recess?

I want to say a little about the baseline of the strategic defence review. I remind the House that both the Select Committee on Defence and the Conservative Opposition pointed out that the real element that was missing from the report--an element that is still missing--was a foreign-policy baseline. We have not had a proper Government foreign policy debate since May 1997, and I believe that one is needed now.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) outlined Conservative Members' deep reservations about the way in which the Government have, crab like, moved away from maintaining a European defence and security policy under the umbrella of NATO towards something that many people believe will end up

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competing with NATO. As many of my hon. Friends have pointed out, that will compete with resources. Many serving officers, some of whom are directly involved in Kosovo, are also deeply sceptical about the effectiveness of a European defence organisation that is outside NATO. The one thing that the Kosovo conflict has proved is that, however creaky NATO has been, it is effectively the most significant political military organisation to which we belong.

Another equally significant development during the Kosovo crisis has been the articulation by the Government that we are moving into an era of humanitarian intervention. In a speech in Chicago in April, the Prime Minister laid down what became called the Blair doctrine, outlining a policy of humanitarian interventionism, with a number of caveats. That is an important development, but we have not discussed it yet in the House.

If the Government are determined to go ahead with a policy of humanitarian interventionism, it will have an enormous impact on our foreign policy, on our relations with NATO, on the structure of our armed forces and on resources. Will there be a debate on that at some time in the Chamber? Will there be any geographical limits to humanitarian interventionism? What co-ordination have the Government had with the United States of America and our European allies? As a number of my hon. Friends have pointed out, 80 per cent. of the air power and many of the strategic assets in the Kosovo campaign were provided by the Americans.

What are the implications of the Blair doctrine for British defence policy, particularly in terms of the budget, equipment and personnel, given the resources constraint that is built into the strategic defence review? Finally, will there be a reassessment of the SDR and will that form part of the defence White Paper?

In an ideal world, we would have established our foreign and security policy before allocating the necessary resources. When the strategic defence review was published, it was obvious to all informed sources that there was a cut in the budget--about £1 billion. Treasury calls for efficiency savings are making it even more difficult for Ministers to deliver what in management terms we have to call a military output. Even before Kosovo, my hon. Friends and I argued that a cut in defence expenditure while maintaining and, in some areas, increasing commitments, undermined the credibility of the SDR.

Events in Kosovo and the consequence of the Government's declared foreign and security policy of humanitarian interventionism totally undermine the financial basis of the strategic defence review. That is not something that merely I put forward as a Conservative spokesman. Many hon. Members find that members of the armed forces and their families recognise that fact. They are not taken in by politicians coming out merely with trite political propaganda. They are intelligent, sensible people and understand that there is that contradiction.

Will the Government now admit that their claims that the SDR would establish our defence requirements in the period to 2015 have been undermined by the cuts and seriously been questioned by international events? What representations have the Minister and his colleagues made to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister about the level of resources for the defence budget?

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Failure to address the major question of resources, which underpins the SDR, will result in a significant lack of confidence among members of the armed forces.

One of the major consequences of the Government's failure to match resources to commitments has been the serious problem of overstretch and retention, as touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby.

As of 22 April--the figures are probably higher now--89 per cent. of land command, which is the deployable Army, is either committed to, or warned for, operations. The Secretary of State himself said this afternoon that 50 per cent. of the British Army was preparing for, deployed in, or recovering from, operations.

The armed forces are there to be used and they expect that. They are not to be kept in a band box, shined up and never used. However, everyone recognises--the Government recognised it in the SDR--that there is a limit to how much longer we can continue that level of commitment without members of the armed forces voting with their feet, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby said.

I hope that the Government will deal with that problem directly--that will take some difficult decisions. I know that they are hoping that the Kosovo commitment will not continue on such a scale or for longer than six months, but, as General Sir Roger Wheeler, Chief of the General Staff, reminded us in a lecture at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies on 17 February 1997:

Long overseas deployments and back-to-back deployments mean that more trained personnel are leaving the armed forces than recruits can be brought in. I am sure that the Minister will remind us that the Government have dealt with the problem of recruitment, but for every service man who is coming in through the front door, two or three are leaving through the back door.

The latest shortfall in numbers of trained personnel is 4 per cent. for the Navy, 6 per cent. for the Army, 2.5 per cent. for the Royal Air Force and 8 per cent. for the Royal Marines. For every soldier, sailor or airman who is not there, others have to stand in and work harder.

The Government have failed, despite all their remedial efforts and hype, to resolve the relationship between commitments and resources. If anything, matters are worse than they were a year ago. How are Ministers going to resolve that?

The most glaring example of the SDR failure is the cuts in the Territorial Army and its subsequent reorganisation. Under pressure from my hon. Friends and many Labour Members, the Government were forced to make concessions in their reorganisation in the autumn. The Secretary of State acknowledged last night that 10 per cent. of our forces in Bosnia now come from the TA. Any significant war fighting in the Balkans would directly involve a large-scale call up of the TA.

The Government were wrong to cut the TA to extent that they did. Many TA soldiers are now reluctant--because of the Government's cuts and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) said last night, because of worries about the security of their employment and pensions--if they are called up for service.

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I have raised a series of issues in the debate and I have done so not merely to play some sort of intellectual ping pong. I hope that the Minister will recognise that many of those questions were put to me by serving members of the armed forces, civil servants and, not least, people in British defence industries.

I want British defence policy to be proactive. I believe, as do all my hon. Friends, that Britain has a part to play on the world stage. I fully support our membership of the United Nations and our leading role in NATO but, if we are to undertake that sort of role and if we expect our armed forces to go into harm's way almost continuously, we must either cut a commitment somewhere or put in more resources.

General James Wolfe, who died at Quebec, said that war was an "option of difficulties". Today, defence policy is an option of difficulties and I hope that the Minister will be able to offer us some thoughts for consideration.

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