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31 Oct 2002 : Column 1036—continued

Mr. Jones: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point, but it is not the point that the shadow Secretary of State for Defence made this morning on the XToday" programme. He tried to blame this Government for the

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problems with the Apache. Does the hon. Gentleman accept some responsibility for the situation in which we find ourselves—yes or no?

Mr. Simpson: No, because the problem clearly involves the training package and the simulator, not the fact that the Apache was ordered. The hon. Gentleman has got the wrong end of the stick.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): We on these Benches had little option but to support the Apache, not least because it was being built by Westland. The then leader of the Liberal Democrats, who represented Yeovil, made his views pretty clear, although the project was well worth supporting for its own intrinsic merit.

Is there not a curiosity here? In the past, we had men but no equipment. Now we have equipment but no men. Exactly what is the hon. Gentleman's assessment of the detraction from capability that putting those helicopters to one side for a period will have on the Army's ability, for example, to conduct campaigns such as that envisaged, at least by some, in Iraq?

Mr. Simpson: The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point, and achieving such modern war-fighting capability as the Ministry of Defence wants will be extremely difficult. As I said in the debate on defence in the world, there is an additional problem over procurement in that the communications package that, it is hoped, the Apache will receive may have to be upgraded quickly to enable it to continue to communicate with the armed forces of the United States of America. The problem facing the MOD is challenging to say the least.

Mr. Francois: Is not the whole concept of air manoeuvre, to which the Apache is integral, very important to 21st-century warfare and, in particular, to the Army? There is not much point in preaching the concept of air manoeuvre, however, if half those helicopters sit in hangars because we have not been able to train pilots to fly them.

Mr. Simpson: Absolutely. The Government originally, and rightly, put at the centre of the strategic defence review the prospect of an Apache helicopter force that would be able to carry out the operations to which they would commit the Army.

Mr. Dalyell: Language is often very revealing in the House. The hon. Gentleman used the words Xa serious war". May I gently ask him to urge some caution—along with a number of his distinguished Conservative colleagues—on the Leader of the Opposition in regard to the language he uses in egging on those who are thinking of a serious war?

Mr. Simpson: I am always very careful about giving leaders any advice. I feel—the Minister probably feels the same—that those who go to see a leader are rather

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like the grand vizier who used to go to see the sultan and, when he left, used to shake his head to make certain that it was still on.

Harry Cohen: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Simpson: How can I resist the hon. Gentleman?

Harry Cohen: My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said that language was important. Just before he started talking about the Apaches, the hon. Gentleman said that we might become involved in a UN-led war or a war led by others in Iraq. Surely the Opposition would not favour a war that was against international law—would they?

Mr. Simpson: I was speaking academically. I am not a Minister, unfortunately; the hon. Gentleman would do better to put his question to the Minister who is present. I was merely reflecting speculation that has taken place in the media.

As the Minister pointed out, the armed forces are not just our first but our last line of defence. That Xcan do" mentality means a number of things. More than a year ago, the forces were brought in to resolve the logistical problems caused by foot and mouth. Brigadier Birtwistle arrived with virtually no knowledge of the problem. He scribbled on the back of an envelope, and made certain that things were done while others in public service found the circumstances frustrating or almost impossible to deal with.

As the Minister said, some 19,000 service personnel have been training to undertake defensive firefighting in the event of a firemen's strike. I am sure the whole House hopes that the use of those personnel will not be necessary. I was lucky enough to visit the Army barracks at Swanton Morley in my constituency last Friday, 25 October. RAF personnel from Marham and Coltishall are deployed throughout Norfolk in contingency training; some 170 have been taken away from specific tasks until 24 December, with no roulement and no leave. I watched an exercise involving Green Goddesses, specialists from the RAF and defence fire service rescue units. I join the Minister in paying tribute to Squadron Leader MacIntosh and the men and women under his command, who are preparing for an eventuality that will put great stress and strain on them.

There is no doubt, despite the excellent work being done, that the Green Goddesses are slow. They have small water tanks. These Green Goddesses were using hoses from the 1950s, and their operational area in my constituency will extend as far as the north Norfolk coast. The personnel concerned took their training seriously, and showed considerable enthusiasm; but, with the best will in the world—this is not really an issue for the Minister, but he might pass it on to the Deputy Prime Minister—those fire tenders are very old. I suspect that when they were called out in the 1970s, many of us assumed that that was their last hurrah. We may well have to think about a future requirement—particularly in terms of homeland defence—for a reserve capability that is slightly more realistic.

