Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Ingram: No.

Mr. Howarth: Fine.

I do not want to be churlish about the increase in defence expenditure. I assure the House that the Opposition welcome it—unlike the Labour Opposition in the 1980s, who rejected the Conservative Government's increase in defence expenditure. Given the range of military commitments that the Government have entered into, it was imperative that real increases were made.

Everyone—from previous Chief of the Defence Staff Lord Guthrie to Back-Bench Labour Members—has called for an increase in defence expenditure, but that has to be viewed in the perspective of the massive increase made in the US. This year alone, expenditure there has risen by $48 billion, as many hon. Members will know. The expenditure gap between European nations such as Britain and the US is widening. We understand that we cannot match US expenditure, so I shall say no more on the point, other than that we welcome the increase that has been announced.

I can tell the hon. Member for North Durham that the Opposition position on spending was made clear by my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, at the Royal United Services Institute meeting last week. He said:

I suggest that that is a stronger commitment than any given by any Opposition in the post-war period. It is a very strong commitment and reflects the priority that the Conservative party accords to defence under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith).

Mr. Kevan Jones: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. The statement that he has just made may have been all-encompassing but as an explanation it was as clear as mud. If we are to enter into the expenditure that the Opposition clearly want, what other services such as education or health does the hon Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) think we should cut? Or does he think that the Government have an endless, elastic budget that fits all demands?

Mr. Howarth: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman, whom I happen to like, should choose to digress down the route of expenditure on other things. This debate is about defence, on which I have set out the Opposition's position. I have heard the hon. Gentleman question visitors to the Defence Committee, and I know that he often says that their perfectly clear assertions are "as clear as mud." So I do not consider that his remark amounts to a serious criticism of my explanation of the position taken by my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex, the shadow Secretary of State.

It is the Opposition's duty to hold the Government to account over their strategic defence review commitments. This is not a game: we have a duty to question the Government and to ensure that they are doing the right thing.

17 Jul 2002 : Column 334

If the Chancellor's settlement is as generous as the Minister of State suggested, why did he not say that recent cuts would be restored? What about returning 5 Squadron Royal Air Force Tornadoes from mothballs? What about reinstating the three cancelled Nimrod MRA4s? What about engaging the 5,600 recruits needed to bring Britain's smallest Army since the time of Wellington to the Government's own target strength, and to restore the Territorial Army to its Tory strength of 59,000? Why do not the Government reverse their decision to scrap the Royal Navy's fleet protection force of Sea Harriers, which they said they could not afford to keep after 2004? Of that we heard nothing in the Minister's speech.

Mr. Ingram: I talked about Sea Harriers.

Mr. Howarth: The Minister did talk about Sea Harriers, but he said nothing about the cuts that we were told had to be made to save money. We did not hear that those Sea Harriers were to be restored as a result of what the Government call the substantial increase in defence expenditure accorded by the Chancellor.

What provision have the Government made for the cost of putting a division of up to 25,000 men into full battle order? The Secretary of State told us on Monday that

The right hon. Gentleman was right to make that clear. Yet the Prime Minister also made it clear in his cosy fireside chat yesterday that military action might be required because the threat posed by Iraq's weapons programme was growing, not diminishing. Either sensible and prudent preparations are now being made or our armed forces risk being called into action with inadequate preparation. Which is it? The Minister must answer that when he comes to the Dispatch Box—unless he would like to answer now, in which case I will give way.

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

Mr. Howarth: That says it all. There is a big hole in the Government's strategy on the issue.

Mr. John Smith: Surely the hon. Gentleman appreciates that force planning and preparations for various scenarios take place all the time. It would not be appropriate for a Minister to declare what planning is currently taking place inside our armed forces should we enter into military action, when the enemy would like to know what the hon. Gentleman wants to know.

Mr. Howarth: Of course the House should not be informed of every detail, but there is a policy issue here. If an operation is mounted, there will be a cost attributable thereto, and it is right for us to ask whether Ministers are putting that into their budget and making the necessary provisions.

Mr. Ingram: Am I right in assuming that the hon. Gentleman is asking about commitments to any future deployment and the costs associated with that, not just about a specific deployment?

Mr. Howarth indicated dissent.

Mr. Ingram: I see that the hon. Gentleman is asking only about the specific. Whether specific or general,

17 Jul 2002 : Column 335

when the unplanned-for demand comes, the cost is then met, as happened under previous Governments. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the budget outturns on which he claims to be an expert, he will realise that the commitments that we have had to meet recently in Macedonia, Sierra Leone and, more important, in large-scale terms, Afghanistan, have all been met. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not asserting that we do not do that.

Mr. Howarth: No, I was not asserting that. I do not regard myself as an expert, but the House of Commons Library is reasonably expert in these matters, and I do not think that the Minister of State should query its integrity.

