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Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement. I join him and the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) in congratulating the members of our armed forces, who continue to perform their work in Iraq and elsewhere with great distinction. The House also pays tribute to their families.
Liberal Democrat Members welcome the strategic rebalancing that the Government have announced today. However, that investment must never come at the expense of the number of regular and reservist personnel. Yes, our forces need to be able to fight high-intensity wars, but they also need to have the troop numbers to keep peacekeeping operations going and to give support at home. The message today from the Government appears to be that they can manage boththat they can maintain that balanceand we sincerely hope that they are right. However, the evidence so far does not always suggest that that is the case.
Today's National Audit Office report on Operation Telic highlights significant difficulties with supplying large numbers of troops in the desert, all of which were identified as problems after Saif Sareea 2. We warned of those difficulties at the time; indeed, members of one unit even returned to the UK to try to find NBCnuclear, biological and chemicalequipment, without success. Either in Iraq there was no threat from chemical or biological weapons, or the MOD sent troops into theatre without proper protection. Will the Secretary of State tell us which it is?
Then there is overstretch. This morning, the Secretary of State said on the "Today" programme that the average tour interval is now 10 months, but the MOD's target is 24 months. Is that interval still 10 months, and how many troops would be required to meet the 24-month target? If he cannot tell us now, perhaps he will write to me. He said that reservist numbers will not be cut, but can he assure us that the overall establishment strength of all three armed forces will not be reduced further as a result of today's announcement?
The right hon. Gentleman rightly paid tribute to his predecessor, Lord Robertson, and mentioned the strategic defence review. One benefit of the SDR was that there was the widest possible consultation across the House and, indeed, the armed forcesin effect, the SDR belonged to Parliament, not just the Government. Does he agree that that consultation was helpful to the SDR, and will his future plans include a similar level of consultation? If they do, in the end our troops will be the winners.
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observations. It is important to look at the NAO report in context. It highlights the remarkable success achieved by our armed forces and the personnel who supported and equipped them while they were engaged in high-intensity warfare. At the same time, it recognises, as the Ministry of Defence and I have always done, that that was not perfect and that there were difficulties. I have made that point on a number of occasions to him and
There are certainly lessons that we can learn. The "lessons learned" report that I have published today is a tough document. I did not want to put before the House a bland assertion that everything would be resolved. We have to learn the lessons and make improvements, but I am confident that, with the contribution of the armed forces and civil servants in the Ministry of Defence, we will be able to do so.
Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that a key reason why the United Kingdom Government can act as an influential global player is the high standards and professionalism of our armed forces? What assurances can he give us that the proposals in the White Paper and the detailed proposals that will follow will not in any way lead to a decline in the ability of our armed forces to maintain those high standards and their international reputation?
Mr. Hoon: I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to maintain those high standards, and we have to do so in the face of the changing strategic environment. I have come to envy my predecessors who were in office during the stability of the cold war, when force structures essentially remained constant from year to year. That has not been the case during the time in which I have had the privilege of holding this position, nor indeed was it the case for my predecessor. Consequently, we have to face up to the difficult decisions required to achieve precisely what my hon. Friend set out.
Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): Service personnel at all levels carry a heavy burden of responsibility, and their conditions of service should reflect that. If under the pensions review large new categories of dependants, including unmarried partners, are given rights, and if the Treasury has insisted that the pensions review is carried out on a cost-neutral basis, does it not follow as night follows day that there will be significant reductions in pension entitlement? Is that fair?
Mr. Hoon: In fact, that is not the case. Obviously, in the course of considering both pensions and compensation arrangements, adjustments will be made to reflect the modern world in which we live. I gathered from the tone of the hon. Gentleman's observations that he is concerned about providing benefits for unmarried partners. The Ministry of Defence could be criticised for the fact that members of the armed forces have been rather tardy in recognising such relationships. Nevertheless, I anticipate that the change will be broadly welcomed, given the society in which we all now live.
Jim Knight (South Dorset) (Lab): I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, particularly the commitment to sustaining interoperability with the United States and the commitment to Europe and NATO. However, will
Mr. Hoon: Training will continue to be essential as, indeed, will our reliance on heavy armour, which, as the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex implied, performed magnificently in operations in Iraq. It is important, however, to emphasise the need for flexibility. We need to develop, as the Army has recommended, not only light and heavyweight forces but medium-weight forces that can be deployed with greater protection than light forces currently enjoy. I will set out in more detail the precise implications of the proposals, and I apologise for not saying so to the House before. For my hon. Friend and other right hon. and hon. Members who believe that there may be implications for their constituencies, I should be delighted to discuss those implications with them.
Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests. I should like to ask the Secretary of State about supporting essay No. 3, which anticipates a policy of reserves being mobilised on any type or scale of operation. Does the Secretary of State accept that if reserves are repeatedly mobilised on low-intensity, medium-sized operations there will not be any reserves, because employers will not run the risk of engaging themand I include in that my own constituents?
Mr. Hoon: I am delighted to welcome the hon. Gentleman back. If he will forgive me for making a personal observation, his period of volunteering in Iraq seems to have been good for him, given his general demeanour, colour, health and, dare I say, weight. I apologise for the fact that I was unable to see him during my visits to Iraq. I saw his colleague, the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), and I know that he was conducting valuable liaison work with the Italian forces, which was particularly important in the light of the losses recently sustained by Italy.
I do not entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman's observations about reservists. There have been efforts across the country to discuss with employers the way in which reservists were deployed, and we need to learn lessons about that. I participated in a number of those meetings and heard nothing but praise from employers for the role of reservists. They certainly want more information and want to be consulted earlier, and I have taken that on board. However, they are proud of their employees and the fact that they went into action as reservists. I saw no sign at all that they want to prevent that in future, although I cannot say the same about the hon. Gentleman's constituents.
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) (Lab): I should like to ask about the future of our armed forces in Iraq. My right hon. Friend will be aware that the CIA has conceded that Iraqi resistance is getting stronger every day. Because the Iraqi governing council has proved useless, the United States has changed its policy and said that it