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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): I am pleased to say that recruitment to the Parachute Regiment is currently buoyant. We expect it to be 45 personnel over establishment by August this year. I am sorry to say, however, that that has led to a shortage of service accommodation in Colchester. The private finance initiative project at Colchester will address that problem. In the short term, temporary accommodation will be used to alleviate the situation. We expect that to be available for use by the Parachute Regiment by mid-August.
Mr. Russell: Does the Under-Secretary accept that the previous Government's privatisation of Army married quarters at a give-away sales price, added to the MOD's lack of forward planning, means that more than200 members of the Parachute Regiment are renting more than 70 private houses in Colchester--a town that already has the worst homelessness record in the east of England? Will he give an assurance that the target date of mid-August will be advanced? The Parachute Regiment has been in Colchester for the best part of a year, so the forward planning should have been done long ago and the accommodation should be available now.
Dr. Moonie: I fully accept the catalogue of difficulties that the hon. Gentleman describes. I assure him that the temporary bed spaces, of which there will be 224 in all, will be available in August, when we need them. Regrettably, a number of personnel--primarily officers and senior non-commissioned officers--will continue to be accommodated in married quarters. Some of them may have to remain in private rented accommodation, but the new spaces will have an enormous effect on easing the problem.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I accept that the money for single soldiers' accommodation in Colchester and elsewhere is welcome, but the Under-Secretary will know that the £100 million a year extra that is being spent on accommodation exceeds the whole defence budget increase, as set out in the comprehensive spending review. It is now well known in the Ministry of Defence that the long-term costings process has been absolutely bloody and that serious consequences will be announced. When can we expect to learn the results of the long-term costings process?
Dr. Moonie: I seem to remember that the hon. Gentleman was responsible for advising the previous Government on some of the appalling policies that they introduced. I am happy to say that we have managed to secure valuable additional resources for accommodation, which should be welcomed by every hon. Member. That has not been done at the expense of any other long-term planning. We have decided that there should be a proper balance in the allocation of resources. For too long,
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The United Kingdom shares the United States concerns about the problem of missile proliferation and will continue to work with that country in tackling it.It is clearly not in Britain's interest for our closest ally to feel vulnerable to attack. We understand the role that missile defence can play as one element of a response. However, until the US makes specific proposals, it remains premature to reach judgments about the impact on UK defence policy, although, as we have made clear, we want to be helpful to our closest ally.
Mr. Atkinson: The Secretary of State said that he shared the United States assessment of threat. When the Western European Union's Technological and Aerospace Committee went to Russia last month, we found that Russia also shared that assessment. Will the right hon. Gentleman now take a robust lead in promoting discussion in NATO between the United States, Russia and our European allies on shared missile defence, which would deter any rogue state that has weapons of mass destruction from threatening to deploy them?
Mr. Hoon: We have already held several discussions in NATO about missile defence; I am sure that they will continue. We have encouraged the United States to discuss Russia's problem with Russia, which also suggested a proposal for missile defence. NATO is evaluating that. That process will continue, and it is sensible for all the countries to consider carefully the offensive and defensive systems that are designed to deal with nuclear proliferation.
Mr. Edwards: Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is deep unease about the US missile defence system? Does he also agree that it is reckless for the Conservative party to give unfettered support to the project at this stage, when discussions are continuing between the US and other NATO partners?
Mr. Hoon: I do not recognise my hon. Friend's description of the UK Government's position. We have made it clear that it is sensible for discussions to take place among allies in NATO. We have always encouraged the US to hold discussions with Russia and China. Discussions with Russia are under way. However, we have also said that we should not rush into such a project.
Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden): We all accept that it will take some time before a system is developed. However, why has the Secretary of State got such a hang-up about accepting the principle of the US programme? I understand from his comments that he has not accepted it.
Mr. Hoon: I am sorry if the right hon. Gentleman misunderstood my remarks. He mentioned a programme; although the previous US Administration made a proposal, the new US Administration have not proposed a specific programme. We have made it clear to the US that we want to be helpful when it makes a specific proposal. However, at Camp David, President Bush said:
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): The Secretary of State is engaged in the new Labour process of sending different messages to different groups in the hope that they do not speak to each other. I know that the Ministry of Defence has told him that he must make a decision. There is a threat, which is likely to grow in the next four to five years, to the UK. The question for the Government is, therefore, not whether the Americans feel threatened, but whether a threat to the United Kingdom is developing. If they agree that there is such a threat, they should say that they support ballistic missile defence in principle. They said that about the euro, why cannot they say it about the defence of the UK?