When I left Swanton Morley I had with me my 11-year-old son, who had sat in the car watching the demonstration. I had told him what it was all about. As

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we drove away he said that he had found it very enjoyable and interesting, but were the fire engines now going back to the museum? The Government should think carefully about the effectiveness of those machines should they ever be used again.

The Minister spoke of the new SDR chapter. The Government's 1998 SDR, written at the end of the cold war, said:

Within three years that had moved sideways, and the Government have admitted that they

When we discussed defence in the world, the Secretary of State made a welcome announcement to which the Minister did not allude. He announced that the British Government would carry out a series of studies of requirements for ballistic missile defence. That is an important subject, not least because of defence from missile attack against the United Kingdom, but also because ballistic missile defence might well be the other side of the strategic coin with the Government's willingness to consider a pre-emptive strategy.

Perhaps the Minister will comment on the fact that, following the Secretary of State's announcement, the French Government appear reluctant that NATO should fund studies on ballistic missile defence. Most of us probably regard ballistic missile defence as being not unique to the defence of the UK homeland, but relevant to the wider European mainland.

The Select Committee produced an excellent report on defence and security in the United Kingdom. The Minister said that it had been extremely critical about a number of matters. I will not go into the details because I know that they will be raised by others, but, having listened to the Minister, I am concerned about the crucial issue of who is ultimately responsible for homeland defence. It must ultimately be the Prime Minister. Sir David Omand in the Cabinet Office is the co-ordinator of activity, but I must say this, with the best will in the world—I suspect the Minister is aware of it—when I listened, at a tactical level, to his explanation of the role of reserve forces, I perceived a certain amount of blurring around the edges in terms of lines of communication, command and control, and who was ultimately responsible, not least because so many Government and local government agencies are involved.

We all know that Xco-ordination" frequently means moving pieces around the chessboard, rather than action. I suggest to the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) that it might be an idea for his Defence Select Committee, the Select Committee on Home Affairs and the Intelligence and Security Committee to consider a joint study of homeland defence, giving specific consideration to co-ordination. At present it seems unlikely that, in the event of a major terrorist incident in the United Kingdom, we would witness a seamless reaction by the Government. It seems unlikely that there would be someone in overall command and control, and that that would be arranged

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quickly. I think that the Ministry of Defence would react quickly. However, I am concerned about the co-ordination across Whitehall. I urge Ministers to press the rest of Whitehall strongly on that.

I thank the Minister for his statement on the role of the reserve forces, not least because it justifies all the hon. Members on both sides of the House who said in the Chamber when the strategic defence review was moving like a stately galleon that the cuts announced by the Government in the reserve forces were too great. To be fair, the Secretary of State has admitted that, in the light of circumstances, many of us were correct on that. Welcome as that is—a number of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), have mentioned this—there is still a number of questions about how effective the reserve forces will be.

The Minister talked about the fact that there would be additional training of five days a year. What sort of training will the reserve forces have as formed units? What sort of training will they have with the emergency services?

A crucial issue will be the sort of equipment that the reserve forces will be allocated. We all know that for financial reasons they tend to get what the regular forces have left over. If we are taking the threat, which Ministers have rightly flagged up, to homeland defence seriously, that question will have to be seriously addressed. With regard to command and control in the MOD, particularly on the military side, the reserve forces should not just be an add-on, something at the bottom end of the list for brigade and divisional commanders.

Defence policy, budget and the armed forces depend crucially on the support of the public. In my county of Norfolk, we have been in the front line for 60 years. We had the largest fixed-wing aircraft carrier in western Europe, first during the second world war and then during the cold war, with the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force stationed in large numbers.

Other parliamentary colleagues have raised this question. Since the end of the cold war the MOD has disposed of hundreds of barracks, stations, dockyards, stores and married quarters. The specific question of the disposal of married quarters is causing some disquiet in Norfolk. Recently, in south-west Norfolk, the public were upset to discover that married quarters were being sold in blocks of three creating a suspicion that buyers were speculators rather than people needing a home.

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