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House of Commons

Monday 24 January 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Bowman Tactical Communications System

1. Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden): When he expects the Bowman tactical communications system to be delivered to the armed services. [104533]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): We inherited not only a serious delay in the replacement for the Clansman radio, but an unsatisfactory mechanism for producing its replacement, the Bowman system.

We will therefore deliver Bowman incrementally, using smart procurement principles. As a result, initial deliveries of the personal role radio element of Bowman should now be possible from the end of 2001. We expect the main Bowman system to enter service in late 2003 or early 2004, subject to good performance by industry.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith: The overall delay is a further slippage on top of what has happened in the past

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and has added to a long list of slippages on such things as the beyond-visual-range anti-aircraft missile--BVRAAM--the heavy lift, and ASTOR--the airborne stand-off radar. Can the right hon. Gentleman assure the House with confidence that these slippages have nothing to do with pressure from the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

Mr. Hoon: I can, because the right hon. Gentleman has been a Member of the House for much longer than I have, and he has watched the previous Government's performance. He mentioned slippage in relation to Bowman. I remind him that, on that project, the Government inherited slippage of 75 months--more than six years. I know that the right hon. Gentleman looks at defence matters very seriously, and I am sure that, if he had looked at the matter in the round, he would have recognised that the problems of slippage in relation to that programme did not result largely from financial concerns but, in particular, from the need to ensure that British forces had the best equipment available to them, bearing in mind the significant technological changes over the period.


2. Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): What is the additional cost to the Defence budget in 1999-2000 of British military operations in Kosovo; and if HM Treasury has agreed to increase the Defence vote to cover that cost. [104534]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): As at the end of October, the Ministry of Defence had incurred net additional expenditure of £125 million on Kosovo operations during this financial year. That figure is expected to rise to just below £400 million by the end of 1999-2000. The Government have agreed that these costs will be covered by the reserve. The details are currently being discussed and will be included in the Department's spring supplementary estimates.

Mr. Howarth: Given the catalogue of cuts that have been inflicted on our armed services by the present

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Government, including the shortage of fuel for the Royal Navy, the lack of medical treatment for our service men and women, and the defective and unreliable weaponry with which our troops were sent into Kosovo, I think that the Secretary of State will agree that he owes it to the House to confirm to us today that the shortfall that has been incurred as a result of the Kosovan war will be made good by the Treasury in this financial year and to tell us that the stock of missiles and bombs that were expended during the Kosovan war will be replenished. If, however, he merely tells us that it is all the fault of the previous Conservative Government, what has he been doing about it for the past two and a half years?

Mr. Hoon: If the hon. Gentleman had listened more carefully to my answer, he would have found that I had already given the assurance that he asked for in relation to his supplementary question. It is important to remind the House, when the hon. Gentleman talks about the catalogue of cuts, that we are talking about a reduction in the defence budget of around 3 per cent. in real terms over three years. That compares unfavourably with the record of the Conservative party, which cut defence spending by a third from the 1980s onwards--cuts for which the hon. Gentleman enthusiastically voted.

Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West): May I very much welcome the assurances given by my right hon. Friend? They once again demonstrate that the present Government's and the previous Government's management of defence spending are like chalk and cheese. Will he once again agree that Conservative Members who were members of the Government who cut defence spending by nearly one third have no right to preach on defence spending? Will he further agree that this Labour Government, through their strategic defence review, demonstrated their clear commitment to equipping the armed forces to play a leading role in humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts in the years to come?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Obviously, there is almost no limit to what could be spent under a defence budget heading, and it is the responsibility of any Government--including the previous Government--to maximise our defence capability within a reasonable share of public spending as a whole. Obviously, it was the aim of the strategic defence review to achieve that. The result is a balanced, better focused defence programme, which provides the defence capabilities required to meet this country's defence and security responsibilities now and into the future.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): I hope the Secretary of State will forgive me, but there was a hint of complacency in that and his previous answer. The Army is short of tanks, the Royal Air Force is short of aircraft and the Navy is short of fuel and reliable medical services. All those shortages have a debilitating effect on morale and on capability. The root cause is inadequate resources, especially the so-called 3 per cent. annual efficiency saving that the Treasury exacted as its price for supporting the strategic defence review. In the light of those circumstances, how can we be confident that the Government will have the finance available to place the

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order for the necessary heavy-lift aircraft and the aircraft carriers that are central to the expeditionary strategy that underpins the strategic defence review?

