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European Strategic Defence Initiative

12. Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): What progress he has made on the European strategic defence initiative; and if he will make a statement. [104546]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): We continue to make excellent progress on European defence.

At December's Helsinki European Council, European Union member states committed themselves to strengthening their military capabilities so that European nations will be better able to assemble, deploy rapidly and sustain effective forces for NATO or EU-led operations. EU member states also agreed to develop the military structures necessary for the EU to decide and, where NATO is not engaged, to act in response to crises. This work will be taken forward under the Portuguese presidency of the EU.

Mr. MacShane: Can the Secretary of State confirm that the European security and defence identity initiative was launched in Berlin and signed by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo), a former Conservative Secretary of State for Defence? Is not the extent to which the Conservative party has moved hard to the right demonstrated by the fact that it is opposing an important initiative, which it launched, and which strengthens European and NATO identity and defence capability?

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that his opposite number, the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), travelled to the United States last year to attack Her Majesty's Government's settled policy on the armed forces in front of Congress? Is there another example in recent history of a shadow defence spokesman going to a foreign power to attack the settled defence policy of Her Majesty's Government and armed forces?

Mr. Hoon: I confirm the factual point about the results of the Berlin summit, where all NATO states signed up to the European security and defence initiative. As for my hon. Friend's further observations, it is a matter of regret that Opposition Front-Bench Members tend to resile from decisions that they previously accepted in government. It may be an indication of their growing anti-Europeanism. Indeed, the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) has a knee-jerk response to anything that contains the word "European."

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Does not the Secretary of State's answer show the divorce between appearance and reality? The reality is that all the

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signatories, including the Government, are cutting defence expenditure, rather than increasing it to meet the grand objectives. Is not the whole scheme more about integration than any military objective?

Mr. Hoon: As I have said frequently--it is something that the hon. Gentleman needs to concentrate on--the policy is about improving European nations' ability to make an effective contribution to NATO, something to which his predecessors agreed and, indeed, signed up. Making the European contribution to NATO more effective will strengthen the ability not only of European nations but of NATO to conduct defence and security activities, of which he should be in favour.

Army Exercises

14. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): What percentage of the Army (a) is deployed on, (b) is preparing for and (c) has returned in the last month from exercises away from their home base. [104548]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): Approximately 4 per cent. of the trained Army is deployed on major exercises away from the home base, or has returned in the last month. In addition, some 30 per cent. of the trained Army is currently committed to operations. That is down from a peak of 47 per cent. at the height of the Kosovo campaign. Once the agreed force reductions in Bosnia have been implemented in full, that figure should fall to 28 per cent., which would be below that inherited from the previous Administration.

Dr. Iddon: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and congratulate him and his Department on the improved recruitment figures. However, the Secretary of State referred earlier to the continuing problem of retention. A £12 million package of allowances and bonuses was announced last year, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is important for the armed forces to develop better family friendly policies, bringing families together whenever possible and increasing leave if possible? May I also make a plea for better counselling services for members of the armed forces who have problems?

Mr. Spellar: I thank my hon. Friend for that question and for identifying the problems of those who are overstretched by operations. We recognise the pressures that it puts on the individuals involved. That is why, as he has rightly identified, we have increased bonuses and provided 28 days leave at the end of six months deployment. We also recognise the importance of contact between service men and women out in the field and their families back home. That is why we have introduced 20 minutes telephone time to home, a fourfold increase from the previous figure.

We recognise that, as my hon. Friend rightly identified, service families have additional problems. That is why, through the service families task force, we have worked with other Departments to increase access to NHS

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dentistry, to doctors lists in localities when people move and to schooling. We have representation on local school admission boards. We are also examining the use of the jobseeker's allowance. Those are all real and important developments, which are both very much welcomed in the forces and are contributing to greater harmony.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Does the Minister have any ideas to place before the House on how it might be possible to ensure that, once actions involving front-line military forces have been completed, those

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front-line forces are not retained on peacekeeping duties in which the United Kingdom's investment in their skills and training is under-utilised?

Mr. Spellar: We are very sensitive to problems of having to back-fill into various units, which is precisely why we have taken various actions both to increase recruitment and to improve retention, and to maintain the right balance. If the hon. Gentleman has a particular example in mind, I am sure that he could write to me on it. We should then be pleased to examine the matter.

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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Earlier, I raised the issue of the reduction in orthopaedic waiting lists for service men and women, which affects more than 5,000 members of our forces who are now unavailable for operational use. That is a matter of record, and I regret to say that the Minister's answer provided no satisfaction. The record is--

Madam Speaker: Order. A point of order has to be something for me. It is not to be used as a method whereby an hon. Member tries to correct the record. What is the point of order to me?

Mr. Key: The point of order, Madam Speaker, is that matter of record should be put right by the Minister for the Armed Forces.

Madam Speaker: Order. I can understand the hon. Gentleman's frustration, but it seems that he is seeking to extend the exchange that he had at Question Time. Although there are methods of doing that on the Order Paper, and on other occasions, it cannot be done in a point of order to me now.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): On a point of order--or, more candidly, on a point of grievance that is definitely for you, Madam Speaker. On Thursday, at 1.40 pm, about half a dozen hon. Members remained standing, attempting to take part in business questions. Business questions is rather a sacred part of the House's agenda, because it is the only occasion during the week when Back Benchers can raise points that are important to them. I make not the slightest complaint that I was down the queue, but it seemed rather hard to cut it short after 40 minutes when there were four hours of gas to come. The Braithwaite report was exempted business. I wondered whether you, Madam Speaker, had anything to say about protecting business questions.

Madam Speaker: I have a great deal to say about that in terms of fact. On Thursday, there was so much business--or whatever the hon. Gentleman wishes to describe it as--that the Seven o'clock rule had to be suspended, and many of us stayed here very much later.

I shall not give the hon. Gentleman the length of time that I intend to run business questions, as that is a matter of the feel of the House. However, on Thursday, for example, questions lasted for 40 minutes, which I happen to think is quite a good amount of time. At the end of that 40 minutes, 14 hon. Members were standing; I always notice how many hon. Members are standing at the end of the time.

Two hon. Members came in after the business statement had started, and one of them was the hon. Gentleman. I always note a time when hon. Members come in late. This morning, I wrote to him about the matter, as I did not wish to mention it on Thursday and embarrass him. I am sorry to have to do so now.

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