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Armed Forces (Women)

3. Mrs. Eileen Gordon (Romford): How many women joined the armed forces in 1999. [104535]

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The Minister for the Armed Forces (

Mr. John Spellar): Figures for the whole of 1999 are not yet available. In the 12 months up to 1 December 1999, 3,258 women were recruited into the armed forces from civilian life. That represents 13 per cent. of the total intake.

Mrs. Gordon: I thank the Minister for that reply and congratulate the armed forces on that achievement. As in Parliament, we women play a valuable role and make a valuable contribution--and we need more of them. Has the increase been sustained across the three services? Are there posts still not open to women? If so, will he review those restrictions? I think particularly of ones that prevail at present in the Army.

Mr. Spellar: I was out on an exercise on HMS Cornwall this week, where men and women were working together as a team very effectively. [Interruption.] Contrary to the slurs cast on them by Conservative Members, they were in extremely good heart and, as one would expect, very professional. Morale was extremely good. Their picture of the armed forces is totally different from Conservative Members' politically motivated slurs.

In 1998-99, 3,431 women were recruited--the highest ever percentage. On positions in the forces, the Army is looking at the question of the front line and also the teeth arms, and is due to report in April 2001.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Does the Minister agree that women play an important role in the armed forces and that, despite what some people think, they play a valuable role too on board ship in close proximity to men? Does he believe that there is a lesson to be learned for those who took a particular view when the Secretary of State made his recent statement?

Mr. Spellar: I am pleased to reinforce what the hon. Gentleman says about the very good role played by women in the armed forces. I was also pleased by the balanced response from the services to the Secretary of State's statement, in which he announced our response to the legal judgment of the European Court of Human Rights.

Short-term Strategic Airlift Programme

4. Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): If he will make an announcement on the preferred bidder for the short-term strategic airlift programme. [104538]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): We are assessing proposals from three companies: Boeing, Air Foyle Ltd. and HeavyLift Cargo Airlines Ltd. We shall make an announcement as soon as possible.

Mr. Collins: I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, but will he guarantee that the RAF will get the aircraft that it wants, not the aircraft that Downing street, for political reasons, decides is convenient? Will he guarantee that the timing will be determined according to strategic necessity, not Treasury pressure? If he is tempted to repeat his earlier allegations about the record of the previous Government,

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he should recall that, during Labour's previous periods in office, his lot were all unilateralists who wanted to cut our defence budget in half.

Mr. Hoon: Obviously, when considering such important investments, it is necessary to look at all relevant factors, including performance, cost and industrial issues.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the matter has dragged on? He might recollect that, of the three delegations to Ministers that I have led, the first was to see Mr. Jonathan Aitken. The 4,000 airbus workers in my constituency hope that the A400M option is his Ministry's choice. If the C-17 were chosen, it would send to the British aerospace industry the wrong signal about its future. Will my right hon. Friend give the matter his careful consideration, in the knowledge that my constituents would build an extremely good wing for the A400M?

Mr. Hoon: We certainly appreciate the significance of the decision that has to be taken. We fully appreciate the importance of making progress, which is why we are urgently examining ways of enhancing aircraft capability in the short term, as well as in the long term, to which my right hon. Friend refers.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): The Secretary of State has said that the decision is an important one. The RAF is looking forward to receiving the aircraft, but will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the RAF equipment budget is overspent? If so, how is it to afford the aircraft?

Mr. Hoon: The RAF equipment budget is not overspent. In assessing carefully the way in which that budget will be allocated, the short-term and longer-term heavy lift requirement will be uppermost in the minds of Ministers.

European Defence and Security Co-operation

5. Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): If he will make a statement on Britain's contribution to European defence and security co-operation. [104539]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The United Kingdom continues to play a leading role in shaping European policy on defence and security matters. The conclusions of the Helsinki European Council in December are fully in line with our European defence initiative, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister launched just over one year ago.

Mr. Gapes: Does my right hon. Friend agree that, at a time of growing international uncertainty and worrying signs of global unilateralism in the United States, it is ever more important that European countries co-operate in the cause of effective defence? Does he share my view that although it might be difficult for some countries to increase defence spending, we clearly do not currently obtain the capabilities we should obtain in return for the

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spending we make? Is there not a strong case for better, more effective use of resources and less duplication among European allies?

Mr. Hoon: I agree with my hon. Friend. NATO Ministers have recognised the need to improve investments in key capability areas. All European nations will need to spend their defence budgets more effectively. Indeed, many are looking to emulate Britain's success and experience with the strategic defence review.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that no one is not in favour of sensible European defence co-operation, or does not agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) about not duplicating resources? However, is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the grave concern, in NATO and elsewhere, that the sort of moves recently proposed by the Prime Minister are likely to lead to some extremely difficult reactions from our NATO colleagues? Is it not far better that NATO arrangements should be left to stand as they are, under NATO command, and that alternative European defence arrangements should be drawn up that do not in any sense conflict with the NATO command structure?

Mr. Hoon: I have made it clear on several occasions on which the issues have been discussed in the House that there will not be any sort of duplication, nor any sort of conflict between proposals made within the European Union context and our obligations under NATO. For many years, NATO Ministers have endorsed that approach because they recognise that, by strengthening the European pillar of NATO, we strengthen NATO as a whole.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone): The Secretary of State will not have failed to note that Shorts SMS, which was jointly owned by Bombardier and Thomson-CSF, is now fully owned by Thomson-CSF. That should satisfy the Europhiles, who it appears would turn their backs on our United States allies. Will the Minister take note that Shorts SMS has very good relationships with American companies such as Raytheon and that there has been a free transfer of technology to Shorts SMS from some of its American allies? Will he ensure that support for Shorts and the fine work that it is doing continues, despite the persuasion of others that only European relationships are of importance?

Mr. Hoon: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity in raising what I take to be if not a specific constituency interest, a more general one on behalf of his constituents. We are greatly concerned to ensure that for British industry, whether it is subcontracting for ultimately American-owned companies or for European or British-owned companies, we take fully into account all the contributions that are made in relation to each and every project. I shall take his observations into account in relation to both the generality and any specific contract that he might have had in mind.

Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli): On the matter of European defence policy and co-operation, what role is it

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envisaged that Britain's nuclear capability will play, and what discussions have Her Majesty's Government had with the French Government in that regard?

Mr. Hoon: The co-operation that we have with our European partners will not affect in any way the use and deployment of Britain's nuclear deterrent. However, there is a long-standing process of discussion and agreement involving the two nuclear nations in Europe. France and Britain have co-operated together. If my right hon. Friend had in mind a particular article that appeared recently in The Spectator, I can assure him that the great majority of it was based on fantasy.

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