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8.22 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): All hon. Members know that the House is marking time, pending the negotiation of legislation in the other place along the Corridor. However, the advantage of that is that this is the second of no fewer than three days of debates on defence issues in one week. The atmosphere for these debates is rather calmer and more relaxed than is sometimes possible, so I make no complaints about the way in which the Government's business managers have afforded hon. Members the opportunity to raise important local issues and to express our concerns--and congratulations, where they are due.

I must apologise to the Minister as, although I will be present for some of the debate tomorrow, I will not be present for the wind-up speeches in the evening. I have an engagement with the Friends of Airborne Forces in Aldershot, and I hope that he will deem that a suitable excuse for absence. I also apologise to my colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench for not being present for most of the opening speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith).

Sadly, my predecessor as Member of Parliament for Aldershot, Sir Julian Critchley, has died since we last debated defence issues in February. It is about 30 years ago this month that he made his maiden speech for the Aldershot constituency, and it concerned a defence White Paper. He was not only extremely amusing and convivial company, but he brought to the House a unique insight into defence issues. He certainly made his mark in that respect, and was a very appropriate man to represent Aldershot.

In addition, since the House last debated defence matters, the Parachute Regiment, which used to be based in Aldershot, has taken part in the operation in Sierra Leone. All hon. Members will agree that it did so with enormous distinction. I have spoken to members of the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment who were appalled by what they found in Sierra Leone. They were genuinely moved by the appalling mutilation that some young children suffered. I have no doubt that they were keen to get stuck in and deal with the perpetrators of those horrific crimes.

I understand the reservations expressed by my right hon. and hon. Friends about being sucked into an endless commitment in Sierra Leone, as appears to be happening in Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere. Such commitments will impact on the availability of our forces if any other crisis emerges, but the countervailing argument is that the action offered the opportunity to undertake some real training and to engage troops in real action in a genuine and worthwhile cause. How long they will remain in Sierra Leone is another matter, but the personnel involved felt

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that they were doing an important job, underpinned by a strong moral imperative. They were satisfied with the professionalism with which the task was executed, and I think that the House would agree with that assessment.

I had the great pleasure of attending the 1st Battalion's summer ball, which was not cancelled when the battalion left for Sierra Leone. The battalion managed to discharge the functions required of it by Ministers in time for the ball to go ahead as planned on its return. That is entirely appropriate, given the professionalism of our armed forces. The summer ball was great fun: for a moment, I thought that I had been transported to Lungi airport, as a number of signs had either been replicated or had somehow found their way to Aldershot.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton: They had been acquired.

Mr. Spellar: Liberated.

Mr. Howarth: That is quite possible.

The general picture of the armed forces has not improved since we last debated the matter. I do not want to be overly party political about that, as the previous Government made their mistakes. However, recruitment is not improving. The Army remains well below strength--more so than when we last debated these matters. The Royal Air Force is short of 100 fast-jet pilots--again, more than at the time of the previous debate. The problems of morale and overstretch are made worse by the fact that it is taking longer to extract troops from engagements overseas. I support the Government's approach to providing expeditionary forces, but the investment, equipment or troops necessary for the Government to achieve their objectives are lacking.

I hope that the House will bear with me when I refer to matters affecting my constituency of Aldershot, given that it has many military facilities. Moreover, Farnborough is the headquarters of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency.

The Minister's visit to Aldershot on 2 August was much appreciated. A meeting was held with representatives of all the political parties, and we were much reassured by the commitment that the Minister gave that Aldershot would continue to play an important part in the deployment of military garrisons around the country. Although project Connaught is under way to evaluate which facilities need improving and which can be disposed of, we were pleased that Aldershot will retain its role.

I had faxed to me today a letter from the Under-Secretary to Councillor Mike Roberts. I gave notice to the Under-Secretary that I intended to refer to the letter, in which he said:

I am keen that the wording should be unambiguous. Far from hearing that there is no intention to withdraw from Aldershot, I would like to hear that the intention is that it should remain one of the four key garrisons in the country. If the Minister of State makes it clear in his reply to the debate that that is what is intended, there will remain no doubt in Aldershot.

