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House of Commons

Monday 17 May 2004

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

PRAYERS

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

DEFENCE

The Secretary of State was asked—

Iraq

1. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): What estimate he has made of the expected cost to the Government of maintaining a military presence in Iraq in financial year (a) 2004–05 and (b) 2005–06. [173149]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Before I answer Question 1, may I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Minister for Veterans, who is representing the Government at today's commemoration at Monte Cassino?

Of the £3.8 billion the Chancellor has set aside for operations in Iraq, £850 million was spent in 2002–03 and a further £1.5 billion was drawn down in supplementary estimates in 2003–04. Precise future costs are difficult to forecast.

Dr. Cable : After that vague reply on the future, why can the Secretary of State not be as honest with the House about the cost of the war as Mr. Rumsfeld is being in the United States? Will he confirm that net costs to the taxpayer currently run at about £125 million a month, excluding Ministry of Defence and Department for International Development costs incurred through the occupation?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman knows that I am always honest with the House. The figures that he sets out are roughly consistent with those that I indicated for 2002–03 and 2003–04. He is an economist by trade, but I am sure that he is good at long multiplication.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State promise the House that, whatever else may be skimped on and however much it costs, equipment to protect our forces from the searing, debilitating heat in Iraq from June to September will not be skimped on? We ask a great deal of our soldiers, who should not suffer in that heat because we have failed to act.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's concern and know that he speaks from a good deal of experience.
 
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I assure him that all MOD Ministers and, indeed, the chiefs of staff are prepared to make such an undertaking and that conditions for soldiers in the field today are infinitely better than they were when he served his country.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): What is now our mission in Iraq?

Mr. Hoon: Our mission in Iraq is to restore Iraq to the Iraqi people, to ensure a peaceful handover on 30 June and to ensure, as best we can, that we build a democratic, effective society in Iraq that allows it rightfully to rejoin the international community.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman knows that the sums are very large. He will understand that many hon. Members feel that we should not be in Iraq in the first place and are concerned by the lack of a clear strategy. Does he think that the budgetary proposals should be subject to a specific vote in this House of Commons?

Mr. Hoon: Such opportunities are, of course, available, if hon. Members choose to use the procedures. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has been in the House a great deal longer than me and probably knows the rules better than I do. Such opportunities are available to hon. Members, should they choose to pursue them.

Royal Air Force

2. Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): If he will make a statement on manning levels in the RAF. [173150]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): On 1 April 2004, the trained strength of the regular Royal Air Force was 48,740, which represents a deficit of 830 against the current requirement.

Mr. Djanogly : The reduction in the RAF's manning requirement, some 4.5 per cent. over the past four years, is the largest out of all the services. Despite that, the manning deficit is, as the Minister says, growing. Does he consider that effective management and, given the proposed base closures and the scrapped Typhoon and joint strike fighter orders, does he have any idea of future RAF required numbers?

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman lives in a dream world and is extrapolating his argument from predictions. Recruitment for all three services clearly faces some difficulties and we throw a lot of effort at it. The more people speak up for the armed forces, the greater the chances of success; constant carping and criticism undermine both retention and recruitment.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Is the Minister aware of the concern in Norfolk about the proposed closure of RAF Coltishall and the removal from service of the Jaguar? That comes on top of the Eurofighter, which has had its cannons removed on cost
 
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grounds, and the joint strike fighter, which is apparently too heavy to land with a full payload. Does he feel that he is letting the RAF down?

Mr. Ingram: I know who has let down the RAF in the past and we are recovering from those errors of judgment, which occurred across the three services. Again, the hon. Gentleman bases his arguments on press speculation, and I suggest that he wait for a decision—if a decision is made—and make a judgment call on it. His approach adds to the negativity created by the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly).

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): The Minister knows that large-scale restructurings are taking place among various trade groups in the Royal Air Force and that the defence airfield review teams—DARTs—have been examining different base structures. I am sure that he agrees that it is important to have a communications strategy to tell people on the bases about impending changes in a robust and informative way. Is he confident that such a communications strategy exists to minimise unnecessary anxieties on bases such as RAF Lossiemouth and Kinloss?

Mr. Ingram: I would be worried if we were not communicating the matters that we are currently considering. Of course, the end-to-end strategy, which takes into account land and air, has identified significant areas of potential efficiency within uniformed personnel and the civilian support elements, whether directly in support or in industry. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would support such measures to ensure that we extract maximum efficiency so that every pound that has been spent goes to the front line. That is part of what drives our actions. I shall examine existing communications because I appreciate that much effort has gone into ensuring that our people are fully aware of why we are acting, the possible consequences and the benefits that can flow from it.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Since manning depends on the aircraft available, when does the Minister expect the Typhoon and the seriously overweight joint strike fighter, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) referred, to be in full operational service? Is not it the case that, if the proposed savage cuts reported in the press occur, they will reduce the RAF to a level below the critical mass necessary to maintain a credible air superiority capability for the United Kingdom?

Mr. Ingram: The answer has not changed from that about which the hon. Gentleman has been told. There is nothing new to change the in-service date. Again, he refers to press speculation and extrapolates from that a doom-laden scenario for the RAF. Let us talk up the RAF for a bit.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

3. Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): If he will make a statement on the progress made in delineating tasks between the EU and NATO in Bosnia and Herzegovina. [173151]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Work continues on the precise delineation of
 
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tasks between the EU and NATO in Bosnia and Herzegovina in anticipation of the withdrawal of the stabilisation force, SFOR. We would expect the EU force in Bosnia to provide the security framework to enable political and economic development to continue. NATO's continuing role will be to focus on defence reform, including advising the Bosnians on NATO accession and some operational tasks, including counter-terrorism and support of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Mr. Wilkinson : Does the Secretary of State agree that, if the EU is to take over the principal stabilisation role from NATO by the end of the year, as planned, the EU force will have to have sufficient manpower and resources to carry out its job effectively and that there should be no overlap, turf wars or differences of approach but co-ordination and co-operation between the EU and NATO in Bosnia? Will a British officer command the EU force?

Mr. Hoon: Let me deal with the general principle first. The hon. Gentleman is right that there needs to be absolute clarity about the responsibilities of the EU force and any continuing EU activity in the area. That is why, as I said to hon. Members a few moments ago, we are engaged in detailed discussions to prevent any such overlap and confusion of roles. We are working towards that before any decision is made on the future of SFOR, as he acknowledged in his question. That decision has not yet been made.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South) (Lab): My right hon. Friend knows that the EU wishes to be perceived as a major player in the international sphere on maintaining security. Does he believe that that is sufficient reason for dividing security between the EU and NATO in Bosnia and Herzegovina? Since we are considering a Berlin-plus operation, will any non-EU European NATO allies be involved in it?

Mr. Hoon: In a sense, my hon. Friend answered the first part of his question with his reference to Berlin-plus. Arrangements have been established to allow the EU to take advantage of the military assets available to NATO. That was part of the agreement known as Berlin-plus and it will underpin any EU operation in the Balkans. It is important to recognise that not all EU members are necessarily members of NATO. It is right that we should take advantage of their military capabilities to develop the sort of operation for which Europe in particular should be responsible in its sphere of influence. The Balkans is clearly within that. It is right and proper that, if it is decided to end SFOR, the EU should take over.


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