Mr. Hoon: I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has been rather carried away by some of the more lurid headlines that he has read recently in newspapers. He generally takes a very responsible attitude towards such matters, but, sadly, some of the headlines were stimulated by the right hon. and learned Gentleman himself. None of the shortages that he claims is true. In particular, the matter that he raised over the weekend about the availability of aircraft was the result of snapshot statistics that were supplied to him together with a clear explanation that aircraft can be made ready at very short notice. Most aircraft can be made ready within hours and that is not a sign that we are short of aircraft. Indeed, the Royal Air Force carried out all of its operations over Kosovo and continues to carry out operations over Iraq without the slightest difficulty.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of reports and assessments that the police force that was envisaged for Kosovo has not been put in place. If that is so, will not many more armed forces be required for a longer period and will they not have to play a larger role? Has my right hon. Friend included that in the assessment that he has given to the House?

Mr. Hoon: Of course, that is strictly the responsibility of the United Nations and its administration in Kosovo. Certainly, the United Kingdom has made police officers available and will continue to do so subject to the international requirements.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): In the light of his earlier answer, can the Secretary of State confirm that we are severely short of Army manpower, severely short of RAF air crew at a time when the airlines are not recruiting and that we have cancelled--some of them for financial reasons--most of our major exercises this year?

On Kosovo, will the Secretary of State tell us what will happen to the £110 million that has been spent on providing winter accommodation for our armed forces? In late January, much of that accommodation is still not ready, so will that money be funded by the Treasury and what will be done about the contractors who have failed to deliver on time?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman asks a number of different questions. First, let me disagree with the use of the word "severely". At any time in any armed forces there are vacancies. Recruitment for our armed forces has been extremely successful lately, as the hon. Gentleman knows from his experience as a member of the Defence Committee. The specific problem that successive Governments have faced with the armed forces has been not recruitment, but retention. Urgent measures have been put in place to deal with that and the latest statistics suggest that things are improving, and improving quite quickly. There is no severe shortage along the lines that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

On accommodation in Kosovo, the hon. Gentleman, like me, will be disappointed that, as a result of, in particular, failures by the contractors and of some changes

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in specifications, we have not been able to provide the winter accommodation as early as was originally planned. Great efforts are being made by the contractors and they have been put under a great deal of pressure by the Ministry of Defence to move as quickly as they can. The first accommodation will be made available beforethe end of this month, but other accommodation will be delayed beyond that which was originally envisaged as part of the contract. We shall look carefully at the contract to see what kind of compensation can be secured from the contractors for their late delivery.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): What is the £400 million doing to protect the non-Albanians in Kosovo?

Mr. Hoon: A great deal of effort has been made to secure the basic objective of our forces being deployed in Kosovo, which is to protect minorities. We went in there for humanitarian reasons and were very successful in ensuring the end to the atrocities against the Albanian community. Equally, I recognise that it is incumbent on international forces to protect the Serbian minority. They are doing that each and every day, and, in particular, the British forces are doing that very successfully.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): Does the Secretary of State recall the anecdote of the American admiral, who signalled the British fleet, "How's the world's second largest navy", to which our man replied, "Fine; how's the second best?" Does he accept that if the British fleet is stuck in port due to fuel shortages, it will never have the chance to prove that it is the best in the world? It is no good him telling us, just to save his face, that there are 25 ships at sea this afternoon. Will he guarantee that the Navy will have enough fuel to meet both its training and its operational requirements and that he will never again cut the Navy's fuel budget by 30 per cent. just to reinstate it by 25 per cent., as he did this year?

Mr. Hoon: I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman's description of the Royal Navy. He suggests by implication that, somehow, significant deployments can be organised in a matter of days, but, given half a minute's thought, he must know that deployments such as those of the past week take months and, sometimes, years to organise. If he gave a little thought to his observations, he would realise that much of what he has just said is nonsense.

The Navy has not been stuck in port in the way the hon. Gentleman describes. A significant number of ships was tied up over Christmas, as happens every Christmas, reflecting the understandable concern--I hope--of those responsible for the Navy to ensure that people in the service can spend as much time as possible with their families during the holidays. That happened during this holiday period, and during every previous one. There is nothing new for him to criticise.

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