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Mr. Hoon: Since we have yet to sign the contract for the second tranche, which we have been negotiating over the past few weeks, it is important that we take our fences as they arise. I hope to be able to set out the position to the House in due course, but until we have solved the problem with the second tranche, both the financial and other implications, it is right that I should not speculate about the third tranche. I will give way again to the right hon. and learned Gentleman if he would like to give an absolute commitment that the Liberal Democrats would sign a contract for the tranche, with all the costs involved, but he does not want to do so.
Mr. Hoon: Since the third tranche is not due to come into service for many years, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we can adjust the number of pilots who will be required to fly those highly capable aircraft.
At the heart of those changes is the restructuring of the infantry, made possible by progress towards a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. The requirement for infantry in the Province has reduced by four battalions. The manpower freed up will be redistributed across the Army, not only to develop more robust and resilient unit establishments in the remaining infantry, but to bolster the most heavily committed specialists, such as logisticians, engineers and intelligence personnel. The argument is straightforward: some parts of the Army are still harder pressed than the infantry. So if we retained the four infantry battalions, how would we
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explain such an approach to hard-pressed logisticians, engineers and intelligence personnel, without whom the infantry simply cannot deploy?
David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP): We all hope that the normalisation of security in Northern Ireland will allow the Regular Army to be used with the other armed forces in the international fight against terrorism, thus relieving the pressure on the manpower of the Army. That manpower relief will be helped if the Secretary of State will give a commitment to retain our three home battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment for home defence in Northern Ireland, backing up the civil powers.
Mr. Hoon: I had, by chance, a meeting this morning with a number of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland. We had a very good discussion about the way forward, but I hope that they will accept that we agreed that any decisions in anticipation of normalisation and what we hope will be a long-term political settlement in the north of Ireland would then lead to further discussions about how we best deal with the situation there.
The arms plot has tied up seven or eight infantry battalions at any one time with moving, re-roling and retraining. By removing arms plotting, most if not all the eventual 36 battalions of infantry will be available to deploya significant increase in deployable battalions. The changes that we are introducing will ensure that we have more forces available for operations, while reducing the burden of operational commitments for both our people and their families. Those changes will produce a new structure for the infantry. We want to retain the best of the regimental systemcontinuity, regional identity, esprit de corps and traditionwhile losing the worst: instability, inflexibility and undermanning. We believe that we can do that and create a more efficient and flexible Army.
The world is going through a period of major strategic change. The challenges posed by international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and failed states are global challenges that will require an international response. In dealing with them, we must work in partnership with our allies in Europe, NATO and the United Nations to resolve conflict, build peace and democracy and tackle the causes of poverty and instability. Where necessary, the international community must be prepared to intervene and take action.
The men and women of our armed forces, diplomats and civil servants are already playing their part. They are supporting the Iraqi and Afghan people as they build a new, democratic future, and they are doing so in difficult and dangerous circumstances. They are at the very sharp end of our desire to be a force of good in the world. I pay tribute to them.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con):
Although we understand the need for the Foreign Secretary to attend the Iraq conference at Sharm el-Sheikh and his consequent absence from the debate, we regret, contrary to the original discussions between my right hon. and learned Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary and the
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Foreign Secretary, the deliberate downgrading of the foreign affairs aspect of the debate by the leaving of the Government's contribution on foreign policy to the very end.
The House has enjoyed several full debates on defence recently but has had little or no chance to debate foreign affairs and the international situation. It is time that the Foreign Secretary addressed the House on what is becoming an increasingly difficult and turbulent world. We therefore demand a full debate in Government time, led by the Foreign Secretary, before Christmas. Failure to provide time for such a debate, particularly in the light of the Foreign Secretary's absence from the debate, can only be regarded as an admission that the Government have no comprehensive foreign policy in which they have sufficient confidence to face the House of Commons.
Mr. Hoon: It is well known that the order, nature and days on which these debates take place are matters for the Opposition. If the hon. Gentleman were so keen to have the debate on foreign affairs and defence in the presence of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, he could have chosen a different date. He knows that. Why is he misleading the House?
Mr. Soames: Another magnificent intervention by Mogadon Geoff. The whole House will be glad to see that he has woken up after a distressingly tiresome[Hon. Members: "Get on with it."] We would like to get on with it.
The House will be aware of events in Ukraine. Yesterday, 100,000 people gathered in central Kiev in support of Viktor Yushchenko. I know that I speak for the whole House when I say that the message from this place is one of support for the people of Ukraine. The electoral process has been condemned for its irregularities and its serious flaws and I know that, were he here, the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George)an observer to the electionswould provide a vivid account of how an election should not have been run. The international community must put pressure on the outgoing Government to exit peacefully.
