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5.51 pm

David Wright (Telford): It is a privilege to be able to contribute to the debate. In particular, I want to refer to the speech made by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), which I thoroughly enjoyed. He has a knowledgeable perspective on such issues; his remarks were often humorous; and he made an important contribution. I concur with what he said about the way that the House was moved by the statement that the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) made in his opening remarks. I may not agree with every part of his speech, but it takes courage to make such a statement in the Chamber, and I pay tribute to him.

This important debate has been wide ranging—from the Chinook crash to the deployment of front-line troops. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) has raised the issue of MOD fire services and I should like to broaden the debate even further to defence logistics. Often, defence debates focus on regiments such as the Parachute Regiment or the Royal Marines, and the superb job that they do. I should like to associate myself with the comments that other hon. Members have made about those forces. They do a fantastic job for our country, but we have to remember that their effectiveness in the field is very much dependent on defence logistics.

My constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) have long-standing traditions of defence logistics work. My constituency is well known in military circles as an effective location for the distribution of defence hardware, and the Equipment Support, Provision and Procurement Authority—otherwise known as ESPPA—is located there. My hon. Friend's constituency, which adjoins mine, contains the defence storage and distribution depot and ABRO, which was formerly called the Army base repair organisation, both of which are located at Donnington.

The significance of defence logistics to our national economy must not be forgotten. Some 31,800 people are employed in the United Kingdom on defence logistics work, 2,500 of them in Telford. It is a major employment

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asset for the west midlands economy. At times of conflict, those involved have responded superbly in the service of our country, from the Falklands war in the early 1980s to the current situation in which we find ourselves in Afghanistan. They do a tremendous job in ensuring that our armed forces are supported effectively in the field. I pay tribute to all the members of staff who work in those organisations.

The strategic defence review's effect on defence logistics will have a significant impact on my constituency. The principles of the strategic defence review and defence logistics policy are outlined in the MOD publication "Defence Policy 2001", from which I shall quote briefly. It states:

We can all sign up to that broad policy objective. Certainly, the people who work in defence logistics in Telford and The Wrekin have responded effectively to that agenda. ESPPA has introduced quality systems founded on ISO 9002. It is an exemplary organisation in terms of information technology provision. It has Investors in People status and it adds significant value to the work of the MOD. Donnington defence storage and distribution has merged with facilities at Stafford. Our armed forces are supported by some of the most technologically advanced warehousing in the western world.

ABRO at Donnington is moving towards a trading fund situation—it vests as a trading fund on 2 April. It uses partnering as a means of securing new materials and assets for the MOD and it uses some of the financial freedoms introduced by this Government to secure business fund reinvestment. A positive set of actions have therefore been taken in relation to the defence review agenda.

However, I urge caution on the Government. Since I became a Member of Parliament in June last year, I have already received four significant letters from the MOD about the restructuring and reorganisation of defence logistics. Constant upheaval and uncertainty in relation to defence logistics activity affects the morale of the people involved. That is a major concern in Telford and The Wrekin. The MOD publication "Defence Policy 2001" highlights the fact that

are important to staff morale and recruitment in the MOD. The constant concern and upheaval of ongoing review does nothing to strengthen the morale of local people.

People in Telford and The Wrekin have the necessary skills and have proved, through the work that has been done in the organisations that I have mentioned, that they can build on those skills. We should let them flourish as far as possible. It is as important to support defence logistics as it is to support our front-line forces. Without an effective service in logistics, our armed forces cannot effectively serve the interests of this country with our partners.

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Defence logistics also have a positive impact on our economy. We need to preserve the geographical spread of MOD interests throughout the UK. In security terms, that is a good principle anyway, but we must use the MOD to enhance local economies wherever we can.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury): I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that we need to ensure a defence presence throughout the country. However, does he agree that we must ensure that support units serve front-line units where they are? In particular, does he agree that defence medical services must support front-line units in Wiltshire and Hampshire rather than in Birmingham?

David Wright: I am sure that the Secretary of State has heard that comment. The hon. Gentleman clearly has more experience of those services than I do. I am talking about services provided directly by people in Telford and The Wrekin. On the basis of my visits to those establishments, I can report that the service is superb and of a high quality. People in Telford can demonstrate that such services can be delivered from across the UK in support of our armed forces.

I pay tribute once again to those who work in defence logistics. We must respect the commitment and flexibility shown by them and their trade union representatives, whom I have met regularly in recent months. We must protect their jobs and praise the work that they do in support of our front-line armed forces.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. At business questions today, the House heard the Leader of the House, in response to a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), issue an emphatic denial in respect of today's newspaper stories about Jo Moore and an e-mail that passed between Mr. Sixsmith and the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. The Leader of the House was totally emphatic on that point.

It is becoming clear from the Downing street 4 o'clock Lobby briefing that an e-mail does in fact exist. Those providing the briefing refuse to deny that the e-mail was copied to Jo Moore, or to release the wording of the e-mail. The Press Association is now reporting that this morning's stories are, in all important respects, accurate.

