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9.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): May I offer my own sincere but, I am sure, inadequate tribute to Michael Colvin, a man whom I held in the greatest respect? I read his last speech with great interest on my return last week from a visit abroad, where I was supporting the Defence Export Services Organisation.

We have, with a few notable exceptions--rather than have interventions, perhaps people could just assume that they are among the notable exceptions--faced the usual barrage of whingeing from the Tory Benches. I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) has left his flotation tank to join us again. He has perfected the whinge fortissimo. I have no military experience, but I felt for a moment this afternoon as if I were under fire--until I realised that, of course, the hon. Gentleman was firing blanks.

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What have we not had this afternoon? We have had no recognition, even grudging, of the many advances that we have made in less than three years. We have had no apology for the Conservatives' collective guilt for the mess that we inherited in 1997. We have had no understanding that the world has changed and that we must follow suit. We have had no constructive thinking at all. The Conservatives are bereft of imagination and ideas; they can only carp and criticise from the sidelines, with their usual distasteful combination of crocodile tears and synthetic rage.

I should like, in the short time available to me, to try to answer as many as possible of the points that have been raised in the debate. First, I wish to speak about two issues that are my direct responsibility--medical services and housing. I cannot give the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) the exact answer that he would like on medical services, but I shall be willing to provide it in as accurate a form as possible in writing, if he so wishes. However, I can assure the House that, given my background in public health, I have every intention of devoting as large a percentage of my time as possible to getting the medical services back on track. Having looked at the evidence before me, I am quite convinced that that process has already begun.

Despite serious manpower shortages, the defence medical services are meeting all their operational commitments. Some reservists are being used in operational posts on a voluntary basis. As has been recognised by many speakers, the main problem is the retention of experienced personnel. Recruitment into training is generally satisfactory, but the direct recruitment of fully trained medical officers is difficult, and few have so far been recruited. We are, however, seeking new ways of meeting the regular and reserve medical manpower requirements. We are undertaking that work in close consultation with the Department of Health and the national health service.

Enhancing the operational capability of the defence medical services was an important theme of the strategic defence review. An additional £140 million has been made available for additional personnel and equipment over the four years from 1998-99 to 2001-02, with further funding continuing in subsequent years. As I have said, recruitment problems are a cause of continuing concern, but we are tackling them energetically and innovatively. When the centre for defence medicine opens next year, I am sure that it will provide a beacon with which to attract more and high-quality candidates into the service.

On service accommodation, there are problems. I hate to carp again at the Conservatives, but those problems are largely due to them and the fire sale that they held under the auspices, I believe, of the current hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo). We have been trying to remedy that state of affairs ever since, and have conducted several reviews of the situation. We have been requested to assess the feasibility of adopting a co-ordinated approach to the improvement of single living accommodation, which is already producing benefits. We have set up steering groups and surveyed the estate. Generally speaking, we have set out a platform from which to move forward.

The latest initiatives in Government procurement must be adopted in managing the improvement of the estate. Public-private partnership and prime contracting are

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considered to be the most appropriate procurement options for consideration. We are using private finance initiative arrangements to provide new builds for housing outside the Annington Homes-owned estate. Contracts placed to date are at Lossiemouth for 279 properties, Yeovilton for 88 properties--[Interruption.] I thought that that would get some attention. I shall write to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) about his other points, because I do not have time to deal with them now. As I was saying, there are contracts for 145 properties at Cosford and Shawbury and for 164 properties in central Scotland.

Two further projects are under way. The first will provide accommodation for Bristol, Bath, Portsmouth and Shrivenham, and the second will be for Wattisham. The quality of housing provided through the PFI has so far proved to be very good.

On NATO and Europe, the United Kingdom has played a leading role in shaping a policy that will ensure that Europe pulls its weight, both in NATO and by allowing the EU to act when NATO, as a whole, is not engaged. We have ensured that the focus of the debate is on strengthening capability. Europe's armed forces need to be modernised.

On the basis of UK proposals, EU member states signed up to concrete defence performance targets at Helsinki. We secured agreement to an approach whereby a small capability to support defence decision making will be developed in the EU, while the bulk of capability for planning and conducting European-led operations will be drawn from the resources available to NATO.

The initiative will not undermine NATO, nor will it establish a competitor to NATO. Strengthening European military capability will strengthen NATO overall. The Americans support our initiative and have signed up, in NATO, to developing practical means of assistance, including the presumption that the EU would have access to NATO assets and capabilities. In Helsinki, it was explicitly stated that that does not mean a European army--we support that. Improving the quality of existing armed forces will allow us to put together the right mix for specific EU or NATO-led operations.

The hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Beard) and others mentioned the problems posed by asymmetric warfare. We have had to address that matter, which causes great concern. The pace of the advance of technology is such that potential adversaries may conclude that they can hope to achieve their goals only through unconventional methods--that is what is meant by asymmetric warfare. We are alive to those threats. Forward-looking threat assessments inform our planning processes to ensure that we are adequately prepared to deal with asymmetric threats.

