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House of Commons

Monday 15 July 2002

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Defence Spending

1. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): What progress has been made in achieving an equitable sharing of the burden of defence spending among other allied European countries in the past 12 months. [66958]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The latest available data show that the defence expenditure of European NATO allies, in aggregate, has remained broadly stable, in real terms, over the past12 months. However, most European allies are planning to make more of their forces useful and deployable for NATO's missions, to ensure that a better sharing of defence tasks is possible in future. That is why the United Kingdom has strongly supported the need to develop military capabilities through NATO and through the EU headline goal process.

Paul Flynn: Not since the battle of Omdurman has there been such a gulf between the ability of two sides to

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compete. We now have one superpower in the world with enormous power and superior technology. Is it sensible to put pressure on the new democracies in eastern Europe to spend more on defence in order to become full members of the European Community, when they should be spending far more on building their health services and on other useful services, such as housing and education?

Mr. Hoon: That pressure is, of course, entirely self-generated, as it applies only to those countries that want to become members of NATO. Having visited all the NATO aspirant members, that commitment is a very important part of their political profile at this stage. In those circumstances, we want them to spend more resources on defence. Equally, however, we want them to spend those resources effectively, and we want them to be able to make a successful contribution to NATO.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): Whatever the outcome later this afternoon of the comprehensive spending review, I am sure that all Members will welcome any sensible rise in defence spending. Does the Secretary of State not agree that Europe already spends approximately half what the United States spends on defence, but gets nowhere near it in terms of the bangs for our bucks? The important thing is not how much one spends on defence, but what one spends it on. Will the Government therefore take a lead in ensuring that any increase in European defence expenditure is spent on the right things—along the lines of the strategic defence review that the Government initiated—and not on surplus things?

Mr. Hoon: That is precisely why the Government have strongly supported the improvement in European defence capabilities, both through the EU headline goal and through NATO's defence capabilities initiative. It is important that spending is complementary, and does not simply duplicate existing military capabilities. The Government will

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continue to set out our determination to see Europe improve its military capabilities so that we can participate effectively in operations led by the United States.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the comments made by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) last week to the Royal United Services Institute. He said that the

Does he agree that improvement of the capabilities of our European allies will strengthen both European defence and NATO?

Mr. Hoon: I agree with my hon. Friend. I carefully read the speech of the hon. Member for North Essex(Mr. Jenkin). I was slightly surprised by some of his observations, but, generally speaking, I welcomed strongly his commitment to spend more on defence—although he did not say that specifically, I assume that I can reasonably infer it from his observations about the need to ensure that the United Kingdom has effective military capabilities. I assume that, in due course, perhaps after 3.30 pm, he will be in a position to make a statement that he wants to emulate Government spending on defence over the next three-year period. I am sure that Labour Members will want to give him every opportunity to match that commitment when it comes.

I entirely agree that one aspect of that defence spending is to ensure that it is effective. My concern about the Conservatives' defence policy is that they do not appear to commit themselves to improving European defence capabilities. Without that commitment, there is a clear risk that we will reproduce and duplicate defence capabilities that are already available to NATO and other allies.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): Does the Secretary of State agree that the United States is spending approximately twice as much as the rest of the NATO allies, but that its military output is about eight times as great as that of the continental allies because of the manner of that spending? Does he therefore agree that, although pressure should be brought to bear on some of the NATO allies, who, in the phrase of Senator Warner of the United States, have been "slacking off" in their defence expenditure, an increase in specialisation is inevitable if European allies are to remain relevant?

Mr. Hoon: I will not agree with the precise statistics, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman's general argument. If he is going to exert pressure, that pressure might be put on the Opposition Front Bench, as that has been precisely the purpose of the Government's efforts in NATO and as part of the EU headline goal process. The United States is capable of spending all its defence expenditure in one single, coherent direction; we must ensure that the same coherence applies to the defence spending of European nations. That is precisely the Government's policy; sadly, it is not the policy of his party.

Service Personnel

2. Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): What measures he is taking to improve support for service personnel on their return to civilian life. [66959]

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9. Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): What measures he is taking to improve support for service personnel on their return to civilian life. [66966]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): The Ministry of Defence offers a wide range of support to those experiencing the transition between service and civilian life. For those service leavers eligible to receive standard career transition services, we will introduce on 1 September 2002 a tri-service resettlement manual to align resettlement procedures, policy and structures across the three services. We are also working on replacing the current system for funding resettlement training to allow service leavers greater flexibility for such training.

Mr. Bryant: Many people in Wales will be delighted that the Welsh Guards will now be based in Wales. That will make a significant difference to the resettlement programme for people who have been in the armed forces. May I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider extending the resettlement system to those who are compulsorily discharged so that everyone who is leaving the armed forces gets an equal chance of a job when they leave? Will he also consider the position in Wales, bearing in mind that nearly 10 per cent. of all those recruited to the Royal Air Force come from Wales, but that only one in five of the regiments that recruit in Wales will be based in Wales?

Dr. Moonie: I listened to what my hon. Friend said about Wales with great care. At present, those being compulsorily discharged are not eligible to receive standard career transition services, despite the fact that they may well make up a large percentage of those experiencing problems following their discharge. We are considering changing the current rules to allow such members of the armed forces to receive specialist advice about finding jobs and accommodation and accessing further support should the initial advice fail. A six-month trial to assess the feasibility of this initiative is under way.

Mr. Borrow: Surveys have shown that between 20 and 25 per cent. of rough sleepers have been in the services. What is the Ministry of Defence doing to ensure that those who have difficulty coping with civilian life are looked after when they leave the services?

Dr. Moonie: In addition to working very closely with the rough sleepers unit, we have two specific projects—the spaces programme in Catterick, which is run by the Church of England, and Shelter's project in Colchester—that aim to secure accommodation for people who are compulsorily discharged from the armed forces and who are likely to experience difficulties in civilian life.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Is the Minister aware that fast-jet pilots are returning to civilian life with all too great alacrity? The challenge facing Her Majesty's Government is to offer them a career structure which will enable them to stay in the services and will match the remuneration that they receive outside. Has he

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any new initiatives to offer? Very few fast-jet Fleet Air Arm pilots are left, and the Royal Air Force is also all too short of them.

Dr. Moonie: We have a package that is aimed at retaining air crew. I am happy to say that it is beginning to have some effect.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury): In January, the Minister said that he was going to introduce something called a veteran's identity card. I assume that it will now be a veteran's entitlement card, so what will it entitle veterans to?

Dr. Moonie: It is very dangerous to act on one's assumptions. I am sorry to tell the hon. Gentleman that we have not, at present, finalised our proposals for an identity card, which is an extremely difficult thing to introduce. He rightly identifies the fact that the card should be worth more than simply another card to keep in one's wallet.

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