Perhaps the Government fear splits. I have a long list of Labour Members who oppose and work to destroy Trident. The list includes the hon. Members for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen) and for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), who are members of the Select Committee on Defence. The Labour party is therefore split and worried about the election.
Mr. Hoon: I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's substantive point about the threat. While we have always recognised that there is a potential threat to Britain's deployed forces and we would want to investigate and examine it to seek ways of protecting the deployed forces, we have not yet been advised that there is any threat to the United Kingdom today.
I have set out this matter in the House on a number of occasions. I am intrigued that, despite my doing so, the Opposition have decided that there is a threat. I would be interested to know the source of their intelligence on that matter, if "intelligence" is not too strong a word in this context. We continue to monitor the situation, and the Government would certainly report to the House should our perception of any such threat change. However, for the moment, as I have made clear on many occasions, there is no assessment of any threat to the United Kingdom.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): There is no standing European rapid reaction force. Efforts in the European Union are focused on improving military capabilities to meet the headline goal. Nations identified initial contributions to this goal last November. We are now engaged in detailed analysis of the improvements required, and the action needed to put those improvements into effect.
Mr. Leigh: I do not think that I have ever heard a British Prime Minister say that the Opposition have been effective in changing attitudes in the American Administration. However, that is what the Prime Minister said in his interview with The Sunday Telegraph yesterday, although he was rather rude about it. I seem to remember words such as "poison", "ears" and "dripping" being used. I wonder whether this could have influenced the United States Defence Secretary's comment that
Mr. Hoon: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has become so tired and cynical in opposition that he cannot accept words at their face value. The United States Administration have set out their position very clearly, as did the new US President at Camp David. Like their predecessors, they want European defence to develop in a way that strengthens NATO, and so do we. The Prime Minister agreed with the United States President on that at Camp David. Mr. Rumsfeld also said, in the course of the interview to which the hon. Gentleman referred, that the devil was in the detail, and he was right. We are determined to ensure that those details continue to be developed in ways that will support and strengthen the alliance. That is the position of the British Government, and will continue to be so.
Mr. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North): On the development of a European rapid reaction force, does my right hon. Friend agree that training is imperative, and that Whale island in Portsmouth in my constituency has unique facilities that ought to be used to cross-pollinate the value that we can obtain from such facilities?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his visit to my constituency, and apologise personally for the bad press, which was unfounded. I hope that that will not deter him from coming again, because the visit was appreciated by my constituents and by many of the trade unionists working in the naval base.
Mr. Hoon: I had an excellent visit to my hon. Friend's constituency, and I assure him that it was not in any way affected by the somewhat tendentious headlines that followed. I was certainly very impressed by what I saw on Whale island and I thought that it provided an excellent
As for the substantial point about European defence co-operation and European defence initiatives, any enlightened Member will welcome greater European defence co-operation as long as it is supportive of NATO, as the Secretary of State said. Do the French now see his point of view, and can he be much more specific about what might happen in Macedonia if action were required and the Americans decided to pull back? Have we yet reached a point at which the right hon. Gentleman is confident that a European presence could be effective in keeping the sides apart on the Macedonian border?
Mr. Hoon: I know that the hon. Gentleman, who was a Minister in the last Government, is an expert on bad press. I assure the House that the limited criticism that occurred in a Portsmouth paper following my visit is not something over which I am likely to lose any sleep; but should I require advice on dealing with bad publicity, I shall be grateful for the hon. Gentleman's implied offer of assistance. [Hon. Members: "What was the headline?"] It is a matter of private grief. I shall leave it to the House of Commons Library to reveal.
As for the more serious matter raised by the hon. Gentleman, I cannot tell him at this stage precisely how allies propose to deal with the continuing instability along the border of Macedonia. He will understand why it is important that consultations with allies continue--there needs to be broad agreement among them on how to tackle the problem--but we are engaging in close consultation with both NATO capitals and the Macedonian Government. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that a determined effort is under way to resolve the continuing instability.