We are fully committed to nuclear non-proliferation and the goal of nuclear disarmament, as set out in the strategic defence review. We are working for a constructive non-proliferation treaty review conference. Nuclear proliferation remains a concern; maintaining the NPT is obviously essential to preventing proliferation. The next step is to begin negotiations on a treaty to ban production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons.

Much hot air and some good sense has been expressed on the US national missile defence system. The Government continue to value the anti-ballistic missile treaty and want it to be preserved. Amendments to the treaty are a matter for the United States and Russia. We

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hope that the discussions that are now in progress between those countries will reach a successful conclusion. We must remember that the treaty has already been amended twice. President Clinton will not decide on deployment before next summer. His decision will be based on the US analysis of the threat, technological feasibility, cost and international security considerations.

We monitor closely both the threat and the technologies available to guard against ballistic missiles. Our work will enable us to take an informed decision on whether to acquire such capability, should it become necessary to do so in the future.

Overstretch and undermanning have been a problem, especially when we were engaged in major operations in Kosovo--that is no secret. Several measures have been taken to mitigate the impact on service personnel of the present overstretch, including improvements to the operational welfare package. For example, there is now a guaranteed period of post-operational tour leave for those returning from operations. Recent enhancements to the families concessionary travel scheme give the families of personnel deployed on operations from an overseas base a wider range of choice when planning their return to the UK. Other improvements to the operational welfare package have been covered in detail during the debate, so I shall not return to them.

The subject of reduced commitment was raised. Where we can make reductions, we do so as soon as possible. We bring people home as soon as we can. The proof of that is that, between the spring of 1999 and the spring of this year, our numbers in the Balkans will be down by 10,000. We have also seen reductions in deployments in the Gulf and the Falkland islands. The percentage of Army personnel preparing for, committed to, or in recovery from operations was, at one stage, at 47 per cent., but it is now down to 28 per cent., which is lower than the figure that we inherited.

Recruitment is now buoyant. It is at its best level for 10 years in all three services. I am confident that we are taking steps to address the admittedly serious problems of the loss of trained personnel.

On the savings and benefits of smart procurement, we are continuing on track to deliver the savings target of £2 billion of equipment costs over 10 years. I can give the House examples of specific targets that are included in that. The integrated project team--IPT--for the sensors avionics and navigation system has identified 7 per cent. savings through life as well as time and performance improvements. The Brimstone IPT's gain-sharing, on a running contract, with both sides saving from the flexible approach by the end user, has achieved a modest cost saving to date, with a potential for far more significant cost benefits through further application of the gain-share approach. The attack helicopter IPT has identified 30 per cent. savings in in-service logistics up to about £100 million a year. I could go on, but I think that I have given a flavour of the fact that smart procurement is working.

We believe that some form of private-public partnership for the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency will improve value for money while retaining

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access to world-class science and research and encouraging greater agility and innovation. We must recognise that, in the modern age as knowledge expands, it becomes impossible for any single organisation to continue to cover every aspect of technological development. Choices have to be made and it is important that we get the best value for money and the best results from the investment that we are making, and will continue to make, in military research. DERA is a key to the provision of the United Kingdom's defence capability, and it is important that we get the right solution. For these reasons, we recognise the importance of allowing sufficient time to work issues through to provide confidence in the final decision.

Many other points have been raised in the debate. The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) made a plea for compensation for Major Stankovic. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but that is not in our minds. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) praised auxiliary pilots and referred to recruitment in the auxiliary and voluntary sector. We certainly seek to improve that. I have a great deal of sympathy for what he said about the redevelopment of those squadrons.

Many other points were covered. The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) is in his place, and I must thank him for offering me the use of his fatigues. They are probably the only set in the House that would fit me. I even enjoyed some of his speech from what I can remember--that is a first.

Many comments were made about procurement. Given the delicate situation that many of our procurement projects are in, it would not be proper to comment on them other than to stress that we shall take decisions as soon as is practicable. I know that, given the effort that is going into the matter, the correct decisions will be made at the appropriate time.

During our debates today and last week, the Government have set out to the House what we are doing to modernise defence and to make sure that our world-class armed forces are able to meet the challenges that they will face in the future, so that they continue to act as a force for good around the world. Recent events in Kosovo have shown once again how accomplished our service people are in going about their difficult work firmly and fairly. We owe them a great debt.

We are at the forefront of an ambitious programme of change. We are not doing that for the sake of it, but because reform delivers results. The strategic defence review is on track. It is already more than 40 per cent. complete and it is delivering results that will allow our armed forces to meet the challenges not of the past, but of the future.

Question put, That the amendment be made:--

The House divided: Ayes 12, Noes 340.

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