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9.23 pm

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): Following that masterly warm-up, I look forward to the full-day debate on defence policy.

Returning to defence and the armed forces, we have had a remarkable day of debate. It has been an unusually good-natured day, even though there have been some stark differences of opinion across the House. That is as it should be, and should come as no surprise.

Earlier today, I was thinking how things used to go with the former Secretary of State for Defence, Lord Robertson. I remembered that after an early debate following the general election in 1997, he sent me in a brown envelope a copy of a speech that he had made in Lagos on 16 March 1993. It was a speech to the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs entitled, "How to Survive Opposition in Democratic Politics: the Role of a Loyal Opposition". I treasure it. The speech has 12 points, but I shall not delay the House with all of them; instead, I shall refer briefly to three. Item 8 advised:

Item 9 counselled:

Item 10 stated:

I have no intention of doing that.

Today, I looked at the Ministry of Defence website to check the Department's diary. I did that for a good reason. Last Thursday, when we held the procurement debate, I checked the ministerial diary on the website. It stated: "Announcements: none; speeches: none" yet the Secretary of State announced the six ro-ro ferries and the two landing vessels. Today, the website stated: "Announcements: none; speeches: none" yet the Secretary of State made three announcements in his speech. They were about submarines and the invitation to tender for Bowman, which was issued today. I shall read my copy of Hansard carefully to make sure that I heard the third announcement correctly. The Secretary of State seemed to announce that the next strategic tankers would be built in Australia--good news for the Clyde, no doubt.

After listening to the Secretary of State's speech, in which he made several important points which we shall consider, we enjoyed the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) very much.

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The Secretary of State and others made several points which need correcting. The first point is about budgets. The Secretary of State, of whom I am fond, bangs on about £16 million-worth of defence cuts. I remind him that the Labour party will have knocked £5 billion off the defence budget by the next general election. Labour Members must stop peddling the myth that the modest reversal of their defence cuts means that there is real growth in the defence budget for the first time in 10 years. Members of the military roll around laughing when they hear that.

The Secretary of State and the Minister were members of the Labour party at the time of "Options for Change". Labour Members voted to cut the defence budget by 50 per cent. after "Options for Change". That would be ridiculous enough if it were not for the Liberal Democrat position. Despite the piety of Liberal Democrat Members and the crocodile tears that they shed for the defence budget at the time of "Options for Change", Labour and Liberal Democrat Members wanted to go further.

The Liberal Democrats devised a policy paper in which they planned to reduce the Army to 73,000 people instead of 116,000. I absolve the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) of responsibility because he was not a Member of Parliament at the time. He is a new boy, so we cannot get cross about what he said.

Under "Options for Change", the Army was reduced by approximately 44,000 to 116,000 over three years, in response to the lessening of the Soviet threat.

Mr. Keetch: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for absolving me. Will he confirm that the manifesto on which I was elected in 1997 called for the Ministry of Defence budget to remain as it was, and that the position of the Liberal Democrats in the last general election--when I was elected--was to maintain the level of spending at that time?

Mr. Key: I cannot confirm that, because I was not bored enough to read the Liberal Democrat manifesto. However, I point out that under the tenure of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo), there was an increase in defence spending. Our policy at the last election was for a period of stability in the defence budget--so it is silly and sterile to continue to discuss that matter.

When we were battling with the tremendous upheaval in the post-cold war era, Labour and Liberal Democrat Members did not fight us at every turn and say, "Don't cut here; don't follow the lead of our NATO partners." Far from it. They said, "Go further. Cut more." And it was the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill), then a Labour defence spokesman, who said at a Tribune fringe meeting sponsored by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament on 1 October 1990:

That was Labour party policy.

The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) made many telling points, as I would have expected. It is important for Members with experience of these matters to share the detail--the nitty-gritty--with the House. Of course there is a place for grand international politics and policy, but I took to heart what the hon. Gentleman said about the royal tournament, the Gurkhas, nuclear tests, unexploded ordnance and arms control, because he is an expert.

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The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) made a traditional speech based on great experience, concentrating on one or two issues. I echo what he said about the crash of the Chinook ZD 576. What he said was, of course, right. Nothing that anyone can say will convince me otherwise than that there is doubt: it is ridiculous to say that there is no possible doubt in such circumstances.

There is another consideration, however. People wonder why a journal such as Computer Weekly takes such a detailed interest--and it must also be an expensive interest--in the case. It does so because the case is a test case for computer software projects. It sets a precedent. Ruling out the possibility that software is ever to blame, and blaming pilots instead, sends all the wrong signals to software designers.

I strongly agree with the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife. This is not a vendetta, or an attempt to get at anyone in the Ministry of Defence. It seems to me that there was what might be described as a systems failure. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is an eminent lawyer, and I trust his judgment. Moreover, it is also my view that the verdict should be set aside, if that is possible. Legal distractions may have to be addressed.

The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) spoke at some length, saying that we had got it all wrong. His speech was followed by that of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery). It is a particular pleasure for me to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who has enormous experience of the whole field of defence and foreign affairs. He served with the Royal Air Force in the second world war, and subsequently took a long-term interest in relations between America and Europe and, in particular, the United Kingdom. I therefore listened with great attention to what he said about heavy lift, and about the future of the Western European Union. Moreover, in view of the devastating quotation produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), who cited what the Prime Minister said in June 1997 about the WEU, and the complete volte face that has taken place in Labour policy since then, I feel that my right hon. Friend is entirely right to demand answers from the Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) spoke with experience and eloquence--following his distinguished service in the Coldstream Guards--about his active service overseas. He mentioned political correctness, about which I shall have something to say tomorrow--for it is my treat to wind up tomorrow's debate for the Opposition as well.

It was pleasant to hear the gentle, thoughtful tones of the hon. Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins), and I have a great deal of sympathy with what he said about the process of county court evictions, which are the last resort in some technical cases. The Ministry of Defence had no intention of sending people out of married quarters on a sour note: I understand that. Perhaps we can find a better technical solution. There are ways in which these things can be managed. My local authority contains a large number of married quarters, and has a good liaison with the Ministry of Defence. I think that the situation has improved dramatically over the past 10 years.

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The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) spoke with great authority, on the basis of experience. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) spoke movingly on behalf of his constituents. I am delighted that he wrung a commitment out of the Minister: I think that it is the first time that such a commitment has been secured from the Dispatch Box under the present Government. Of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot is entirely right about the future of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency about relations with the United States not being all that they seem, especially at a working level. The guys doing the tests and trials, going over to talk to Lockheed Martin and others and working alongside American forces personnel report that things are not as they were; the trust has been damaged.

I should be grateful to the Minister if he would consider two or three policy issues; I do not expect answers now. I am a bit of an IT junkie these days. I decided that I had better find out about IT because if I did not, I would never catch up. I start my parliamentary day by checking out the websites. This morning, I looked at the Ministry of Defence website in expectation. I went to the update page, "What's new on the MOD website." The most recent entry, dated 3 March 2000, on that page says:

That is the most updated update on the MOD website.

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