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1.25 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Today's debate on defence policy is the first of a series of one-day defence debates planned for this Session. This marks a change from our previous practice of having a two-day debate and three one-day debates. It is part of a wider effort to improve the arrangements for allowing the House to debate defence issues.

This is an agreed change, building on helpful advice from the Defence Committee with regard to concerns that two-day debates were becoming less effective. We plan, therefore, to retain the three one-day debates on procurement, personnel and defence in the world, which have worked well. The two new one-day debates on defence policy and defence in the UK will provide a better opportunity for hon. Members to raise particular concerns.

It is appropriate that this debate on defence policy should be the first under the new arrangements. Defence policy underpins all that we do, including, most obviously, the involvement of our armed forces in Afghanistan. We also had to re-examine aspects of our defence policy in the light of the appalling events of 11 September and the continuing campaign against international terrorism.

Today's debate coincides with the release of a public discussion document on a new chapter to the strategic defence review. I shall say more about that in due course, but we would like to stimulate more debate about defence policy. Rather than producing one large and rather indigestible defence White Paper every year, we have undertaken to produce annual memorandums on defence policy—shorter, crisper and, I hope, more readable documents that set out our current policies more clearly. These memorandums will be supported by a series of stand-alone policy papers on specific subjects, aimed at an informed and interested audience, and available at no charge to the media, academia and members of the public.

Three of these policy papers have already been produced—on defence diplomacy, multinational defence co-operation, and European defence. We have also published a more detailed paper entitled, "The Future Strategic Context for Defence". Our defence policy is set against this strategic context. It sets out how we propose to respond to changes in the international strategic environment, and how we hope to shape it.

The period since the fall of the Berlin wall has been one of significant change. Before the end of the cold war, it seemed unlikely that a potential adversary would risk a direct military confrontation with the United Kingdom or with NATO. Since then, we have been forced to recognise other risks and sources of instability in the world, with environmental, demographic, economic and social changes becoming ever more likely causes of conflict.

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Multinational peace support operations have become an increasingly important feature of international security. The operational demands on our forces are not diminishing. Almost a whole generation of British service men and women has become accustomed to operations in the Balkans, for example, where we have seen continuing instability right on the border of western Europe.

In this rapidly changing world, NATO remains the cornerstone of our security and defence policy, and our instrument of first choice for managing crises. It has proved its worth across the Balkans—most recently in Macedonia—and in supporting the continuing operations in Afghanistan. The Prague summit later this year will give us an opportunity to ensure that NATO is even better placed to face the challenges of the foreseeable future and to maintain its efficiency and effectiveness.

However, our common membership of NATO alongside the United States, and our experience of operating alongside US troops, have demonstrated the size of the gap between the military capability of the United States and that of Europe.

It is a gap that is growing. The United States is willing to invest substantial new sums in defence capabilities and military technology. With technology developing at an increasing rate, the capability gap with Europe could grow still wider.

That is why we have emphasised the need for European nations to work together to strengthen their military capabilities. Instead of simply pursuing narrow national agendas, we must co-operate so that, together, we can play a more effective role in the modern security environment. Only through such co-operation will we be able to make a more effective contribution to the alliance and undertake military crisis response operations where NATO as a whole chooses not to be engaged. That is why the UK has supported the EU's headline goal so strongly.

This is about ensuring that Europe makes better and more effective use of its resources. It is about co-operating to deliver increased defence capabilities. It is not about Europe competing with the United States. That is why we have been so insistent about avoiding the duplication of capabilities, through ensuring that the European Union has access to military assets—such as operational planning and command and control—that NATO can already offer.

We will also continue to work closely with the United States—our closest ally—to enhance our military capabilities. It makes perfect sense, for example, for us to invest jointly with the US in technology development and acquisition; our co-operation with the US on the joint strike fighter provides an excellent example.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Before the Secretary of State leaves the European dimension, will he tell us how persuasive he has been in getting his European counterparts to increase their defence expenditure? They have not been doing that and the United States is feeling increasingly dismissive about it.

Mr. Hoon: Of course it is important that European nations should increase their defence expenditure, but it is equally important that the product of that expenditure should be effective. European nations need to co-operate more effectively to deliver military capabilities where we lag behind the United States. The hon. Gentleman needs

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to think through the implications of that. I know that he thinks deeply and seriously about defence, but in so doing he must recognise that to contribute to the alliance, European nations need to work more co-operatively, rather than less—which I suspect is his political position.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): If, as my right hon. Friend says, the European defence project is not about competing with the United States, why should it compete with the US on costs and spending?

Mr. Hoon: There is a huge discrepancy in spending—even between the United Kingdom, which has a good record on defence spending, and the United States. The size of the current proposed increase in US defence spending is rather higher than the entire UK defence budget. The project is not about competition in that sense; we are playing in a different division. It is certainly about ensuring that we have military assets and capabilities that can be useful, especially when operating alongside those of the US.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Can my right hon. Friend explain why the cost of the Eurofighter has ballooned to more than £20 billion?

Mr. Hoon: There is a range of different explanations, but undoubtedly the main one is the need to ensure that we have a world-class aircraft that will provide combat security for the United Kingdom well into the current century.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): The Secretary of State's rather bland answer to the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) reveals nothing. Presumably, Eurofighter was a world-class aeroplane when it cost £16 billion. The figure announced this morning is £21.5 billion. The cost of Eurofighter has gone up by £5.5 billion and the aircraft has been delayed by a year. Why is that?

Mr. Hoon: As I said before, there is a range of explanations. Many of the delays occurred when the previous Government were responsible for Eurofighter—as did many of the cost increases. The hon. Gentleman would be the first to rise to his feet if, as a result of cost constraints, there were difficulties with the performance or effectiveness of Eurofighter. He cannot have it both ways: he complains either that the aircraft is not sufficiently capable for the purposes for which it was designed, or that we are not spending enough money on it. He cannot argue in both directions.

I have focused on our military capabilities, but we have also recognised that military solutions can only go so far. Many challenges to international security problems can be effectively tackled only by a long-term approach that incorporates the full range of civilian and military means at our disposal. We need to devote more attention to managing conflict—preventing it from occurring in the first place, reducing its impact, and developing strategies to remove the underlying causes of tension.

It follows that no current debate on the United Kingdom's defence policy could be complete without addressing the complex issue of international terrorism and our part in the international community's response to

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that threat. It is five months since the appalling events in New York and Washington. British forces have played an essential part in the coalition military action in and around Afghanistan. The United Kingdom has steadfastly supported the United States in the campaign against international terrorism, providing military assistance that I have described to the House on several occasions. That support continues. The Royal Air Force continues to provide reconnaissance and air-to-air refuelling support to coalition actions against remaining Taliban and al-Qaeda elements. British troops are still on the ground in Afghanistan, participating in these operations, and the Royal Navy continues to participate in interdiction operations in the Arabian sea to prevent the escape of al-Qaeda members.

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