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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig):
This has been an important and valuable debate, and every Member's contribution has helped in that regard. I apologise at the outset for the absence of the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence. As he advised the Opposition parties, he has had to leave London.
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As a force for good across the world, our armed forces are second to none. Our service personnel do a tremendous job in often unimaginable circumstances and they deserve the very best support that we can give them. My agendamy mission as a Minister in the Ministry of Defenceis simple. It is to demonstrate to the whole defence family that we value them: our cadets, reserves and serving personnel, and their families, and our veterans.
This year more than ever we have shown how we value the contribution made by those who defended our freedoms in the darkest days of the previous century. Our men and women become veterans the moment that they leave the armed forces, and I believe that it is very important to remind the public of what they have done for us, while at the same time making sure that they know that we are there to give help, advice and support for the rest of their lives.
I am delighted that the armed forces veterans badge has been so well received, and we are very pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was able to announce that eligibility is being extended to cover those who served between the wars and up to 1954.
I am also pleased that the Ministry of Defence makes a significant contribution to the Government's youth agenda. I should like to pay personal tribute to all the adult volunteers who give so much of their time to the cadet forces. It is a direct result of their efforts that the cadet movement is one of Britain's largest youth organisations with a membership in excess of 130,000.
For the commitment and personal sacrifices that our service people make, they deserve the confidence and peace of mind that comes from knowing that their families are cared for, particularly when they are away on operations. Members of the armed forces draw heavily on the support that they get from their families, supporters and loved ones. There is no question in my mind that we must continue to deliver practical improvements to the things that make people feel good about the extra mile that we often ask them to go.
They expectand I agree with themthat we should and will deliver good-quality accommodation, a fair allowances package and a robust and responsive welfare network. Over the past three financial years, we have upgraded 5,452 married quarters, at a cost of £120 million. Over the next four years, we intend to upgrade a further 3,300. I pay tribute to the service families associations for the full part that they play in helping us to devise our policies.
It is appropriate that I say something about the reserves and the regular forces together, because together is exactly how they serve in our modern forces. On the numbers in the reserves, we have witnessed Opposition Members shed a quantity of crocodile tears[Interruption.] We should not forget that, in their years in power, they cut the reserve forces by 20,000. They do not like to be reminded, but there is an old saying, "By their actions ye shall know them."
Our reserves play a vital role in the success of operations. The strategic defence review envisaged more capable reserves, more closely integrated with the regular forces. I also pay tribute to the employers who give reserves time to serve. That is of tremendous value and the country owes them a great debt.
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In the past few days, and in this debate, we have heard a great deal from Opposition Members about the military justice system. The armed forces Bill will be presented to Parliament later this month, with a Second Reading possible in December. It will give us an opportunity to streamline and modernise our system of military justice and I suspect that it will provoke much discussion in this House.
In this debate, as in others, a great deal of outrage has been generated by some Opposition Members. They produce a tremendous amount of heat but not a lot of light on this subject. Our armed forces are the very first to say that they should act within the law. Where there are questions about the conduct of individuals, those individuals should be properly investigated and dealt with. That is a proud tradition of the British forces, and one that this Parliament upholds.
Mr. Touhig: No. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me but I have very little time. Under normal circumstances, I would give way to him, but those hon. Members who have served in the armed forces know the truth of what I am saying.
Some accusations made by Opposition Members are perhaps designed more to inflame the leader writers than to inform any debate. The MOD gives tremendous support and help to all our people involved in the legal process. The Bloody Sunday inquiry and the Stevens investigationto which I referred during Defence questions on Mondayprove that we give that support. We will continue to give it.
It is time to set the record straight on current and recent prosecutions. Through ignorance or malice, or because certain of them seem to get things wrong, Opposition Members are damaging the morale of our armed forces by the way that they treat this issue.
I am mindful of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). His attack on the Chief of the General Staff is a disgrace and a shame he will bear for a long time. I respect the hon. Gentleman as a former serving soldier and he knows that it is the convention in this country that serving officers do not engage in politics. I urge him now to help save his reputation and withdraw the slur on the good name of General Sir Mike Jackson. No less offensive were the allegations of political interference, which were as incoherent as they were intemperate.
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Contrary to the allegations that have been made, there is absolutely no political involvement in decisions of the independent Army prosecution authority.
Sometimes I wonder exactly what the Opposition want. Are they saying that there should be political interference and that Ministers should intervene to stop prosecutions? Alternatively, are they saying that British troops should be above the law? I am sure that they are not doing so, but that is the impression that they seem to give.
Mr. Touhig: As I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, the responsibility of the Attorney-General comes into play after the Army prosecution authority believes that there is a matter to be prosecuted. That is how it happens and how it has been happening. We need a robust system of military justice through which allegations are investigated and, if appropriate, wrongdoers brought to court. That is what the Government want.
