Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6.37 pm

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): I want to say something about a man who was born and educated in Britain, who attended a British public school and the London School of Economics and who is, as I understand it, still a British citizen. He stands accused of complicity in cutting the throat of and beheading a journalist and videoing the whole process for posterity. The individual, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, has not been tried and found guilty, I should stress—I suppose. But he has shown a marked reluctance to dissociate himself from the slaughter.

We also know, or suspect, that there are other individuals who live in the UK, or who have at times done so, who have, or may have, similar tendencies. There are no Scottish National party Members present, but I should point out that an incident in the past few weeks has shown that there are people at the low end of that spectrum who have a pretty low tolerance, too.

7 Mar 2002 : Column 514

Sometimes a debate in the Chamber—not today, I hasten to add—reflects a reluctance on the part of some people to recognise the nature of the threat and the need to take decisive action to counter that kind of threat, not only in the UK but across the world. Sometimes questions raised, and the manner in which they are raised in the Chamber, are characterised by an unhealthy anti-Americanism. They suggest at times that people do not engage fully with the reality of the brutal mindset that characterises those who are prepared to engage in most horrible murder for their own aggrandisement, either on this earth or elsewhere.

That tendency, when it expresses itself, has the potential to miseducate people into thinking that it is possible to intervene in human rights abuses or violent breaches of security but always to do so bloodlessly. Well, it is not. The overwhelming majority of people in this country and, indeed, in the House, including Labour Members, support the Government's determination not to act precipitately on international terrorism and on threats to our security. We want them instead to act decisively when and if the situation merits it.

Harry Cohen : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) referred to Mr. Sheikh in Pakistan. I want to put it on the record that he and his parents are my constituents. The key consideration is that he get a fair trial.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): The hon. Gentleman knows that that is a matter of debate, not a point of order.

6.40 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I begin by paying tribute to what the men and women of our armed services have done in the war against terrorism. They have carried out their roles well and we have perhaps not praised them enough. My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) speaks from experience. He reminded us that everyone will be thinking of the troops in action at Gardez, and we offer our profound sympathies to the families of the Americans lost in the shootings at Kabul and of the Germans and Danes killed on bomb disposal duties yesterday.

The debate has been of a high quality despite, or perhaps because of, its truncated nature. As always, I greatly enjoyed the Victor Meldrew of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). I also enjoyed the contributions of the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley). They all spoke with great knowledge of and passion for defence.

The debate comes at a crucial moment. Defence budgets are giving every sign of being stretched to, or possibly beyond, their limits. That has been the underlying theme of the debate. It was interesting to see how many Labour Members spoke about overstretched troops, underspending and people doing too much for too little. The hon. Members for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby) and for South Dorset (Jim Knight) in particular mentioned those problems. The reality is that we appear to be doing too much with too little. That

7 Mar 2002 : Column 515

cannot go on for ever. I hope that the Minister listened carefully to the many Labour Back Benchers who made that point passionately.

Will the Minister clarify one or two technical details on the accounts? What was the out-turn of last year's spending? I understood that there was an underspend of £72 million, and was surprised to see a report in The Independent this week, with the headline "Brown calls in auditors to scrutinise spending", which said that the underspend was £500 million.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): Wrong.

Mr. Gray: If the Minister is right perhaps that is another example of the Chancellor briefing the newspapers in a certain way to win a particular battle. The Independent goes on to quote sources within the Ministry of Defence as saying that the Chancellor

The article says that the Chancellor

The Minister says that the report is inaccurate, so he must tell us where it came from and assure us that the Chancellor is as enthusiastic as he is to spend the money necessary to win the war against terrorism.

There is another element to defence finances. In November, the Chancellor announced new money to pay for the campaign in Afghanistan. He said:

In a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), dated 26 February, he said that there was a further £55 million, making a total of £155 million. Is that new money or does it partly come from the previous year's underspend, in which case it is another blatant example of new Labour's double counting?

What does the Minister intend to do replace the £250 million capital receipt that he may not now get from the botched privatisation of QinetiQ announced in that most embarrassing U-turn yesterday? Has the Treasury agreed to take the hit, or will the money have to come out of defence budgets? Is he planning to write off the staggering £15 million that he wasted on consultants on the botched privatisation? Guess who advised him on it? It was none other than new Labour's close friends, Arthur Andersen, to which the Ministry of Defence has paid £7 million so far. Is the money coming from our front-line capabilities?

The confusion over where the money to pay for the Afghanistan campaign is to come from is compounded by a letter from the Minister to my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Defence dated 27 February in which he says:

If that is so, will the Minister tell us how he has paid for it? Has it come from the previous year's underspend or the Chancellor's £155 million—if that is indeed new money—or has it perhaps been found by moving money from capital to current accounts? The spring estimates seem to confirm the latter.

7 Mar 2002 : Column 516

There is a muddle, and the Minister needs to tell us today in words of one syllable how much has so far been spent on the war in Afghanistan, precisely how that has been funded, how much he intends to spend in the year ahead and how he will pay for that. The Opposition suspect that all this accountancy fudging is designed to cover up the reality of some deep and damaging cuts in defence expenditure in general. One or two worrying examples of that have been announced in the past few weeks.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) talked about deep cuts in the Territorial Army as a result of the strategic defence review. I am proud to be wearing the tie of the Honourable Artillery Company today. On top of that cut, we have seen the moth-balling of 5 squadron of the Tornados and of the 32 Sea Harriers, and the decimation of the Fleet Air Arm.

A statutory instrument was sneaked through the House the other day under the guise of giving the Army base repair organisation greater freedom to operate commercially, whereas in fact it meant the cutting of 700 jobs in that organisation. We heard today—I hope that the Minister is listening and will answer this point—of the premature withdrawal of HMS Fearless, our last Royal Navy assault vessel. Let us hope that we do not need it in the troubles that lie ahead.

What is more, as my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid–Kent (Hugh Robertson) said, the long-feared "procurement bow-wave" in the MOD seems to be becoming ever more a reality, as evidenced by delays in the deployment of new equipment such as the A400M and the Nimrod MRA4. They are the latest examples, but there are of course many others. If, as it appears, Ministers cannot fund current operations without deep and damaging cuts in our defence capabilities, what hope have we of funding the challenges that might lie ahead?

In contrast to the hon. Members for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) and for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) and their party, the Conservative Opposition are proud of the fact that we have stood shoulder to shoulder with the Government in their fight against terrorism so far, and shoulder to shoulder with the United States Government in their war against terrorism—and we intend to continue to do so. If we are to do so—my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling warned us about this—and if challenges lie ahead, we need to know how the Government can say that they intend to do all kinds of things but appear, first, not to be funding them properly, and secondly and even worse, to be making some deep and damaging cuts in our defence capabilities. That simply will not do. They cannot have it both ways.

I was not the least encouraged by the Secretary of State's recent comment that

Unnamed defence sources have said:

Rumours abounded last year that the Chancellor was seeking up to £1.5 billion of cuts in the defence budget. The Minister owes it to the House to make it clear this evening that that is not what is about to happen.

7 Mar 2002 : Column 517

This debate is the Minister's opportunity to reassure us that he and, perhaps more importantly, the Chancellor are resolutely determined to fund our excellent armed forces properly in the ever more challenging tasks that lie ahead. If we are to defeat international terrorism—we are as determined as the Minister to do so—the effort in that direction must be properly funded.

Next Section

IndexHome Page