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31 Oct 2002 : Column 1040—continued

Bob Russell (Colchester): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Simpson: I will in a minute.

The Under-Secretary will be aware that some 200 former RAF quarters are standing empty and neglected at West Raynham just outside my constituency, which could be used for local housing. I know that the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) has spoken with the Under-Secretary, who said that he would look at the issue but that it was dependent on the review of forthcoming RAF bases nationwide. Perhaps the Under-Secretary can tell us when we can expect the review to be completed and when a decision may be made.

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I heard a faint mewing from my left.

Bob Russell rose—

Mr. Simpson: How very aptly from my left.

Bob Russell: Will the hon. Gentleman remind the House which Government sold off all the Army married quarters?

Mr. Simpson: That is a classic Liberal Democrat attack. The package for married quarters was introduced by the last Conservative Government. There is no secret. I do not know where the hon. Gentleman has been—I know where he was before he became a Liberal Democrat: he was in the Labour party, so I suppose his policies will have changed—[Interruption.] I am afraid to say that he was.

Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have MOD establishments in their constituencies that are awaiting disposal. Rightly, the Treasury is looking at the best value that it can get for those properties. Rightly as well, the MOD is looking at ways in which it can use them, but when married quarters are lying empty and being vandalised, it is a wasting asset.

In this debate on defence in the UK, the Minister has raised a number of issues relating to the role of the armed forces, the part that they play in the community, their strength, their deployment as part of an expeditionary force capability and their newly resurrected role in home defence. All of us support what the Minister said about the vital role that the armed forces play, but Conservative Members are conscious of the fact that the armed forces are being asked to take on new roles, that even with the resources that the Government say they are giving to the armed forces, there are still serious shortfalls and that in the event of more than one concurrent activity, the ability of the armed forces to provide long-term sustainability will be incredibly difficult.

The armed forces always rise to the challenge, but I think that all hon. Members know that in the past year many members of the armed forces have realised just how much they are now being asked to do. Our task is to make certain that they are given the support and resources that they need for the policy that the Government commit them to.

2.56 pm

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South): I am sure that the signal was sent to the Conservative party, XSimpson is back" to help a deeply demoralised party facing a major crisis. When the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) referred to who is in charge, I must confess—no, I should not say it. [Hon. Members: XGo on."] No, I will not. The hon. Gentleman knows exactly what I was going to say.

The hon. Gentleman was talking about the civil contingencies secretariat and leadership in response to a crisis in this country, a concern that the Defence Committee shares. I thank him and the Minister for their kind comments. As he will know, a symbiotic relationship exists between the Defence Committee and the Opposition Front-Bench team. We must co-ordinate a little more consistently over the months so that he

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remains in his position, otherwise when his leader reads his speech perhaps his head will be metaphorically chopped off and he will fully deserve it.

That is the extent of my bipartisanship for the moment. If provoked, I will go further and talk about jumping on bandwagons. As an observer of procurement failures over the past 25 years, I only wish that the delays had been for two years and eight months. This programme is on target in terms of budget and the quality of the helicopter, which is first rate. It is a great shame that some people wish to denigrate what is an excellent piece of equipment.

There has been a mistake, or mistakes, in the procurement of equipment for training; that is clear to all concerned. The company will pay for it. The delay of under three years, while it may appear to be a disaster, when set against the background of past procurement failures, is of about the same earthquake potential as the Dudley earthquake a few months ago, which measured I think 4.5 on the Richter scale. Apart from frightening my wife into thinking that I was snoring more loudly than normal, it caused little damage.

I understand that the Deputy Chairman of the Defence Committee wishes to intervene. I willingly give way.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, the Chairman of the Defence Committee. Conservative Members have no intention whatever of denigrating the Apache; we were the party responsible for procuring it. At the time, I happened to be involved in supporting another bid, which was unsuccessful. The Apache is a first-class machine, but there is criticism of the incapability of the simulator to provide pilot training. The National Audit Office, not the Conservative party, drew attention to that problem.

Mr. George: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I think that the first criticism is on page 24 of the Select Committee report. If people are prepared to look at the situation in the round, they will see that it is not a disaster. It is not for me to defend the procurement process, but I am concerned that we should not jump on too many bandwagons.

I am pleased that the Government and the Opposition received our report favourably. I am proud of the way in which the Select Committee operates and although the report ruffled a few feathers, it is an example of the Select Committee system at its best. It has been suggested that several Select Committees produce a joint report. I have tried that, and as a consequence the Defence Committee published its own report, which has not suffered as a result of being produced by just one Select Committee.

It is not for the Defence Committee to beat the drum for the armed forces or the Ministry of Defence, so we looked not simply at how to avoid a crisis by meeting the threat as far away as possible, but at how to minimise risk, what to do if all else fails and at how good we are as a nation at trying to clear up as swiftly and successfully as possible if—or when—we are attacked. The whole system will be called into question if such an attack succeeds and we have to depend on the three blue-light emergency services. I hope to God that an attack does not take place when one of the three is not fully operational, as the consequences would be

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horrendous and fingers would be pointed in many directions. I know in which direction my index finger would point.

I am pleased that the Government have recognised the work of the Defence Committee and our

That must be our common aim. The issue is arguably the most pressing that we face. We all know what terrorists can do and that, despite recent military and policing successes in dealing with terrorism, many terrorists are still out there, closer than we imagine.

David Veness, whose experience in fighting terrorism is unrivalled, told the Defence Committee that terrorists would strike. I share that fear. Defence in the UK covers more than defence against the terrorist threat, which is the most immediate issue covered by the Select Committee report. I am delighted that this debate comes just one week after the Government published their response to our report. Defence does not involve only the armed forces. The defence of the United Kingdom also looks to the police, voluntary services, the private security industry and architects of high-rise buildings.

During the summer, I spoke to some 25 heads of security in large corporations, mainly in London. I asked them what they were doing. Most of them were taking the threat seriously, but the Select Committee found that more than half of the largest companies in the UK have no business continuity plans. If companies plan to rely on the insurance industry to rescue them, they are making a great mistake. If there is a major crisis or attack, public services may be overwhelmed, so ultimately it may be up to the companies to use their own resources to minimise the consequences. An attack on the City of London or Canary wharf will have not just immediate disastrous consequences for individual companies, but for the whole economy.

The current threat is similar to the one that we faced during the cold war of having our entire society disrupted and large chunks of it destroyed. The difference is that during the cold war many people thought that the only chance of catastrophic attack was if there was a mistake, but from now on, a successful attack on the UK is likely to be deliberate and the consequences could easily be comparable with the worst fears during the cold war.

Harry Cohen: Given the context of this part of my right hon. Friend's speech about a possible terrorist attack on parts of Britain, what does he think of a policy that relies on nuclear power stations?

Mr. George: No doubt my hon. Friend spent the recess attending to his constituency duties as diligently as he always does. As I said, I spent much of the recess studying and that included preparing a paper for an international conference on the very subject that he raises. Rather than spending time on it now, I would be delighted to send him a copy of my report. If I could reach, I would hand it over now. It is a matter that causes me considerable concern. I shall not write to my hon. Friend but give him a copy of the paper.

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