It is disgraceful that the media should have heard about the retraction before the House. Have you, Madam Deputy Speaker, had any information that the Leader of the House is to come here to put the record straight?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I have received no information from the Leader of the House or any other Minister that they are about to come here.

6.1 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): As we debate defence here tonight, we are extremely conscious that our forces are on active service almost all round the world. Great tributes have been paid to them, and I associate myself with those tributes, which apply as much to those working in supply organisations as to those members of the Parachute Regiment, whose regimental headquarters remains in Aldershot.

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I am bound to say that I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and others who have said that there is no point in other units being trained up to war fighting levels only to be stood down in favour of one or two units that are deployed every time. I hope that the Secretary of State has taken that important point on board.

I shall raise two specific issues: missile defence and expenditure. My remarks about both are informed in large measure by my visit to Washington last week. The Defence Committee spent the entire week in end-to-end meetings with officials and others in Washington.

First, I should like to say to the Secretary of State that everywhere we went, it was made absolutely explicit that the United States Administration greatly appreciate the support of the United Kingdom and its Government and the extraordinary qualities of our armed forces, who are in action and who have supported the United States' activities in Afghanistan. The united stand of the House and the support of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister standing shoulder to shoulder with our American partners have done the United Kingdom enormous good. I welcome that.

We Members of Parliament have to be clear that, whatever our individual views, the United States Administration are absolutely determined to proceed with missile defence. They greatly resent the suggestion that it is "star wars"—an expression that has been used repeatedly this afternoon. They are emphatic that it is neither "star wars" nor "national missile defence". They have changed the name of their organisation from the national missile defence organisation to the ballistic missile defence organisation, to make the point that they are not in the business of throwing up a curtain that protects the United States alone, as foreshadowed by the "star wars" concept of the 1980s.

It will be unfortunate if we fail to understand the United States' belief that it faces a real threat to its homeland, either from the axis of evil nations, or from other nations, or from terrorist organisations which might at some point in the relatively near future become capable of deploying missiles that could inflict damage on the United States. That is why the Americans are prepared to invest no less than $7.8 billion—£5 billion—next year in research to produce an answer to that problem.

If a missile is deployed, there are three stages at which it can be taken out: the launch phase, the mid-course phase and the terminal phase. That takes considerable technological achievement, and instead of criticising the United States, we should welcome the fact that a country that is richer than us is prepared to invest the necessary money.

It is significant that in the document that the Government published a year ago, Defence Policy 2000, they said:

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Of course, that has now changed because in the new document, which we received only this morning, the Government make a few tentative assumptions, one of which is that

In light of the Government's acknowledgement that we face such a threat, I must ask why there is so much criticism of the United States for taking action, putting its dollars where its mouth is and trying to identify technical means by which that threat can be countered. What action are the British Government taking? On Monday, the Secretary of State, in answer to one of his colleagues, made it clear that this is not a national missile defence system designed only for the United States. He said:

Everywhere we went in Washington we heard the message that this system is not available only to the United States; it would like to be able to protect its friends and allies as well.

The Government might take a lead from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), who alerted the nation to the threat at least a year ago and suggested that we should co-operate with the United States to try to eliminate it. We face that threat more imminently than does the United States. Countries such as Iran, Iraq and Libya are closer to us than they are to the US, and it is incumbent on the Government to enable us to defend ourselves if those states develop the potential to hit this country,

When we met Mark Grossman, the Under-Secretary of State at the State Department who is responsible for political affairs, he said that the US would welcome support from its NATO allies. I understand that Italy and the Netherlands have said that they would like to support the United States. What, then, are the British Government doing? They must give us an answer.

My second point relates to expenditure. I draw to the attention of the House the penultimate paragraph of today's report which refers to

That is not additional investment. When the Secretary of State came to the Defence Committee in November, he made it clear that that £100 million is to meet the cost of prosecuting the war and is different from investment; it is not new money.

I hope that the Minister will take on board the many representations that have been made, because if we are to be able to meet the threat posed by terrorists and rogue states that can get their hands on intercontinental ballistic missiles, there will have to be significant increases in expenditure. The people of Britain have seen the damage that can be inflicted by those with a desire to inflict casualties on western countries; if they are told that insuring against such an eventuality carries a cost, I believe that they will be prepared to wear it.

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I shall end with an ancillary point about additional expenditure. The Minister recently wrote to me about project Connaght Allenby in Aldershot. I wholly oppose any policy by Her Majesty's Government to sell off large tracts of land in the south to raise money to invest elsewhere, which would be at the expense of the garrison at Aldershot, a long-established garrison town with facilities for the armed forces, especially the Army, and a culture that welcomes the forces. I urge the Government not to sell off all that land to raise money for the Treasury, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex said, accounts more to Moscow than it does to the Ministry of Defence. Will they ensure that they do not divert such funding, which should be properly raised by taxation? I shall conclude on that note, and hope that the Minister will explain how those increases will be funded.

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