Mr. Spellar: I am pleased to do that now.

Mr. Howarth: I am grateful to the Minister for that prompt response, which we shall transmit immediately to Aldershot by the most sophisticated means so that my constituents can be reassured.

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A number of other decisions are being taken about Aldershot. I give one word of warning to Ministers: if too much land in the Aldershot garrison is released, there will be no slack for expansion in the event, for example, that we need to bring troops back from Germany or elsewhere. I urge the Government not to be too mesmerised by the needs of the Treasury to raise money from the sale of defence estates, in my constituency at any rate, to fund Treasury requirements. To do so would reduce the Aldershot garrison to a small size that would not provide the critical mass that we need.

My next point does not affect my constituency, but I have the express permission of one of my right hon. Friends who has a non-speaking part in this place, namely, the Opposition Chief Whip. He has the Odiham Royal Air Force base in his constituency. It is in our part of north-east Hampshire. The Minister of State kindly wrote to me about plans to move the Chinooks that are stationed at RAF Odiham to Yeovilton in 2004.

I do not want to go into great detail about the advisability or otherwise of ejecting the Fleet air arm from Yeovilton, where it has traditionally been based, or about the difficulties of placing Fleet air arm people on the same site as RAF squadrons. That issue has been well addressed by Captain Leppard from Haslemere in Surrey in a letter in The Daily Telegraph of 18 October, which I commend to Ministers. What on earth is the point of moving the Chinooks from Odiham, where they are closely associated with the Army units with which they work and where they are close to Salisbury plain, and sending them miles away to Yeovilton? In order to get to work, they will have to fly a long way to meet up with the Army units with which it is their job to train.

I saw the serious and close co-operation between the Chinooks and Army units when I went on exercise two years ago with the 10th Battalion Parachute Regiment, sadly now deceased as a TA unit. I urge Ministers to look again at the idea of redeploying the Chinooks from Odiham to Yeovilton. A cynic might suggest that land in north-east Hampshire is rich pickings for sale for house-building purposes, and that that might well appeal to the Treasury. However, there is a strong military case for retaining the Chinooks at RAF Odiham. I urge Ministers to think carefully about that. They will have to justify to us the additional cost of flying from Yeovilton to wherever they have to meet up with the Army and the interference in people's lives in areas that they overfly.

Next I should like to discuss the future of DERA--the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. We are keen in the defence business to talk in acronyms. It is known as "derer", not "dearer" because it claims that it gives good value for money. I am concerned about the way in which the proposed public-private partnership is developing. Ministers will know that I and my party have opposed the Government's plans. The headquarters of DERA and its chief executive are located in my constituency, so obviously I am keen that the organisation should flourish and I do not want to stand in the way of its flourishing.

The Government are exacerbating the problem by starving the organisation of funds from central Government, making privatisation the only option to keep the organisation viable. In the past six years, the applied and corporate research budget has fallen by 40 per cent. in real terms and it is now below £500 million, whereas it was about £1,000 million a few years ago. Those cuts

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are very serious. The amount spent on research as a percentage of the defence procurement budget has been cut from 10 per cent. to 6 per cent. in the United Kingdom, whereas both France and Germany have rising research budgets and in the United States, which has a massive overall defence budget, the research budget has been increased from 8.5 to 10 per cent.

As I said in February, I have great concerns that DERA is in limbo. Ministers have to answer some serious questions. How long will we continue with the process of trying to find a PPP solution? I have received from a constituent a letter that sets out some of the issues. It is from a Mr. Newton, who has worked at DERA for some 19 years. He is an experienced scientist and he now manages and co-ordinates advice in a project support role to one of the flagship integrated project teams at Abbey Wood for the former department of defence procurement, or the Defence Procurement Agency, as I believe it now is.

How will Ministers carve up DERA into the part that will remain in the public sector and deal with the sensitive research carried out jointly with the United States and other allies, and the part that advises Ministers and senior civil servants on procurement issues? The latter part of DERA is to be hived off and sold to the highest bidder in the private sector. As my constituent writes:

the Chief Executive of DERA--

that is the retained DERA--

the privatised DERA--

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