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Territorial Army

11. Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): What the current strength is of the Territorial Army. [127266]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): The latest available official figures give the total strength of the Territorial Army as 43,334.

Mr. Fraser: Does the Minister accept that if there is to be a recruitment campaign for the Territorial Army, he must first deal with the severe morale and retention problems that have devastated the TA because of the misjudged cuts that the Government have made?

Mr. Spellar: The hon. Gentleman will be surprised to know that I do not accept that analysis. I repeat the fact that we reoriented the focus of the Territorial Army away from the cold war features, which were primarily intended to provide reinforcement in a conflict in central Germany and to protect key installations in this country. We wanted to move to territorial, or, indeed, reserve forces. Reference is always made to the TA, but there has been an increase in Navy, Air Force and Marines reserves. We wanted to reorient the TA, in particular, as a force that is usable and used, and that is what we have been successfully undertaking.

We have visited several TA units that are working on that programme. They do not fit the picture of low morale that the hon. Gentleman describes, although I fully accept that there has been concern and dissatisfaction on the infantry side in some areas, and we are working with those units to repair that situation. The hon. Gentleman should consider the other side of the picture, in which a number of support services are getting new equipment, and morale is good.

Naval Procurement

12. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): What progress he has made in the procurement of (a) new aircraft carriers and (b) future carrier-borne aircraft. [127268]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Competitive assessment contracts to develop

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design options for the future aircraft carrier, each worth up to £30 million, were awarded in November 1999 to BAE Systems and Thomson-CSF Naval Systems. The carriers will form the principal platform for the joint Royal Navy and RAF future carrier-borne aircraft and the future organic airborne early warning system. We are assessing options for the FCBA and a decision is planned for later this year. We are in the early stages of discussions with industry on the early warning system.

Mr. Heath: Given the vital importance of the aircraft carriers to the future expeditionary policy, and given that the two procurement programmes go together, the platform must be designed for the aircraft and the aircraft must be designed for the platform. What is the time scale for the future carrier-borne aircraft? No one wants a bodged last-minute "marinisation" of an aircraft designed for land-based use.

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman is right that it is necessary to consider both the decisions together. Although two teams are considering the two issues separately, they work closely together. The three designs under consideration for the two aircraft carriers reflect the three types of aircraft that could be embarked on the carriers. As this work is complex and depends on ensuring that both decisions proceed in parallel and complement each other, the assessment phase will be complete in 2003, when bids for the demonstration and manufacture phase will be delivered. That will inform a decision by Ministers in late 2003, with contract placement for the carriers planned for 2004.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): Will full consideration be given to Eurofighter, especially a Fleet Air Arm version, which would not only provide jobs in the north-west but give a further role to a much needed aircraft?

Mr. Hoon: Certainly a version of the Eurofighter is one of the candidates.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Her Majesty's Government have already put funds into the joint strike fighter. Given the need for transatlantic defence co-operation and the huge market for the aeroplane in the United States armed forces, as well as, potentially, in our own, is it not important for the Government to take advantage of the investment that has already been made?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman is right. There are a number of other options, including two versions of the joint strike fighter. They will certainly be strong contenders.

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Point of Order

3.30 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Have you received a request from a Minister in the Foreign Office to be allowed to give the Government's response to the recent news of the conviction of 10 members of the Jewish community in Shiraz, Iran, and of their sentencing to terms of imprisonment of between five and 13 years, following a trial that was widely accepted to have violated the principles of justice--not least the principle of open justice? Such a statement would also give the Government an opportunity to say whether they share the deep concern expressed today by President Clinton.

Madam Speaker: I have received no notification that a Minister is seeking to make a statement today.

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Opposition Day

[16th Allotted Day]

Prisoners (Early Release)

Madam Speaker: I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

3.31 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): I beg to move,

For all their rhetoric, the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have not shown the toughness on crime that they promised to show. The more desperate they get, the bigger fools they make of themselves; but the electorate, at least, can no longer be fooled. The facts are that police numbers have fallen by more than 2,300 since the Government came to power, the number of constables has gone down, and crime--especially violent crime--is on the rise once more, after the substantial falls brought about during the last Parliament.

One of the Government's responses to a rising crime rate is to resort to gimmicks, such as the Prime Minister's announcement of £100 spot fines, which senior police officers are queueing up to describe in the media as ludicrous and ridiculous. This was the usual exercise of headlines and spin, reannouncements of old policy, and gimmicks designed to grab a cheap headline. I am sure that the Prime Minister hopes that the fines will not go the way of his other gimmicks, such as the child curfew orders. After 20 months, we are still waiting for one to be used.

On this occasion, the Prime Minister has made an utter fool of himself. He has solemnly proposed that a policeman should approach a drunken yob and demand a £100 fine. When said drunken yob has managed to straighten himself enough to explain that he does not have £100 on him, the policeman--according to the Prime Minister--will accompany him to a cash dispenser, where he will in his drunken state instantly recall his PIN and solemnly produce his bank card, then withdraw £100 and give it to the officer. If that is the best that the Prime Minister can manage in the face of rising crime, it is pathetic.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Will my right hon. Friend include in her criticism of the

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Prime Minister the point that that is manifestly incompatible with the European convention on human rights, which the Home Secretary recently incorporated into our law?

Miss Widdecombe: The Prime Minister, however, does not concern himself with details like that. He just wanted a quick headline. He just wanted to say something that sounded tough, regardless of whether he could implement it--never consulting the police, never asking whether the measure was practical and never testing his proposal. He just wanted a "Let's sound tough" headline, which has rebounded thoroughly and deservedly on him.

The Home Secretary will probably be relieved that we are not debating those fines today. Opposition Members would love to do so, but I am afraid that they had not been announced when we tabled the motion, so we are going to debate another of the Government's responses: letting more and more prisoners out of jail earlier and earlier.

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