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2.11 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): May I begin by expressing my pleasure at the elevation of my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal) to the post of First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means? My only regret is that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will thereby lose a first-class Parliamentary Private Secretary.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State opened the debate yesterday by running through some of the main activities in which our armed forces have recently been involved. Our armed forces have proved time and again why they are the envy of the world. Before I speak about some detailed matters in that regard, I want to turn to the role of defence in the community.

The presence of the Ministry of Defence and our armed forces at the heart of the community is often felt most keenly when they are on hand to help when things go wrong. The armed forces have been much in evidence in the last few days, helping the civil authorities to deal with the consequences of floods and storms. We have provided personnel and vehicles to assist in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire, Kent and Somerset. We have also provided specialist teams to deal with chemical leaks, and helicopters to carry out reconnaissance flights. We did much the same when flooding hit Kent and Sussex last month.

The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force provide search and rescue services around our coasts 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and rescued 1,189 people last year 1999. Our bomb disposal experts received 495 call-outs last year, and the armed forces were on standby to ensure that essential services did not break down during the recent fuel crisis.

Hon. Members know from the answer that I gave in the Chamber on 30 October that the Ministry of Defence is fully engaged in the fuel task force's efforts to ensure that the effects of any future disruption to fuel supplies are minimised. As before, that includes being prepared to help distribute fuel, as directed by the civil authorities, to help keep the country going. The House has already had the opportunity to hear the statement from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

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However, we do not want people in Britain to see members of the armed forces only in emergencies. We want them to meet our service men and women, and we hope that they will therefore learn a bit about the vital work that they do all over the world. During the summer months the Royal Navy carried out the "Meet Your Navy" deployment around Britain. This was a highly successful programme of visits to ports and harbours around the country, as part of the national millennium celebrations.

In all, 26 naval units were involved, including a submarine and a royal fleet auxiliary. They were visited by 58,000 members of the public. Highlights included the first port visit by an aircraft carrier to Bristol for many years, and the deployment of a Royal Navy patrol craft to Wisbech in Cambridgeshire--the furthest inland that a commissioned vessel has been in recent times.

Before I move on to the Government's policies for people and for logistics, I want to comment on the anti- European obsession displayed by Opposition Members in yesterday's debate. The Opposition are well known for their visceral fear of all things European. Their dogma on Europe means that they reject co-operation in Europe, even when that would be in the national interest.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): Rubbish.

Mr. Spellar: The hon. Gentleman says, "Rubbish," but we know that he and the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) have relatively progressive views on Europe. That must make for very interesting meetings among the Opposition defence team.

In view of those obsessions, we should not be surprised that they also surface in defence matters. It might be possible to overlook the view of Lord Tebbit, expressed in the Mail on Sunday, that we should buy "tried and tested" United States aircraft instead of the "expensive" and "already obsolescent" Eurofighter, but that view is also the policy of Conservative Front Bench Members.

Lord Tebbit's successor in the Chingford constituency, the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), told the House last Thursday that

The hon. Gentleman also said:

That will be news to the hundreds of thousands of workers employed in our defence industry. The hon. Gentleman was not shy about telling the House which national collaborative programme was in his sights. He said:

the Secretary of State--

The hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green may not be aware that the A400M will create 3,400 long-term, skilled jobs in the UK, primarily at Filton, Broughton and Prestwick. If indirect employment is included, that figure could rise to more than 10,000 jobs. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take this opportunity to give those involved in the A400M a categorical

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assurance: would a Conservative Government match this Government's commitment to the A400M programme, yes or no?

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): The Minister is talking rubbish. I asked whether the Government would go ahead with the project regardless of its cost or of the problems associated with it. The Minister cannot get away with putting other questions in my mouth. He should answer the questions: is there a problem with the A400M project? If so, will the Government go ahead with it regardless?

Mr. Spellar: The project is moving well, and we are in very useful discussions with our partners. We very much welcome the project.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): Would not adopting a policy of "US is always best" be a stab in the back for UK manufacturers who, for example, are trying to sell Grippen aircraft in central and east Europe, against stiff US competition?

Mr. Spellar: My hon. Friend is right, and those manufacturers are facing some very rough tactics from that competition.

Why are hon. Members who represent Chingford so dismissive of our successful aircraft industry? The Eurofighter and A400M projects may not matter in Chingford, but they do elsewhere--in Bristol and Derby, in Yorkshire, in Scotland and in Wales. They matter too in the north-west of England, and especially in Preston. The attitude of Opposition Front-Bench Members will be noted very carefully by those who work in the industry.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Spellar: No. I now want to speak about what the Government have done to improve logistics support. The hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green last week acknowledged the real progress being made in that regard. That is crucial to our forces' ability to fight and win. Training and equipping our forces, and getting them to a crisis, is not enough: we need to be able to supply and sustain them, and to do so as cost-effectively as possible.

The Defence Logistics Organisation has been up and running since April 1999, when the three single service logistics organisations were successfully merged under chief of defence logistics General Sir Sam Cowan. I am grateful to the tribute that the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green paid to the chief of defence logistics last week. The DLO provides logistic support across the board--involving everything from guided missiles to ration packs--and spends nearly £5 billion a year.

Bringing together logistics functions under the DLO provides an opportunity to capitalise on economies of scale and to conduct a much wider rationalisation than could ever have been possible under three separate logistics organisations. This allows us to release more resources for investment in front-line capability.

The DLO's strategic goal is to achieve a 20 per cent. reduction in output costs by 2005. To do that, it has established an innovative business change programme.

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The key benefits of the programme include a smaller, leaner, single defence inventory shared with industry; a reduced number of direct suppliers, consistent with best commercial practice; the maximum application of e-commerce and e-business, and a focus on the reduction of through-life whole support chain costs, rather than buying equipment simply on the basis of the lowest acquisition prices.

The first priority of the DLO remains the provision of logistic support to the armed forces. That has continued uninterrupted throughout the transition to the new organisation and alongside these major business changes. The new arrangements have been tested--and found to work well--in operations in the Balkans, Sierra Leone and elsewhere.

An important element of the strategy for the DLO is a closer relationship with industry. It therefore gives me great pleasure to announce the signature of a partnering agreement between the Defence Aviation Repair Agency and Rolls-Royce plc to provide best practice integrated logistics support for military engines in service with the armed forces. Under the agreement, both partners will work together to achieve a joint optimum balance between capability and capacity. Both sides will have full visibility of all relevant data and the benefits to each partner will be linked to its respective contribution and performance. This is a ground-breaking industrial initiative which I hope can be replicated with other major equipment suppliers.

This is not the only fruit of the new unified approach to logistics. For example, we have created a defence munitions group which has brought all service munitions together into a single operation, eliminating duplication in the inventory and providing the opportunity to reduce overheads. In addition, the rationalisation of the naval bases and supply agency and the ship support agency into a single organisation, to be called the warship support agency, from April next year will deliver cost and operational benefits in the management of support to front-line ships.

We have also set up the defence catering group, which now provides a single focus for food supply. [Hon. Members: "Stew!"] This builds on the excellence that already exists in our armed forces. A joint service team of chefs has just won the European gold medal, and silver overall, in the Culinary Olympics in Germany, beating all other European comers. This is not the first time that the quality of British military cuisine has met with the approval of other nations.

There were some interesting asides from Conservative Members about stew. That is the traditional, old-fashioned view of the provision of catering in the armed forces, but it has changed dramatically. It shows how out of date Conservative Members are. Hon. Members may recall that earlier in the year, when the SFOR headquarters at Banja Luka became multinational, our NATO allies asked if we would continue to do the catering for all countries, to which we happily agreed.

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