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9.46 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): As Ronald Reagan would have said, "There he goes again."

It is a great privilege for me to draw to a close this foreign affairs and defence debate on the first Loyal Address of the millennium. First, however, I should apologise for the absence of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who is away on an extremely important Government visit to India.

I also welcome our colleague, my hon. Friend the new Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick), whom I knew when he was a Member of the European Parliament. He was an extremely effective representative. I know that not only will he be an extremely effective Member for Preston, but, from his speech, in years to come, he will make very Effective contributions to the House's debates.

Over the course of the day, we have discussed Britain's place in the world, key to which is certainly our position in Europe. The Government are determined to be at the centre of the debate on the future of Europe, as that is the only way in which we shall be able to play a part in shaping the outcome and ensure that our national interest is fully taken into account. That is the only way in which we shall be able to ensure that others do not make the important decisions for us.

As the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, it is my responsibility--indeed, my pleasure and privilege--to oversee the work of our armed forces and the part that they play in maintaining Britain's place and reputation on the international stage. The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), like me, knows what a superb job I have in government.

I join the hon. Members for Mid-Sussex and for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) in their tributes to the work done daily, and even as we speak, around the world by our armed forces. I also pay tribute to their families, who bear much of the strain even in normal circumstances, but particularly at this time of year.

I am sure that all hon. Members will join me in paying tribute to the work that our forces do around the world. Time and again--most recently in Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Mozambique and Sierra Leone--they have shown that they can make a real and positive difference to people's lives. It is possible to make such a difference because our forces, and those who serve in them, are second to none.

The reform and modernisation programme which we are well on the way to implementing following the strategic defence review will make our forces even better placed to act. A massive programme of investment is under way to improve their ability to deploy rapidly and effectively to crises and to make a decisive difference when they arrive. In the past few months, for example, we have announced the provision of new strategic lift for our forces. We are leasing the C17 and then procuring the A400M in a £4 billion airlift package. We are also acquiring roll-on, roll-off ferries and new logistics ships--another £1.25 billion of investment in our forces.

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All of that is being funded from a defence budget which, for the first time since the mid-1980s, is enjoying a sustained real-terms increase. In the next three years, we are providing, even after inflation, £1.25 billion of new money for defence. That reinforces the Government's commitment to our forces, and it also shows that we are very serious about defence.

I am not sure what the Tory party is serious about these days, and I am no better informed following the speech made by the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude). However, as a close observer of--and active participant in--the internal battles of the Labour party in the 1980s, I recognise many of the symptoms that accompanied the Militant takeover of our party. I counsel Conservative Members to read the book on that period, because they would do well to relate it to their own experience.

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) said something that was familiar to everyone who remembers those days, when he spoke of a sell-out over everything. I remember the Militant Tendency's view that every deal that anyone ever made was a sell-out. That is the ideology--the mindset--that drives parties to destruction, along with the rejection of history. It is very difficult to raise any issue relating to the previous Government, because it appears that no Conservative Member ever had any connection with that body. They all wish to consign that Government to another period of history. The deselection of Members of Parliament has even been proposed.

I can tell Conservative Members from hard experience that all those factors make a great formula for staying in opposition. One would think that they would have read the book, skipped the gory bits, and tried to reach the conclusion. However, they seem intent on working their way through it.

Mr. Soames: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman, whose jokes are not quite up to it, could deal with a serious point. Under the new arrangements for European defence, in the event of the European Union deciding that it wished to go ahead with one of the Petersberg tasks, from whom would the rules of engagement emanate? What would be the role of the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe in such a mission?

Mr. Spellar: I shall come on to the European issue. However, I fully understand that the hon. Gentleman, as part of the reasonable tendency in the Conservative party, must grieve at the state of his party and recognise exactly how accurate my description of it was. When I have dealt with European defence, we shall see whether I have answered the hon. Gentleman's question to his satisfaction.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) talked about the work of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and I pay tribute to his chairmanship of that body.

The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) spoke of the speculation in parts of the Scottish media about the direction that the Chinook was taking. We have no evidence to support that speculation. Furthermore, irrespective of destination, nothing gainsays the need to maintain safe flying rules. The right hon. and learned Gentleman also welcomed the Bill on the

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International Criminal Court, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen). I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his offer of help to expedite that legislation, and hope that such help will come from all parts of the House, including from those on the Conservative Front Bench.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) spoke movingly about the situation in Israel. He always speaks with depth and from the heart on that issue, and I am sure that my colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will take on board his comments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) spoke on Kashmir, and is a strong advocate of that cause. Her comments will also have been widely noted.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) spoke about the regional level of government. He will remember that the Prime Minister said in Warsaw that we have to see what the people of Europe are looking for in terms of government in the EU and be prepared to respond to that. The hon. Gentleman also referred to Turkey and Sri Lanka, but his contribution was slightly marred by its lack of any condemnation of the terrorism taking place in those countries.

The issue that has dominated much of the debate, and the media, over recent weeks is our plans for improving Europe's defence capability. A good deal of what has been said has been misleading and I welcome this opportunity to set the record straight, especially in view of some of the near conspiracy theories that have come from the Opposition. That is not a new development; nor is the move to improve Europe's defence capability. It is a direct consequence of the treaty of Maastricht and of the NATO conferences at Berlin and Washington.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The hon. Gentleman has not answered the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). Will he recognise that he and his right hon. Friends did not even vote for Maastricht?

Mr. Spellar: Probably the hon. Gentleman did not either. He is once again trying to deny his party's history. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise other matters, I have to deal with them, otherwise he will say that I have not given an answer. He refers to Maastricht, which is exactly the point that I am making. His party, when in government, put Maastricht through the House. He rightly points out that we voted against it. I am not entirely sure of his logic, but he is demonstrating the continuity on this issue that exists between Governments of both parties.

We have ensured that the organisation which provides our security adapts to changing circumstances. That is not a damaging development, because a stronger Europe means a stronger NATO. A stronger Europe will be able to act as a force for good in the world.

The United Kingdom has played a leading role in this debate, ever since the Prime Minister called for fresh thinking in autumn 1998. We have shaped its course; we have ensured that it is focused on what really matters--the strength of European capability.

Mr. Howard rose--

Mr. Spellar: The headline goal agreed at Helsinki last December was the result, and the pledges made at last month's capability conference were the responses of the member states.

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A lot has been made of Secretary Cohen's comments. He says that we need to establish a co-operative, collaborative mechanism as far as the European security and defence policy and NATO are concerned. As long as there is openness, transparency and a non-competitive relationship, the United States will remain committed. We have that.

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