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House of Commons

Monday 11 February 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Mr. Speaker: The House will have heard with deep sadness of the death on Saturday of Her Royal Highness the Princess Margaret. I have written to Her Majesty the Queen to convey the House's sense of sympathy and loss on this sad occasion. I now invite the House to rise and observe a minute's silence in memory of Her Royal Highness.

2.35 pm

Mr. Speaker: Thank you.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

EU Defence Capability

1. Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): If he will make a statement on progress towards the headline goal on European defence. [31891]

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6. Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): If he will make a statement on the outcome of the EU capability improvement conference of 19 to 20 November 2001. [31897]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): First, I should like to convey a message of sympathy from Her Majesty's armed forces to Her Majesty the Queen, the Queen Mother and other members of the royal family on the death of Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret. Her Royal Highness took a close interest in the armed forces and had links with a number of units from all three services. She launched, and continued to take a close interest in, HMS Illustrious and HMS Norfolk. She was Colonel-in-Chief of the Light Dragoons, the Royal Highland Fusiliers and Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps, and royal honorary Air Commodore of Royal Air Force Coningsby. She will be greatly missed.

EU member states have identified 144 specific targets for improving military capabilities to meet the Helsinki headline goal. At last November's capabilities improvement conference, European nations revised and improved their earlier offers of military forces. As a result, we have now met 104 of the specific capability targets. Member states also agreed to continue working to improve their military capabilities. This work is now being pursued through the European capabilities action plan, which addresses the remaining 40 capability targets that have yet to be met.

Mr. Lazarowicz: I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Does he agree that in the current international climate it is even more important to have a strong common European foreign policy, underpinned by strong common European defence structures? Does he agree, in particular, that in the light of President Bush's recent decision concerning $38 billion of additional defence expenditure, it is even more important to have effective co-operation on military spending among European countries?

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Mr. Hoon: I agree with my hon. Friend. It is important that we carry through the EU states' commitment to making capability improvements. Progress and effective co-ordination are needed to meet those commitments, not only by spending more money but by spending that money more wisely. Flexible and rapidly deployable troops are needed, whether for deployment by individual nations, by a NATO force or indeed by a European force. That is why identifying the shortfalls in Europe's military capabilities and addressing them on a collective basis mean that we will get more, collectively, for our defence spending.

Mr. Brazier: May I associate myself and my hon. Friends with the Secretary of State's condolences on the loss of Princess Margaret?

On a separate note, does the Secretary of State agree that the acid test of any European moves must be a real increase in capability rather than a growth in bureaucracy? When America has decided to give an extra $40 billion to its armed forces and security apparatus, is it not rather sad that so many of our European partners continue to cut their defence budgets, and even in this country the Secretary of State has explicitly acknowledged that the budget is simply too tight for the commitments arising?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman is right to the extent that the test of improvements must be improvements in military capability. That is why this Government have set so much store by the Helsinki headline goal process, and the test of its success will be whether it produces real improvements in military capabilities that can then be made available to NATO, to individual nations and to any collective European operation.

Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford): How do today's regiments of main battle tanks fit within the strategic concept that requires ease of transport, speed and flexibility?

Mr. Hoon: Each country, individually and as part of its contribution to international forces, requires a range of military capabilities. My hon. Friend mentions one of those capabilities. It does not necessarily fit with the sort of rapid deployment exercise that has recently been conducted, but it certainly fitted entirely with the sort of conflict in which this country, with others, engaged at the time of the Gulf war. What is important when considering our range of military capabilities is that we do not simply respond to the lessons of the last conflict; we need to recognise that there may be circumstances in which we are faced with a different sort of conflict, and that we will need appropriate military capabilities to deal with that.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): The armed forces will be grateful to the Secretary of State for conveying their sympathy on the death of Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret.

As the right hon. Gentleman calls on our EU partners to improve their defence capabilities, how is he really getting on at home? On the BBC's "On the Record" programme yesterday, he said, "We're certainly stretched" but insisted:

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Mr. Hoon: We are using available resources to their maximum capability. We are using them extremely effectively, as the armed forces' record demonstrates, and we shall continue to do so. However, I made it clear that if the United Kingdom entered into significant new commitments, that would have implications for our operations elsewhere. I have consistently set that out to the House and to the hon. Gentleman. If he believes that we are overstretched already, he must say from which of the various commitments into which the UK Government have entered we should withdraw.

Mr. Jenkin: It was this Government who, in the strategic defence review, forced through cuts to the Territorial Army, for example. Now we hear that they are to reverse those cuts. Will the Secretary of State try to deny that Labour got it wrong in the SDR?

Mr. Hoon: My recollection is that the hon. Gentleman welcomed the conclusions of the SDR and the way in which it set out Britain's military contribution to reflect our foreign policy commitments. He cannot have it both ways. He has to decide whether he believes that Britain should play its part in the world, and where, or whether we should have some curious defence and foreign policy that he has yet to articulate.

As for the TA, there will be an opportunity for the House to debate that on Thursday. I have stated clearly that the events of 11 September have created new conditions in which we have to pay much greater regard to the defence of our homeland than was the case on10 September. That goes without saying.

Mr. Jenkin: But we were already doing more than the SDR set out before 11 September. When the right hon. Gentleman took over as Defence Secretary in 1999, he said that overstretch

He continued:

I put it to the Secretary of State that he has failed in that respect. With the Army undermanned, a chronic shortage of combat pilots, an overall outflow of trained personnel, training constantly sacrificed to maintain operations, and inadequate investment in forces' accommodation, is it not now time that he persuaded either the Foreign Secretary to reduce the number of military commitments, or the Chancellor of the Exchequer to increase the amount we spend on defence? He cannot go on having it both ways.

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman repeats the point he has already made, and I again challenge him to respond as I invited him to. If he believes that Britain's armed forces are involved in too many commitments around the world, he must articulate from which commitments he would withdraw.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): With the growing capability gap between the United States of

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America and Europe, which will almost certainly worsen given last week's budget announcements, does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be a big mistake for Europe just to develop a peacekeeping capability and not be able to maintain a high-intensity warfare capability?

Mr. Hoon: I agree with my hon. Friend. The United Kingdom will be at the forefront of that ability. We will not abandon our very considerable high-intensity warfare assets, and we will continue to develop and sustain them. Equally, the size of the United States' military budget and defence spending and the range of equipment that it has available demonstrate the importance of acting collectively. It is vital that Europe contribute to international missions and that that means working together to provide some of the capabilities that the United States already has.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): The Secretary of State will of course have noticed that I am wearing the tie of the Light Dragoons. I thank him for and concur with his remarks on the Colonel-in-Chief of the Light Dragoons.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the forthcoming disappearance of the multinational division from our allied rapid reaction corps indicates a serious lack of contribution by our European allies to the future defence of Europe through NATO?

Mr. Hoon: No, it does not. That decision is based not on any lack of commitment by our European partners, but on a sensible rationalisation of the arrangements that we have available to us in that international context.

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