In recent months, we have been reminded of the dedication, skill and determination of our armed forces as they are deployed around the world. Our country has made an outstanding contribution to the war on terror. Following the liberation of Iraq, more than 8,000 troops remain in the southern part of the country where they have maintained peace and security with great success
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and skill. They have performed a critical role in laying the foundations for democracy in the Shi'a-dominated south, making the sector a role model for much of the country. The recent redeployment of the Black Watch to Babil province is a reflection of the great esteem in which the British Army is held. It has done a remarkable and highly effective job. Away from the war on terror, in a week's time, our armed forces will provide the lead nation in securing continuing stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The Government also have the most serious responsibilities. They have to ensure that our troops are trained, equipped and thoroughly well prepared for the tasks that we ask of them. The Secretary of State is obliged to pay the closest attention to the overall well-being of our armed forces and their families. With that in mind, the Government must continually reassess the needs of the armed forces and their families both now and for the long term.
However, official reports published in the last year show that the Secretary of State has failed seriously to honour these grave responsibilities. He and his Department have been severely, rightly and frequently criticised by the all-party Select Committee on Defence, the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office for fundamental and unacceptable shortcomings in the Ministry of Defence's dismal ability to learn and act upon the hard lessons of previous operations. The Ministry is criticised for equipment shortages for the front line, leading to our troops being exposed to increased and serious risk. The criticisms refer to an inexcusable failure to supply body armour and the inability to locate it; the failure to supply nuclear, biological and chemical equipment for men and vehicles; the shameful failure to provide even the right clothing for the tasks that we ask of them; and the lack of confidence in the ability of the logistics system to meet units' needs in theatre and on operations.
Furthermore, the Public Accounts Committee has found that, despite investing more than £550 million since the first Gulf war in new computerised systems that include an asset management capability, the Ministry of Defence still inexplicably, disgracefully and inexcusably lacks a credible consignment-tracking system. Although the National Audit Office report on research and technology warns that
funding has been reduced by 30 per cent. since the mid 1990s. All of that has happened while the cost overruns and schedule slippages recorded in the major projects report mean that the services will not receive the equipment that they need in the time that they need it. Thus the costs of the Ministry of Defence's 20 biggest equipment projects have increased by £1.7 billion and the projects have been delayed by an average of three months each.
The Government have made a dangerous assumption that it is safe to dispense with today's capabilities before new ones come into service. Thus the Royal Navy is losing the long-range air defence cover provided by the Sea Harriers three years before the new Type 45 destroyers, with their air defence capability, come into service; they are now delayed by 18 months. The Royal Air Force is to lose its battle-proven and recently
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upgraded Jaguar strike aircraft long before the ground attack variant of the Eurofighter Typhoon enters service. The in-service date for the future rapid effects system has already slipped and there is not yet even a concept of operations for the system. How is the Army to cope with that serious credibility gap? What of the recently published winter supplementary estimates? What effect will the recent decision to make a £1 billion reduction from the front line have on our armed forces' capabilities?
What does that lengthy charge sheet say about the Secretary of State, and the Ministry of Defence, as he fails to fulfil his responsibilities towards our armed forces? Let us consider his response to the House of Commons Defence Committee's report on the White Paper. Paragraph 72 of the Committee's report says:
Yet, for reasons that remain beyond mortal comprehension, except to the baleful influence of the Chancellor, whose deep and abiding lack of enthusiasm for the armed forces is well known, the Secretary of State seems determined to cut the battalions that are necessary to achieve deterrence or stabilisation.
Let the House be under no illusion; the cutting of four infantry battalions is a political decision. It is driven entirely by the Chancellor and accepted in a bovine and supine manner by the Secretary of State. He will pay a hard price for it, as could the country and the Army. It is a disgraceful and rotten decision. Yes, there is a need to make the Army more useable, and we broadly support the ending of the arms plot. However, we truly believe that the size and nature of the cuts to the infantry make absolutely no sense. When we come to power, we will reinstate the battalions in the interests of our country's security and our ability to prosecute our interests where required. The same applies to the Royal Navy. The Government's decision today to do away with six frigates or destroyers is a dangerous folly. We will restore the three Type 23 frigates Grafton, Marlborough and Norfolk.
How will the infantry sustain its current level of operations with four fewer battalions, let alone take on as yet unforeseen commitments? Even our thoroughly complacent Secretary of State must agree that our forces have never been so busy. Deployments come thick and fast, yet the overall size of the armed forces and, indeed, the quality of some of their capabilities is in worrying decline. The Secretary of State's announcement earlier this year in pursuit of
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