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Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his concern. The matter is being considered carefully by the Government, and he will know that a determined effort has been made to ensure that appropriate decisions are taken on placement of the order for ro-ro ferries. His concern would more properly be directed to the European Commission rather than the European Parliament, but a constraint under which we operate is that placement must be wholly consistent with European law.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: What implications does the right hon. Gentleman's statement have for the overstretch of our troops, and what effect will it have on troop numbers in the three armed services--not only regulars, but reservists and territorials--over the next three years?
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his genuine concern about a real issue. On overstretch, we have managed to reduce our commitments. Towards the end of last year, 47 per cent. of the Army was deployed or on exercise, which caused significant overstretch. The figure is now a more manageable 27 per cent., but I recognise that we have a continuing problem with retention, which he is right to raise. Recruitment figures in recent years have been excellent, but the retention figures are somewhat disappointing. As I said in my statement, the accommodation that we make available to members of the armed forces is a cause for concern, and appears to have implications for retention. Many of those who leave the armed forces earlier than we might like cite the poor quality of some of the accommodation, so I hope that some of the extra money that we have available as a result of the Chancellor's settlement can be used to improve some fairly poor accommodation.
Mr. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North): I add my congratulations on the issue of war widows, whose position was severely undermined by Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces and I represented thousands of people who were made redundant under the previous Government, who nigh on destroyed the basis of the Ministry of Defence. On DERA, the trade unions have lobbied many of us about consultation. If the decision is
Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): It was evident from the right hon. Gentleman's statement that he intends to remedy some of the equipment defects that have shown up in recent conflicts. However, will he go further and tell us exactly how many extra soldiers, sailors and airmen there will be? Equipment is not much use if we do not have the men to wield it. Above all, what steps will he take to ensure that the soldiers on the ground have decent rifles?
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the question of numbers. We are committed to carrying through the decisions of the strategic defence review, and this money will allow us to do that. The SDR set out a target for armed forces numbers and aimed at a particular provision for the Army. That remains our objective, but, as I said to the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), achieving it has been made more difficult by the retention problems that we have experienced. Poor accommodation is often cited as a reason for people leaving the Army earlier than we might like, so I hope that addressing that issue will have consequences for improved retention, and therefore for the size of the armed forces.
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): I judge from an earlier reply that the Secretary of State is content for existing patents to go across to the privatised DERA, but will a thoroughgoing assessment be made of each patent's value and implications for national defence? Will the privatised DERA play any role in advising the MOD on contract preparation and allocation?
Mr. Hoon: Certainly a vigorous determined assessment will be made of which intellectual property rights will go to which organisation, not least because that will have significant consequences for the valuation of the new company. We will ensure that a proper assessment is made of the value of each element of intellectual property transferred to the private sector. I made it clear in my statement that giving the Government objective impartial advice will continue to be part of retained DERA's function.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Will the Secretary of State confirm that the cash increases that he has announced do not even go as far as reversing the cuts imposed under the last comprehensive spending review two years ago? Secondly, will he confirm that the 3 per cent. efficiency savings target remains in place, which puts enormous pressure on the base level and the bottom level of staff officers who have to implement it? If the right hon. Gentleman does not understand the pain caused by that target--which was imposed under his predecessor when he was mugged by the Chancellor of the Exchequer two years ago, when the target increased from 2 per cent. to 3 per cent.--he is not doing his job properly.
Thirdly, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that it is a bit rich to try to claim that the Select Committee on Defence is in support of the transfer of DERA? When I was a member of it, it was--and according to the reports that I have read since, it still is--opposed to the proposed transfer of DERA. He talks about £250 million having to be found if the transfer does not go ahead, but the Treasury will be taking £500 million anyway from the sale of DERA, and that will not benefit the defence budget.
Is it not a sad state of affairs that the Secretary of State has to be rescued by the Chief of the Defence Staff, who had to see the Prime Minister? That is the equivalent of the Ministry of Defence's nuclear bomb. The Secretary of State is leaving the defence budget in precisely the same precarious condition. No wonder we are reading in the diary columns that he wants to go to the Department of Trade and Industry.
Mr. Hoon: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not learn more about the processes of government when he was advising a previous Conservative Government. Perhaps the nature of his advice was such as to lead that Government to continue to cut the defence budget, as they did year on year for 15 years. It is astonishing to hear the hon. Gentleman, when he is supposed to know something about this issue--[Interruption.]
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman is complaining about the fact that extra money will be spent on defence, over and above inflation. That was never achieved by Conservative Governments while he was giving them advice. I do not know how he manages to reconcile the two. Perhaps that is why he is now a Conservative Member rather than a defence adviser. Clearly, he was a disaster as a defence adviser. Unless he improves the quality of the advice that he gives the House, he will be a disaster in his current job, too.
The reality is that--irrespective of a 3 per cent. efficiency target--we are spending extra money. Whatever level of efficiency is achieved, the benefit will accrue to the defence budget. The more efficient the armed forces--each of the three services--are, the more will be available for spending. That will be a considerable advantage for defence.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Patchy though the circumstances may be, the view of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, with whom I stayed, was that their accommodation in Kosovo was excellent, and that the contractors should be congratulated on the efforts that they have made. Could something be done to relax the rules on the buying of local produce, so that fruit and other items do not have to come frozen from Britain?
On the crucial issue of retention, is not one of the problems that the families of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, and there are other examples, have been in Fallingbostel for eight long years? The retention problem would be somewhat eased if only the regiment could have a home posting. If we are to go on and on in Bosnia
Mr. Hoon: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his helpful and constructive suggestions, and especially for his observations about the temporary field accommodation in Kosovo. Notwithstanding the difficulties that we had in ensuring that it was available, that accommodation is now the envy of every other armed force in the theatre.
I shall look at the question of improving local purchasing, especially of fresh food, and shall write to him in due course about the result of my inquiries. I have considerable sympathy with his point about home posting. It is sensible to try to find more satisfactory ways of ensuring that members of the armed forces retain a base in the United Kingdom. That will have beneficial consequences for retention.