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Army Manpower

6. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): When the Army will reach its full manning strength. [156932]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): The Army remains firmly committed to achieving full manning by 2005. Although the current

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strength figures pose a very significant challenge to achieving that target, work is in hand across a wide range of initiatives.

Mr. Bercow: That was a risible response. With the Army 8,000 under strength and the extremely worrying slippage in the target date for full manning highlighted by the Select Committee on Defence, which concluded that insufficient energy and imagination were being applied to the task, why can the Minister not see that what he needs to do is tell the House whether he agrees with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in rejecting full manning? If the Minister is not big enough to stand up to the Chief Secretary, why does he not make way for my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who certainly is?

Mr. Spellar: I do not think that I should trade sizeist comments with the hon. Gentleman. Boomerangs are probably not the best choice of weapon that he could make in that respect.

The hon. Gentleman should accept that part of the reason for the gap between trained strength and liability is that we raised the level of liability: in the strategic defence review, we considered what the post-cold war requirement was, rather than stick to the previous figures. Therewas a gap of 7,736 in 1992, under the previous Administration, and when we came into power the gap was 5,597. His criticism of the Army recruitment teams is misplaced--[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) must let the Minister answer.

Mr. Spellar: It is heroic to have achieved the current recruitment numbers in the face of the lowest unemployment for 25 years and the 1 million extra jobs owed to excellent management of the economy by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That does not mean that we are complacent. As I said, there are a number of initiatives under way, many of which are bearing fruit. The hon. Member for Buckingham(Mr. Bercow) should recognise that recruiting in the face of full employment is always more difficult than in the conditions of unemployment that the Conservative Government left us.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): Does my hon. Friend agree that the range of measures introduced since 1997, including the service families taskforce and the recent announcement on service accommodation, will go a long way towards making life in the armed forces more attractive to recruits? Do they not clearly demonstrate the Government's commitment to overcoming the very difficult conditions for recruitment seen under the previous Government--

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Oh, so it is our fault is it?

Mr. Brown: There is no doubt that we have taken major strides forward while Conservatives have merely thrown bricks and barracked.

Mr. Spellar: I thank my hon. Friend for that. He is right, not so much about recruitment, although such measures have an impact in that respect, as about retention of experienced and trained members of the forces.

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The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) asks whether it was the Conservatives' fault. The answer is yes, it was, to a significant extent. The Conservatives mismanaged the adjustment at the end of the cold war and considerably overshot the number of troops they forced out of the armed forces. The best advert for the armed forces is someone who goes back home and says what a good time he is having and what a worthwhile job he is undertaking as a member of those forces. The worst possible adverts were people who had thought that they had a career in the armed forces, but were made compulsorily redundant under the previous Government. The previous Administration sent a clear message that the Army was no longer recruiting, and it has been the subject of a major and successful effort by our recruitment teams to turn around that message and make it clear that we are open for recruitment and open for business.

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton): Is the Minister aware that some infantry regiments are spending up to £40,000 of privately raised money on their recruitment? Should not that be the Government's responsibility and not theirs?

Mr. Spellar: We are spending considerable sums on recruitment. Individual regiments rightly and proudly undertake a lot of their own recruitment work, as they want to ensure that their personnel are as well recruited as possible. That is a traditional activity. We need to read across from the successes of some regiments in order to learn the lessons and to spread them to other regiments. A significant amount of work is being done to spread best practice in that regard.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): Neither the Ministernor my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham(Mr. Bercow) need be sensitive about size. I am sure that we could arrange for the signing of a compact against sizeism in the forthcoming election. The problem with his figures is that they do not add up. Nobody doubts the success and determination of the adjutant-general's department in respect of recruitment and retention; indeed, they are beyond doubt. The problem is not that the Ministry of Defence lacks commitment, but that the Treasury lacks it. We have heard that there is a shortfall of 8,000 troops, and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said that it would cost £1.3 billion pounds to fill it. At the same time, however, the defence budget continues to fall as a percentage of gross domestic product. That is the problem. Will the Minister commit himself, and say that there will be no further reductions in county regiments, old regiments afoot, the Lancers or the Royal Tank Regiment? Will there be no further cuts?

