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1.35 pm

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): I welcome hon. Members on both sides of the House who have made maiden speeches. The first whom I welcome is my hon. Friend the Member for Newark

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(Patrick Mercer), who made an excellent speech and brings great experience to the House, having been a member of the armed forces and known what it is to serve. His comments about the number of dead from the regiment to which he referred are important because it reminds us of the debt of honour and gratitude that we owe to those who have served in past wars. We seek to ensure that we do not send our young men ever again to face such circumstances. He referred to the need to improve manpower. I shall return to that matter, but that is a powerful point.

I am not sure whether the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) was a maiden speech. I apologise because I was not in the House when he made the speech. I do not know whether one can be twice a maiden, but if that is the case, I wish him well. I understand that it was an excellent and powerful speech. He referred to reform in the House of Commons, with which I agree. We may want to examine some of his proposals on the writing of legislation and on Select Committees in greater detail when the moment comes. He is welcomed back by all Conservative Members and, I would like to think, many Labour Members, who got to know of his talents during his previous time in the House.

I welcome the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes), who made his maiden speech today. I welcome him partly because his predecessor was a man whom I greatly admired; I think that the whole House did. I did not always agree with him. Hon. Members on both sides of the House probably did not, but the power of his speeches in the House was something to behold. During the Maastricht treaty debates, while sitting on the Government Benches, I heard him make a 10-minute speech. After he had finished, I thought that I might as well pack it in because there was no way in which anyone could compete with both the power of his oratory and the way in which he covered the key subjects, made us laugh and made us cry. [Interruption.] He did not make a maiden today, so the Under-Secretary of State for Defence need not worry.

I hope that that is a tradition that the hon. Member for Chesterfield will follow, although his comments about ballistic missile defence seem to put him at odds with the previous leader of his party. The hon. Gentleman says that the Liberal Democrats oppose ballistic missile defence. I gather that Lord Ashdown favours it and has made a statement.

Mr. Menzies Campbell: Without raising the issue to the disadvantage of the House, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman reads not the headline in The Guardian, but the article itself. He will find that the headline and the article are totally inconsistent with each other.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I would like to take the right hon. and learned Gentleman's comments at face value. Only a lawyer could refer to the detailed small print, but it strikes me that there is a difference. I gather that the more people listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Chesterfield, the more they began to wonder whether that seat had moved from the Labour party to the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps it is a Labour seat, as his comments and perceptions suggest.

I also welcome the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight). I understand that he made a good speech and has set the tone for the way in which he will proceed

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in this Parliament. However, like him, I should like to pay tribute to his predecessor, who was a good friend of Conservative Members. I shall certainly miss Ian Bruce's ability to stand up and ask a question that no one expected, and to receive an answer that he perhaps did not want. It was a talent that he alone possessed and an effect that no one but he was able to produce. I shall miss him greatly. He was a great friend. Nevertheless, I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the House.

The right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor) seemed to make almost a maiden speech. We have not heard from her for so long that we had started wondering whether she had given up the power of speech. As she knows, she and I have served together in Committee. Although I do not agree with everything that she says, I welcome her back to a speaking role.

I shall return later in my speech to some of the comments of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell). However, he seemed to establish a set of conditions for how the rapid reaction force should proceed in its relations with NATO.

Mr. Campbell: I have said it before.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I know that, and in many senses I rather agreed with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. However, I think that we have to agree that none of the conditions has been met, and that the Government seem incapable of persuading their friends and allies to agree with them--if the Government themselves agree. We are therefore in serious danger of encountering some major problems in establishing the force. I shall return to the issue.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) made, as ever, an excellent speech. I make it a point to try to attend whenever he speaks in the Chamber. He made an important point about the importance of the transatlantic alliance. I believe that the Government underestimate the way in which that the Euro army--rapid reaction force or whatever one chooses to call it--has set in train a process that may well challenge possibly the most important alliance in the world. As he said, when the United Kingdom and the United States are united, the world is more likely to have peaceful outcomes than it is when we are divided. He made a very powerful point and I very much took it on board.

If I have missed out any speeches, I hope that hon. Members will forgive me. I should like to deal with other aspects of the Gracious Speech.

Although he is not in the Chamber, I should like first to welcome the Minister of State for Defence to his new position. He may like to note that two of his three immediate predecessors in that office headed off in the same direction to become Transport Ministers. It seems to be an almost established practice that Ministers for the Armed Forces who enjoy their job and have fun for a few years subsequently must serve the dog watch, trying to pull together the various possibilities in transport.

