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6.45 pm

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): This defence policy debate comes at a particularly appropriate and important time. I welcome all the contributions—perhaps even that of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray)—and pay particular thanks to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) for his opening comments and his recognition of the role played in our defence by the armed forces, and the intelligence services in particular. Other Members referred to that, but the hon. Gentleman's comments hit the nail on the head.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State informed the House in opening the debate, our defence policy must be flexible and able to evolve and adapt as international circumstances change. The 1998 strategic defence review undertook an extremely important assessment of the post-cold war strategic environment. It is clear that the review, and the changes to our defence policies and structures that it has driven, remain relevant following 11 September. It provided the foundation on which real improvements to our defences, such as more rapidly deployable, sustainable, robust and versatile forces, have been based.

The review was widely welcomed in the defence community and beyond it, and it has become the framework for other nations as they examine their defence postures. However, as my right hon. Friend made clear to the House, it is vital that we consider what has changed and identify how we need to adapt to meet those new circumstances. It is important to stress that the work we are undertaking is not a new strategic defence review, no matter how others may want to portray it. It is a new chapter that builds on the review and develops our thinking in areas which, for reasons I hope we all understand, have assumed a new prominence. It will help to ensure that defence policy, which drives the military tasks that we ask our services to be able to carry out and the nature of the equipment that we procure, takes full account of the requirement to prevent and defend against terrorism in all its manifestations.

However, we are operating in a less certain context. The SDR recognised a time of more diffuse, less certain risks. Threats to the United States, our allies and our interests overseas are not always well advertised, but they are no less real. Our opponents may use terror and force to try to achieve impossible aims and objectives, and it is not always immediately obvious how our strengths, not least in military power through our armed forces, may be used to overcome those threats.

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The work that the Secretary of State has put in hand seeks to identify what may need to be done differently, or additionally, as a result, but this is not a world turned upside down. As well as new dangers, old threats remain, and we must be ready to meet both. It may be argued that a new world exists post-11 September, but the old world has not been replaced. It continues to exist, and it is in that context that the debate is taking place.

The debate has been wide ranging and we have touched on a lot of subjects. I cannot take up every one, but let me deal with the Chinook issue. I am doubtful as to whether it touches on defence policy, but I take the point made by the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) that the outcome could affect morale. I understand the depth of the right hon. Gentleman's feeling, but I am sure that, as an ex-Minister, he knows that it would be inappropriate to respond from the Dispatch Box to a detailed and rigorous report that requires intensive scrutiny by the Department. That is being undertaken. Useful contributions have been made, but I ask all Members to take their consideration beyond the technical aspects of the report and the terrible tragedy that occurred. We also have to examine the airmanship decisions taken by the pilots on the day. They have to be weighed in the balance.

The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) tried to say that all members of our armed forces want to fight. I am not sure that he quite meant that. I remind him that the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), the Opposition Defence spokesman, said on Monday 11 February that the Government should reduce the number of military commitments. The Tories say that Britain's armed forces are involved in too many operations, but they refuse to say which commitments they would cut.

The hon. Member for Newark wants there to be more activity, but the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen say that there should be less, that every commitment suffers from mission creep, and that no mission will ever succeed. The Opposition never offer congratulations on success, just more criticism, because their approach is based on party politics.

Questions have been asked about the cost of Eurofighter. Those costs have not risen by £2.7 billion, as was claimed. The programme is subject to regular and rigorous scrutiny. Procurement costs are reported annually to the National Audit Office. In the major projects review of 2001, those costs were put at £18.8 billion. The media recently reported a figure of £21.5 billion, but that includes initial support costs that were not included in the MPR figure. The result is that like is not being compared with like.

It is true that Eurofighter procurement costs, year on year, have risen by £37 million. In a programme of such complexity, that is a modest increase of 0.2 per cent. The Comptroller and Auditor General has acknowledged that the Ministry of Defence is continuing to control costs better. In the last year, project costs overall have fallen by £100 million. Eleven projects are now below the costs specified when the decision to buy was taken.

Mr. Francois: The Minister mentioned the Eurofighter costs in MPR 2000, and compared that figure with what appeared in MPR 2001. What was the cost of the programme in MPR 1998?

Mr. Ingram: I do not carry all the relevant figures in my head. I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the

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figure, but my point is that the audited overrun in the project is very small. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will stop running scare stories on the matter. By concentrating on cost overruns, the implication is that we should not spend the money. If that is the logic of what people are advising, I hope they will say so. If they honestly believe that the cost overrun is becoming unsustainable, I hope that they will say so and make a decision accordingly. We remain committed to the Eurofighter aircraft.

The hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) asked me to pass on his thanks for the opportunities that arose to visit so many units. I hope that more hon. Members will avail themselves of the opportunities to visit armed forces units. The armed forces parliamentary scheme is a good way for Members of Parliament to be aware of everything that is happening on the front line of military activities.

Several hon. Members spoke about the role of the Territorial Army and the reserves. If I heard him correctly, the hon. Member for New Forest, West said that he was opposed to the cuts in the TA that occurred at the time of the SDR. It is worth pointing out that the Tory Government cut TA numbers by 20,000 in the 10 years to 1997. When did the Tories become converts with regard to cuts in the TA? The SDR focused on the strategic needs of the Territorial Army and the reserves. Previously, cuts in the TA numbers had been driven exclusively by Treasury demands to save money.

I do not want to fall out with my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who is not in the Chamber at the moment—[Hon. Members: "He is."] I apologise, my right hon. Friend is present. Our experience since the SDR has demonstrated the validity of its conclusions with regard to the TA. The specialist support units, such as signallers, logistic units and medical troops, were the focus of the TA restructuring. They have been in heavy demand for deployment in operations in places such as the Balkans.

Other hon. Members have noted that, since 1995, around 10 per cent. of our forces deployed in the Balkans have been made up of reservists. Currently, about 700 reservists are deployed for operational service, in the UK and overseas. More than 1,700 personnel are currently on full-time reserve service—almost 800 of them in the Army. That is a clear example of the utility and cost-effectiveness of our reserve forces.

Compulsory mobilisation of the reserves does not mean that we are short of volunteers; it means greater certainty that we have the right number of people with the right skills to meet emerging requirements. I am proud that we have both the courage and the honesty to make the call-out compulsory. It is always difficult to do that. Members of the TA welcome it as a demonstration of our confidence in them. We train the reserves to be indistinguishable from the regulars alongside whom they work. We expect nothing less from them and, inevitably, they respond to the trust placed in them.

In relation to UK home defence, we are considering whether we need to enhance the assistance we provide to build our civil defence. In his opening remarks, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence said that the leading role for domestic security remains with the civil authorities. That will always be the case. However,

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nowadays, the reservists form an integral part of our defence plans. They provide the well-trained, usable assets that we envisaged in the strategic defence review.

It was pointed out that we intend to turn the TA into a glorified security guard force. The point was well made, but the discussion paper poses questions as to whether the new situation suggests additional uses for the reserves, both abroad and at home. There are a range of possible roles at home. We have made it clear that we want to consult the current reservists and their employers before we take any decisions. We attach great importance and value to the volunteer ethos of the reserves and do not want to propose developments in their role that would undermine the enthusiasm and commitment that they bring to their work. We must have a balanced approach.

Overstretch has been raised by several Members. We take it very seriously indeed. We take it so seriously that we reduce the percentage of the Army committed to operations as soon as we possibly can—from the peak of 43 per cent. at the time of the Kosovo crisis to 27 per cent today, with most units well within the tour intervals envisaged in the SDR. My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) made perceptive comments on overstretch, which has been a problem for a long time. The other comments in his all-too-brief contribution were also perceptive.

We fully recognise the depth of the undermanning problem. We have to try to find solutions. That is why we have embarked on an intensive programme of retention and recruitment measures to stimulate the willingness of members of our community to continue to serve in the armed forces. An operational welfare package was introduced in April last year. We recently announced a major aircrew retention review after a thorough analysis of the problem. We are dealing with the extensive problems of single living accommodation.

We inherited major difficulties, with total costs running into many billions of pounds for many years ahead, but they have to be tackled if we are serious about the issues. We have announced that the recommendations of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body will be implemented in full.

In 1999, the service families taskforce was set up as a central focus for family issues and to liaise with other Departments on matters that were outside the MOD's control. I chair that committee and senior Ministers from other Departments serve alongside me trying to find answers to the problems. A wide range of recruitment strategies accompany that work.

The hon. Members for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), for Mid-Sussex and for Newark made points about a two-tier Army. We do not have a two-tier Army. Units serving with distinction in a variety of operational circumstances—in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere—are not helped by suggestions that, if they are not at the sharp end, where the real fighting is going on, or if they are not engaged in major peacekeeping events, they are not serving their country. Of course they do: they serve this country with distinction.

The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) asked about the £100 million that was announced for immediate operational requirements in and around Afghanistan. That is indeed an additional investment. I shall write to him with more details about it.

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I do not have time to mention the defence fire service other than to say that a major review is taking place on that, and that all the work that has been done for the fire study 2000 report will of course be—

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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