The point that I am making is clear: the Secretary of State said that absolutely no decisions have been made, but the Prime Minister is making it clear that there is a prospect of the Government undertaking some kind of operation. As yet, no decisions have been made, and we understand that. However, I repeat that either sensible and prudent preparations are being made or our armed forces risk being called into action without proper preparation.

Mr. Ingram: So that there is no doubt in the hon. Gentleman's mind, will he take it from me that all operational costs are met from contingency funds and not from planned expenditure? Does he understand that part of the process? To ask that is to call into question not anyone's analysis but the hon. Gentleman's capability of understanding the complexity of these issues.

Mr. Howarth: Of course not all expenditure comes from the contingency fund. Some will inevitably come from the Ministry of Defence, and we have not yet seen the full accounts relating to Afghanistan.

I should like to press the Minister on the SA80 rifle, which is causing so much concern. The SA80 would be the standard infantry weapon in any major ground operation in the middle east or elsewhere. I am not sure whether the House properly noted the point made by my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Defence on Monday, when he asked the Secretary of State to confirm that in a test of the weapon in Afghanistan, out of 30 rifles firing 90 rounds each, 20 jammed. We are pleased that the tests to which the Minister of State referred took place, but the House needs to know the outcome. We entirely accept that the right hon. Gentleman has not yet received the report, but the House is entitled to know the outcome of those tests and his response to the report. If the report fails to give the SA80 a clean bill of health, are the Government prepared to replace that weapon altogether, as the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), who is no longer in his place, asked? Can the Under-Secretary confirm that comparative tests are under way in Bagram, involving the SA80 and other comparable weapons such as the M16—which, incidentally, is the standard weapon for the United States army, and the weapon of choice for certain key elements of the British Army?

On some of the major procurement programmes, we welcome many of the projects under way. The Minister of State referred to the two substantial new 50,000 tonne aircraft carriers, which will provide the United Kingdom with a vital independent capability to launch operations without recourse to land bases. However, the project is

17 Jul 2002 : Column 336

inextricably bound up with the new joint strike fighter being built by Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems. The JSF, with its offensive and air defence capability, will be the vessels' essential partners. My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) was right to point out that the JSF is not simply an offensive weapon with an air-to-ground capability but has an air defence capability. That is an important factor. However, the project is not yet assured, nor can anyone at this stage of the aircraft's development programme be entirely confident of an in-service target date of 2012 being met. The House will want to know exactly how the Government see the timetable for these two linked programmes working out. The two carriers and the joint strike fighter must both come on stream at the same time, which is quite a risk. We wish the Government well and hope that the projects will be achieved on time and together.

I hope that the Minister of State will be able to tell us soon when we can expect a decision on the joint strike fighter type to be procured. He said that he was not in a position to make a decision yet, but it is important to the whole design concept of the aircraft carrier whether the aircraft to be deployed from that carrier will be a short take-off vertical landing aircraft—STOVL—or whether it will be the carrier variant, which will be a steam catapult-launched variant. The design of the aircraft carrier depends on that decision. My personal preference, to which I know the Minister will attach enormous weight, is to find in favour of the STOVL variant rather than the catapult-launched carrier variant, as I believe that the STOVL variant will provide versatility as well as maintaining Britain's lead in this very important field of technology. There is an added advantage in that pilots operating off aircraft carriers using a STOVL aircraft need a lot less training than pilots on a catapult-launched system, which I am told takes up to six months to convert from a STOVL aircraft.

We have discussed the Sea Harrier already, but I wish to say a little more. With the F/A2 Sea Harrier being withdrawn from 2004, our existing carriers will be without an outer layer of air defence cover, as the Minister of State acknowledged. In our view, that will severely limit the UK's ability to deploy an expeditionary force.

Indeed, as Air Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff, Equipment Capability, told the Defence Committee on 1 May, official thinking was that

That is entirely consistent with what the Minister said, but it means that we shall not have that independent capability should the need arise.

We hope that the need will not arise, but it may. My remarks are slightly tongue in cheek, but currently there are arguments relating to Gibraltar and we have just seen Spain reclaim an island that the Moroccans had claimed—[Interruption.] I am not suggesting that Spain is about to invade Gibraltar, and the Minister need not assume that I am. However, the important point is that no one predicted the Falklands. Being prepared for the unexpected is one of the key duties of the Government.

In a reply to my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex, the Government conceded that although they anticipate that they will not have to operate other than with the support of allies and partners, no consultations

17 Jul 2002 : Column 337

have taken place with allies and partners who could provide air defence cover. We are talking principally about the United States. The policy was not as well thought through as the Government suggested.

Next Section

IndexHome Page