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6.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): One of the misfortunes of defence debates is that, irrespective of their title, we always seem to cover all defence matters. I shall do my best to reply to all the points that have been raised.

This debate takes place against a background of continuing activity and danger for our armed forces in Afghanistan. The Taliban and the al-Qaeda terrorists whom they harbour have been reduced to scattered remnants, but that is not to say that they are no longer a threat, as we see from current operations against Gardez. Like the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the courage of all coalition soldiers fighting there, and to offer my condolences to the families of those—American and Afghan—who have died fighting to free Afghanistan and the world from the threat of terrorism.

On the subject of time, let me point out that we have at least four more days of defence debates in which hon. Members will be able to speak about anything they fancy. Defence gets a fairly generous allocation of time: we have had at least three full days, perhaps four, on the war against terrorism since it started. We have adequate time to debate defence issues. Although it is disappointing that we did not get our full time today, the environment is considered equally important by many hon. Members, and it does not get the same amount of time as defence.

As for the timing of our reply, I apologise to my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) for the time it took. A balance has to be struck between speed and helpfulness, and we tried to make our reply as helpful as possible on this occasion.

As this is an estimates day, I had better say something about the estimates, if only to correct the misapprehensions of Opposition Front Benchers. In the current financial year, we shall incur £261 million in additional costs through our operations in Afghanistan. The bulk of that—some £115 million—is attributable to Operation Veritas, our contribution to the global coalition's operations against international terrorism. That figure covers operating costs—fuel, transport, stores and so on—that we would not otherwise have faced. We also expect to generate another £80 million in similar costs for Operation Fingal, the United Kingdom's element of the international security assistance force that we currently lead in Kabul. The bulk of the remainder—some £57 million—represents capital costs for urgent operational requirements. The final £9 million represents "non-cash costs". That is all new money.

In addition to that, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State announced on 26 February that the Treasury had agreed to add a further £55 million to the £100 million already made available for capital costs arising from urgent operational requirements. That gives a total of

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£155 million in new money of which, as I have said, we have so far spent £57 million on capital costs. The subject is complicated, but I assure the House that the money involved is new money.

Turning to the privatisation of QinetiQ, I was involved in that issue yesterday, and despite my best efforts some of the newspapers appear to have picked up my remarks wrongly. Only an idiot would have proposed that we continue on the preferred course of a stock market placing, even though, at the time that it was made, the proposal was perfectly reasonable. Although—with apologies to hon. Members from the minority parties—I can imagine a few idiots on the Opposition Benches continuing blindly on that course, we could not do so. We have decided to go for a trade placement instead, which is by far the safest course of action. We will get the money that we require from the sale, and QinetiQ will get the freedom that it needs to grow and to develop its business.

I cannot go into detail in response to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), save to say that extensive work is being done on co-operation among our security forces. I shall discuss the action we are taking on CBN—chemical, biological and nuclear—risks later. Active civil contingency links exist and are being strengthened. It has been possible to do quite a lot along those lines.

Conflict prevention is at the centre of our efforts, especially in Africa. We are already working cross- departmentally. The three Departments that the hon. Gentleman mentioned—the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development—are doing a great deal of work on conflict prevention and resolution in that continent. In addition, extensive work is being done in eastern Europe and central Asia. We are very active in that respect.

As for the calls to increase reserve forces, we have spent a great deal of time and effort trying to bring our reserve forces much closer to the front line. I do not want that effort to be diluted by attempts to add roles that are well beneath the capabilities in which we now train our reserves to participate. We are using our reserves and integrating them into our forces. To be frank, that is by far the most cost-effective way in which to provide surge capability in many of our units. The House will be aware that in a parliamentary answer today I pointed out that a further compulsory call-out of 49 Royal Auxiliary Air Force personal will be made to assist air transport movements in support of our ongoing work in Afghanistan.

I shall try in the limited time available to respond to the specific points made without repeating myself. My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South was right in his introductory remarks. The same point was made by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) and others. The risks from many chemical and biological threats are low, but the consequences are indeed terrible.

The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling might be interested to know that, as a specialist in public health, I have independently come to the conclusion that plague is an exceptionally dangerous organism, as he might well have expected. However, there are two positive aspects. One is that we are developing what appears to be a very effective vaccine, which will be available in the next two years. That will be the first time

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that a reliable vaccine has been available. Secondly, plague is an exceptionally difficult organism to grow and certainly to deliver. Therefore I would assess that the threat still involves a combination of opportunity and means, and as the product of the two is so difficult to achieve, the threat of plague remains very low, compared with other biologically active agents.

We have decided that Fearless will be stood down at the end of its current engagement, instead of going on until January or February next year. Any Department must make decisions about the most cost-effective way to use its resources, and it would not have been cost-effective, in my opinion and that of my colleagues, and according to the advice of our senior staff, to have continued a 37-year-old vessel, excellent though its service has been, for the next six months, given the extra resources that would be required. Fearless is our last steam-powered ship, and I am sorry to see her go. Her service and that of her crew has been sterling, and the crew will give us further good service on Albion and Bulwark when they come into service in 2003.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh (Dr. Strang) spoke cogently about the language of priorities and of the need to fund the level of activity that we wish to carry out. I agree with him. I cannot predict the outcome of discussions on the Budget, much as the hon. Member for North Wiltshire might wish me to second-guess the process. It is still going on and we will defend our corner vigorously, but there must be an exact match between the commitments that we give and the resources that we offer up to meet them.

In passing, I should point out that we are partly the victims of our own success. Smart procurement has worked. Programmes are now on time and the slack in the system, which was available in the MOD budget year after year, sadly—or perhaps gladly—is no longer with us. That makes things much more difficult.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham): With reference to the new chapter of SDR, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that finances are not an obstacle to our doing what is necessary to fight the war against terrorism?

Dr. Moonie: I entirely agree that resources must be made available to meet any new commitments, unless those commitments turn out to be substitutes for things that we do at present and we find that they are not necessary. I am not trying to suggest that we have yet been able to find anything like that, but any rational being must admit that there is at least a logical possibility that we would be able to do so. Should major new requirements come along, we will have to consider the matter closely.

I am interested in the possibility of the home defence service being re-activated, with considerably greater numbers of teeth than it ever had or were ever envisaged for it. If we think that static guarding is the answer for certain installations—I remain to be convinced of that—we will have to find some way of implementing it.

The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling was the only person whom I have heard in any of the debates so far mention the effectiveness of our co-ordinating officers in Tampa, Florida. That has proved itself, just as the permanent joint headquarters in the UK has done. It has shown how effective it is to co-ordinate on the

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ground, right at the centre of operations. Its value has been proved time and again, and I pay tribute to the officers who serve there. We shall have to do that in future, although rather than regularise it we will probably have to do it on an ad hoc basis.

There were other thoughtful contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby) and the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson), who made a good point about ISTAR. We are identifying ways of identifying friend and foe, and we will continue to do so as quickly as possible.

It being Seven o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker, proceeded to put forthwith the deferred Question relating to Estimates which he was directed to put at that hour, pursuant to paragraphs (4) and (5) of Standing Order No. 54 (Consideration of estimates).

Question put and agreed to.


It being after Seven o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker proceeded to put forthwith the Questions relating to Estimates which he was directed to put at that hour, pursuant paragraphs (1) and (3) of Standing Order No. 55 (Questions on voting of estimates, &c.) and Order [20 November 2000].

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