Let me respond to the comments made by hon. Members. First, I pay tribute to the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram). We wish him well in his retirement. He has made a considerable contribution as a Member of the House, an Opposition spokesman and a Minister. I endorse warmly the comments that have been made on both sides of House at his last appearance at the Dispatch Box.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman alleged that the Government were responsible for cutting the defence budget. When his party was in power, defence spending[Hon. Members: "Come on."] It is funny how Conservative Members do not want to hear these things. The Conservative Government cut defence spending by 15 per cent., and that was after the cold war. This Government are increasing defence spending by 7.5 per cent.that is the difference.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman went on to complain about regiments and various cuts to forces. Let us not forget that the Conservative Government merged several regiments. They also reduced numbers in the Navy. The number of submarines fell from 18 to 10 and the number of frigates from 22 to 19. The number of Navy personnel was cut from 58,000 to 45,000. During the Tory Government of 1992 to 1997, the number of RAF squadrons fell from 55 to 47, which was a reduction of 15 per cent. The Conservatives have nothing to teach anyone about how to handle the armed forces.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman criticised the Government's procurement record, but in 1997the year that the Conservatives left officethe National Audit Office found that the top 25 defence procurement projects in which the Conservative Government were involved were £3 billion over the original costs and would be delivered three years late. That was the Conservatives' record in government.
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I was especially worried that the right hon. and learned Gentleman suggested that the armed forces were under a "legal siege". That is rubbish. There have been 80,000 troop deployments in Iraq since we have been there, but in that time, there have been 184 investigations, which includes investigations of road traffic incidents. Of those investigations, one is ongoing, three have been dealt with by a commanding officer, five have been passed to the Army prosecuting authority, five are due for trial and 164 are closed. Five trials have been held and one case is now with the chain of command. There is no siege on our forces as far as the legal system is concerned.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) said that he believed that there should be an open debate on defence. He is right, but we have five defence debates a yearthis is one of themso we have a fairly open debate on defence.
The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) made several points about nuclear policy. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made his views on that clear during Defence questions this week, so I have nothing to add to what he said.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the publication of the tri-service Bill. As I said, we hope to publish it at the end of the month and hold the Second Reading debate at the end of December. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State referred to the Blake report earlier, so I do not think that I can add anything else to that.
I will take note of the points that the hon. Gentleman raised about Qinetiq. I will go through them thoroughly and, if necessary, write to him. I will place a copy of any correspondence in the Library.
I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) for his hard work on behalf of his constituents. The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) has been trying to intervene for some timehe must forgive me but I cannot give way at this timeand I know that he shares my hon. Friend's concerns about the proposed job losses at Donnington. All is not dark there and I hope that both Members will take part in the meetings with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. I cannot answer the question about the rail freight depot but to assist my hon. Friend I will ensure that it is passed on to my appropriate ministerial colleague.
The Chairman of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), has an important role. His Committee scrutinises on our behalf what we do day-to-day in the Ministry of Defence. I pay tribute to him and his Committee for their hard work. He mentioned a debate about Trident. I am sure that when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State reads Hansard tomorrow he will take note of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks, and if there is a wide-ranging debate I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend will welcome it.
The hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) expressed concern about TA recruitment. I certainly do not dismiss the points she raised. Of course, we are engaged in a battle in recruiting people to our forces.
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That is a fact and we do not deny it. However, she might like to hear some remarks made by soldiers themselves, and I shall read out a couple of them. The first is:
I know of the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) about DARA St. Athan. He has been campaigning about that for several years. As he knows, consultations are under way and I have no doubt that he will take part. I am encouraged by a south Wales newspaper headline, quoting my hon. Friend who said:
I did not agree with many of the things that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said, but his contribution was thoughtful and lucid. Such contributions are important in defence debates. It was a good House of Commons speech, which considered the whole ambit of defence. I thank him for the main thrust of his remarks, although I disagreed with some of his conclusions. It was an excellent contribution to our debate. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) made a similar contribution and I certainly welcome his comments.
The hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) mentioned the tri-service Bill. Perhaps he will serve on the Committee; if so, he will bring much wisdom and knowledge to our deliberations when we deal with the Bill, which already has several hundred clausesand we have not finished yet.
The hon. Member for The Wrekin expressed concern about Donnington. I hope that he will be able to take part in the discussions with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. That would certainly be helpful. He
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accused us of adopting privatisation, but the James review stated that, if the Conservatives had won the last election, they would have sold or privatised the Warship Support Agency, ABRO, DARA, the Met Office and the UK Hydrographic Office.
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