I wish the Minister's predecessor, now the Minister for Transport, well in his new brief. We had lots of fun with him in the House. I also hope that the Minister of State for Defence does not eventually find himself at the

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Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions. However, I am sure that the Secretary of State for Defence will do something to reward rather than punish him.

I also pay tribute to members of the armed forces. Far too often, as was seen in the general election, they are almost forgotten, and few people seem to care about discussing their problems. The media are not all that interested in the subject. In the general election campaign, many members of the armed forces felt isolated and ignored. There was no serious opportunity in that campaign to debate the extremely important issue of defence. When I asked some members of the media why they seemed uninterested in anything that was being said about defence, they said that it was not really an issue. I like to think that the Secretary of State was pushing for a debate on the issue, but perhaps I am wrong; I do not know.

Nevertheless, we must certainly pay tribute to members of the armed forces for all that they do, and for the way in which they protect our peace and enable us to go about our daily lives without fear of tyranny or threat from anyone. They pursue British policy abroad without any concern for their own safety. Without them we would be a lot worse off.

The Gracious Speech gives us an opportunity to re-examine the Government's performance in defence and to reassess, now that the Government have been re-elected and Conservative Members are still in opposition, how we shall hold the Government to account. Whatever the outcomes of my party's internal discussions, our prime concern here is to hold the Government to account over the next four years and to tell them if they have failed to meet their commitments. I shall certainly do that and I am sure that my colleagues will, too.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Newark said, there are serious concerns about manpower and how the services have suffered. The strategic defence review, early in the previous Parliament, was meant to be foreign policy driven and to be about reshaping our defence priorities in response to the picture unfolding abroad, but it turned out to be mostly Treasury driven. The budget was cut by about £5 billion over four years, and the attempt to reshape our forces to an expeditionary capability was undermined by that heavy cut.

Our armed forces are still being asked to do more with what appears to be less. Retention has suffered badly, and although recruitment has stabilised to some extent, the fact remains that the Army, in particular, is undermanned, at about 8,000 men short of the SDR target. There appears to be little hope that the target will be met by 2005. Even the Defence Committee, which is of course Labour dominated, said that it would be realised at best by 2008. That is 10 years after the strategic defence review, and even that may turn out to be an optimistic assessment. That puts huge pressure on those who remain in the forces.

Just before the general election, we learned that all five of our major warships were out of action. As usual, the Ministry of Defence updated its definition of the word "operational", and said that aircraft carriers in port were not out of operation even though their flight decks were covered with tenting and they had scaffolding all over the place. Apparently, they were none the less operational.

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A document, the fleet risk register, written by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Nigel Essenhigh, highlighting the crisis in the Navy, was leaked to The Daily Telegraph. It said that the Navy could not play its role in NATO's joint rapid reaction force

It also said that "significant armoury shortfalls" have meant that ships are going to sea without enough ammunition to defend themselves and that they are at greater risk of being hit by air-to-sea missiles than at any other time.

When questioned about that on Radio 4, the Defence Secretary showed complacency of a high order even for a man who has a pretty high reputation for complacency in any case. He said that the document gave "an inaccurate picture" of the current state of the Royal Navy and that it was "out of date". I agree that it gave an inaccurate picture: the real state of affairs is even worse, because of the extra ships tied up in port and the failure to order the ships that are needed.

The Royal Air Force, too, has its share of problems--in particular, with the shortfall of fast jet pilots, there are likely to be difficulties in manning the new Typhoons that are due to come into service.

The Army is perhaps the worst hit of all. Just before the general election was called, we learned that internal papers were circulating in the MOD, saying that up to 10 regiments may have to be cut because of the shortfall of about 8,000 men. The Secretary of State quickly denied that, but a curious thing happened during the campaign: the Chief Secretary to the Treasury attacked the Conservative party and our pledge to make it a priority to restore the Army to its full manning strength. We were told by the Labour party that that commitment would cost £1.3 billion more than the current budgetary provision. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether the Labour party, aided by the Treasury, is right to say that meeting that commitment, which is a strategic defence review requirement, will cost £1.3 billion more than is budgeted? Will it cost that much to get 8,000 men back into the Army, or is it that, as ever, the Treasury might have got its figures wrong? Will he tell us one way or the other? I shall even give way to him, if he would like to answer. He does not want to do so.

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