Mr. Spellar: The hon. Gentleman is weightier than his arguments. The situation is limited by the ability to recruit. We have had success in that respect, although there have been some retention difficulties. The measures that I outlined just now, and which we have announced previously, have improved matters, but circumstances are extremely difficult, as high employment--we have the lowest unemployment for 25 years--is a major challenge to recruiting. Our people are rising to that challenge, however, and all who meet the standard are being recruited into the armed forces. That is welcome and that effort is being properly funded. If he goes out into the

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streets of Salisbury to urge more youngsters to join the armed forces, as I hope that he will, they will be recruited and properly funded.

Territorial Army

8. Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): By how many the Territorial Army is under strength; and if he will make a statement. [156934]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): The latest available official figures show that the Territorial Army is under strength by 520 personnel.

Mr. Waterson: May I inform the Minister that, like many other hon. Members, I visited my excellent local TA signals unit in Eastbourne during the recent TA open day? Does he agree that the morale of the extremely committed men and women in the TA is potentially undermined by the fact that the Government have cut the TA during the current Parliament, but are requiring ever greater service from serving TA members, to a level that has never been required in the past?

Dr. Moonie: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman enjoyed visiting his local TA unit. I enjoyed a similar visit a couple of weeks ago. The current TA bears little relation to that of 10 years ago. It is a far leaner organisation and is far better fitted to the tasks that we want it to perform than it was when it had the rather inappropriate structure which we were bequeathed. I am confident that the organisation will continue to go from strength to strength, especially as we have just started a recruitment campaign to encourage people to join it.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): When I met the commanding officer of the Royal Monmouthshire Engineers last week, he did not tell me that his regiment was under strength. However, he informed me that certain members of the regiment had volunteered individually to help in dealing with the foot and mouth crisis, and that the local information centre for the crisis, which was set up by the Welsh Assembly, had been housed at the regimental headquarters in Monmouth. Will my hon. Friend join me in commending the work of the regiment in supporting our farmers at this time?

Dr. Moonie: Yes, I certainly shall. We are grateful for the role that reservists play in joining up with units for a period of service, especially with regard to the work that they are doing on foot and mouth. Currently, almost 500 volunteer and regular reservists are called out on operational duties. I can only say how much we appreciate their efforts on our behalf.

European Security and Defence Policy

9. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): What recent discussions he has had with his French and German counterparts on the proposed European rapid reaction force. [156935]

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10. Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): If he will make a statement on the European security and defence policy. [156936]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I regularly meet my French and German counterparts to discuss a range of defence matters. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary attended the European Union Defence Ministers' informal meeting in Brussels on 6 April. European security and defence policy was discussed on that occasion.

Our efforts are focused on delivering the headline goal to improve the military capabilities available to the European Union and NATO. Nations identified initial contributions to that goal last November. We are now engaged in the detailed analysis of the required improvements and the action needed to effect them.

Mr. Robathan: Did the Under-Secretary tell the Secretary of State that it was revealed at the meeting in Brussels that the German Government, who have a deficit of £1 billion in their defence budget, would be unable to fulfil their commitment to provide 18,000 troops to the European defence force? Would the Secretary of State like to comment on the remarks of the French Chief of General Staff who said that NATO and the European defence force would be entirely separate? The Secretary of State has denied that; nevertheless, it is the case. Furthermore, the American Secretary of State--

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the Secretary of State has got the drift.

Mr. Hoon: If the hon. Member for Blaby(Mr. Robathan) stands in any forthcoming elections to the Bundestag, he will be able to ask the German Defence Minister those questions. However, I have already dealt with the other matter fully. The hon. Gentleman knows that we are committed to improving European military capabilities.

