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31 Oct 2002 : Column 1072—continued

Mr. Kevan Jones: Following my sin analogy, my hon. Friend obviously agrees not only with sin, but with quality sin. Is it not the point that a lot of those high-tech jobs in the south-east support long supply chains, including industries in the north-east of England and small and medium-sized enterprises that rely on such contracts for their livelihood?

Laura Moffatt: I thank my hon. Friend, who is right. It should not be assumed that research and development work such as that being done in Crawley has no impact on the final product, often outside our own constituencies. It is important to remember that the defence industry is global in nature. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State addressed a defence industry conference a couple of weeks ago, he pointed out how complex the matter is. We are talking not only about British-based companies, but about companies with major interests in the UK, and we need to support those jobs.

I am pleased that, after donkeys' years, Thales in my constituency has recognised the trade unions, which it did not do in its previous life. That is a step forward; therefore Thales is, and is seen as, an excellent employer. The Chairman of the Defence Committee may have another view—I am sure he does—but the fact is that such companies are important to our economic base and we should remember to be careful about and sensitive of that. We must not say, XThey are foreign owned and therefore not important to this country." Clearly, that is not the case.

It would be extremely silly of me to sit down without making a plea for two really good procurements that I feel deeply about and which will strengthen the technology base in the UK—Watchkeeper, and the advance vehicle training system, which will give our armed forces the ability to train without causing huge disturbances to our countryside. Those technologies will allow training to take place in circumstances that are almost real, so it is important that we develop them. That is at the core of the work going on in Crawley. Having mentioned it, I hope that regard is paid to its importance.

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These debates are significant. We range widely, even though we are discussing defence in the UK, but it is important to understand that everybody involved in defence is part of a process and likes to feel part of that process. Even those working in defence companies that are manufacturing goods for our armed forces have something special about them. They understand what they are doing and what contribution they are making to defence in the UK. We need to recognise that their work is important.

Competition is right—of course it is. We must ensure that we get the best value for money at every turn and that whatever is procured is fit for the job, but we must value those who work so tirelessly to ensure that our armed forces are the pride of the world and have first-class equipment.

5.4 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): I am grateful to be called in a debate on such an important subject. I shall raise two specific issues relating to defence in the United Kingdom—the new chapter of the strategic defence review and the outcome of the Government's related consultation exercise on the role of the reserves in home defence and security as well as the UK's resilience against attack and the connected topic of emergency planning.

The new chapter of the SDR was issued to update UK defence policy in the light of the events of 11 September. The first paragraph states:

In response to the paper, a number of organisations and individuals—of whom I was but one—argued that the Territorial Army and other reserve forces should be given an enhanced role in helping to provide for the security of the UK against such asymmetric attacks.

The MOD subsequently issued a more specific paper on the role of the reserves in home defence and security. At the heart of its suggestion was the establishment of what were then called regional reaction forces, in most cases formed around one of the remaining TA infantry battalions in each region, which would give a UK-wide total of around 6,000 personnel in that role. Reaction forces could be called on at short notice to assist the police and civil authorities in the event of an impending or actual crisis. I agree with the reaction force concept, and I therefore welcome the Minister's announcement this afternoon—although perhaps the MOD could have come up with a slightly sexier name for the units to encourage recruitment and retention.

When I served in the Territorial Army, I specialised partly in what is now called chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological warfare—CBNR in the current jargon. That gave me at least some conception of how lethal biological agents, or small quantities of chemicals such as VX and sarin, can be. If we were subjected to any kind of attack with such weapons, particularly if it were a concerted assault rather than a one-off, the consequences could be truly awful. Given the media

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hysteria that would inevitably result, there would be a pressing need for considerable numbers of trained troops to give protection and reassurance to the civilian population, in order to allow some semblance of normality. The regular Army is simply too small to provide such protection on its own, and besides it will always be partially deployed overseas. I believe that a revamped and retrained TA could fill the gap by providing units specifically trained to deal with homeland security and chemical and biological first aid.

I ask Ministers, including the Minister who is present, to consider establishing a specialist CBNR platoon in each TA battalion, with a higher readiness than the rest of the unit, which might be expected to provide a trained response on the ground within hours of an attack—to act, as it were, as a CBNR spearhead in reacting to an incident such as a chemical attack on a local railway station, when CBNR troops in kit would probably be needed to assist the blue-light emergency services, very few of which are CBNR-trained and equipped. Such a platoon could also act as a specialist CBNR cadre for the rest of the battalion and, indeed, other elements in the regional reaction force.

Let me put it succinctly. If someone were to launch any kind of concerted attack on the civilian population of the United Kingdom, we would need far more specially trained troops than we have now. I agree that the TA would provide a very cost-effective solution.

I want to say something about the resilience of the UK in the face of terrorist attack, and the related issue of emergency planning. I have done some research, and have received direct briefing from local government officers with responsibilities in this field. I thank, among others, Mr. Charles Thomas, the emergency planning officer of Rochford district council—with whom, incidentally, I served in the TA—and Mr. Peter Pearson, the emergency planning officer of Essex county council.

A number of serious challenges need to be addressed if we are to improve the resilience of the United Kingdom to any type of asymmetric attack. First, emergency planning is woefully under-resourced. The Government spend only around #19 million a year specifically on that, compared with a defence budget of billions of pounds.

Most district councils have no full-time emergency planning officer at all. The person who holds that role is usually double or triple-hatted, has other responsibilities and so can spend only a proportion of each day preparing for potential disaster. Most county councils and unitary authorities do at least have a full-time emergency planning office but even the largest county councils have only a very small staff—what amounts to a planning cell—to deal with these issues. Most of the Xbuffer stocks" from the cold war era have disappeared. Much of the planning to date has been London-centric, rather than addressing the problem across the UK. In short, most local authorities lack both the specialist staff and the resources in sufficient quantities to respond adequately to a real attack as opposed to a theoretical exercise.

Secondly, lines of command and control in emergency planning are unclear, a point that was made both by the Chairman of the Defence Committee and by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson). Emergency planning is a classic example of a cross-

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cutting issue. It involves not just the MOD but other Departments, including the Cabinet Office, the Home Office, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Department of Health, to name just a few. That raises the issue of who is in charge in the event of an attack. There is still considerable confusion about the relationship between the civil contingency secretariat, the military, chief constables and local authorities in the event of an emergency. We need to cut through that Gordian knot while we still have time to do so.

The handling of the foot and mouth crisis—I stress to the Minister that I am not seeking to make a partisan point—provided a clear example of what can happen when lines of command and control are unclear. In the event the Army responded excellently but it was several weeks before it was fully called in. We would not have several weeks to react, or even several days. We may have only a few hours to save potentially thousands of lives in the event of a substantial asymmetric attack. The stakes are that high. We must clarify exactly what our response mechanisms are and, having done that, rehearse them thoroughly.

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