Mr. Paterson: The Secretary of State says that he has dealt with the question fully. What does he say to General Gustav Hagglund, who is in charge of the rapid reaction force, and who claimed that we were considering not a subsidiary of NATO but an independent body? What about the comments at the weekend of a German defence spokesman, who said that the proposed European air transport command would "operate independently from NATO"? Can the Secretary of State spin his way out of that?

Mr. Hoon: Another Member of Parliament seems anxious to join the Bundestag. As to the highly speculative accounts in certain newspapers, which are fuelled by the shadow Secretary of State, I stress that members of the RAF will remain firmly under British control.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): On the question of deployment, does my right hon. Friend agree that any premature referendum in Montenegro could destabilise

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the whole region? If conflict spilled into Montenegro, who would be deployed as peacekeepers: NATO or the rapid reaction force?

Mr. Hoon: Montenegro's relations with the former republic of Yugoslavia are a matter for Montenegro, not the British Secretary of State for Defence. Arrangements for KFOR to be deployed in Kosovo have already been made. They will continue unless and until its presence is no longer required.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle): While I have no present plans to stand for election to the United States Congress, may I ask the Secretary of State for Defence whether he has noted that a series of influential, experienced and pro-British American statesmen have said that the European rapid reaction force poses a serious threat to the future of NATO and to the American commitment to the defence of Europe?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman would have to hold US citizenship for 20 years before he could stand for Congress. I am sure that he has time for that. If he were elected, he would find a range of opinions there, as in any democratic country. There are some who are critical of improvements in European capabilities; however, in my experience, there are more who support the efforts of European nations to be more responsible for their security and thus less dependent on the United States taxpayer.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): When listening to the Secretary of State, I am led to wonder whether he has not already sought election to the Bundestag. We never get an answer to a straight question. When the remarks of any Government are quoted, the Secretary of State simply says, "Well, that's their opinion". They are also the opinions to which he signed up.

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could comment on the proposals from the Germans and others for the joint transport command, reported in various newspapers. When questions on that point were put to the Ministry of Defence over the weekend and today, the Secretary of State's spokesman--or probably the Secretary of State himself, as he does not much like quotes being attributed to him--said that he was unaware of such proposals. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether he is unaware of such proposals or not?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman's kneejerk prejudices on European questions are well known. I have already made it clear in relation to those reports that the RAF and its equipment will remain firmly under British control. That is an answer to his question, and if it is the answer that he was seeking, perhaps he will accept it. The proposals that have been made over a long period for improving the co-ordination of European forces--not simply of air forces but of navies and of armed forces on the ground--have been well known to anyone who has followed this debate closely. I assume, given the hon. Gentleman's objections to this kind of co-operation, that

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if he had been Defence Secretary in either 1914 or 1939, he would have refused to allow British forces to co-operate alongside their then European allies.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Secretary of State is again attempting to use smooth words with nothing behind them. The reality is that he knows about this matter only too well. His spokesman told the newspapers yesterday that he was unaware of any such proposals, but the right hon. Gentleman knows very well that Rudolf Scharping has been proposing this for some time: right back into 1999, at which time the right hon. Gentleman was fully aware of it.

Will the Secretary of State tell us what is different about the situation now? He knows that these are proposals not just for co-operation but for a unified force, in exactly the same way as the Euro army proposals are. The Secretary of State should face up to what he has committed this country to, and admit now that the Government begin to deny, they deny more, then they sign the documents and pretend that they have not signed them: what a falsehood they put on us.

Mr. Hoon: I mentioned 1914 and 1939. Perhaps I should bring the hon. Gentleman more up to date. There was co-ordination and co-operation among air forces in the bombing campaign over Serbia, which was conducted effectively by a combined allied operation. That has been the history of aerial warfare throughout the past century. I am very surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not recognise that it is in the interests of all European armed forces to be able to work more effectively together, and that he does not accept that--I say this for the third time today--the RAF, its personnel and its equipment will remain under British control.

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