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Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, before the Minister speaks I pray the leave of the House to declare an interest--as I should have done but omitted to do--as a very new member of the committee dealing with the common foreign and security initiative.

3.19 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we have had a superb debate. It has been a full, wide-ranging debate which has demonstrated the enormous range of expertise and interests in your Lordships' House on all matters to do with defence. The debate has been truly thoughtful and at some points truly provocative. I thank all noble Lords who have participated in it.

There has been a certain amount of criticism about the debate taking place this morning. I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, and to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, that I have looked back and I have noted that, whereas today there have been 17 speakers in the debate, plus myself as the Minister, when we last discussed defence, which was on a Wednesday afternoon, there were some 15 speakers plus myself as the Minister. So we have not suffered in

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the quantity of noble Lords who have participated, and, as the debate has shown, certainly not in the quality either.

I am slightly concerned that the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, may have misinterpreted what I said about the visit of the Chief of the Defence Staff to Sierra Leone. It is a visit; he is not staying to take charge of what is happening there. The noble Baroness, Lady Park, and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, commented on the size of our deployment to Sierra Leone. As I hope I indicated in my opening remarks, we believe that the size of the deployment is consistent with the tasks we have outlined for it.

The noble Baroness and the noble Earl may know that the airport is on one peninsula and the main town, Freetown, is on another; they are separated by a considerable amount of sea and the land route is extremely difficult. Given the territorial requirements, there is a great deal of complexity in the evacuation operation, and perhaps that goes some way towards explaining the numbers involved. Of course the deployment has to secure communications and access to the airport. I thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, for his support on this issue.

I am not sure what the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, was asking me when he said that people may feel that there was no need to leave now that the British troops had arrived. Let me be absolutely unequivocal: our advice is clear and straightforward to all those for whom we have consular responsibility; it is to leave Sierra Leone as quickly as possible.

The noble Earl said that he would not ask me anything about rules of engagement, and then promptly did so. It is important to say that it would be foolish for us to discuss the rules of engagement. We should all understand that anything that might affect the operational effectiveness of our troops--however interesting it may be--must be kept confidential.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, I said that I did not expect the Minister to say what the rules of engagement were.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the noble Earl then asked me to define them in terms of other rules of engagement, which was a very neat way round the issue.

Let me pick up on something that the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, said at the start of the debate. He said that my right honourable friend had "baulked" at the expenditure involved in the operation in Mozambique. I am sure that the noble Lord did not mean to be unfair, but it is important that I should say to him that military planners had to make some assumption about the cost of chartering a heavy-lift aircraft, the number of support staff required, subsistence costs and so on. Costs were revised downwards once we had the report from the reconnaissance team and once we had established the offsets we could make in the light of Treasury guidance. There was no baulking on the part of my right honourable friend. It is also important to acknowledge that that operation was a considerable success for the British Army.

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Much of our debate today has centred around your Lordships' concerns--it is far from the first time that your Lordships have voiced them--about resourcing in the MoD. A great deal has been said about cuts and about the extent of those cuts, particularly by the noble and gallant Lords, if I may group them together in that way, and by the Front Bench opposite.

It is important to remind ourselves that in the period from 1997 to 2000-01, defence spending is due to fall by some 3 per cent. I have to compare that with the 17 per cent cut experienced in the Ministry of Defence between 1990 and 1997. With the greatest respect to noble Lords opposite, I sometimes think that they fall into a collective amnesia about what really happened while they were in a position in government to make decisions about defence spending.

Of course we recognise that the MoD's public service agreement target of achieving a 3 per cent annual efficiency in the efficiency baseline from 1998-99 to 2001-2002 is challenging. Of course it is. Nevertheless, our efficiency programme is an essential tool in delivering our programme within the resources available. I make no apology for repeating the point that we must make every pound count for defence. This is not--I repeat it again because I know that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, is particularly concerned about this point--a decline of 3 per cent per year. It is an efficiency saving of 3 per cent per year and the bulk of that will be used in the MoD to enhance our SDR requirements.

I know that the noble and gallant Lord doubts the figures on this matter. Perhaps he would like to come to see me and we can go over the figures. Perhaps I may then convince him that the figures given to me are given in good faith and that this is not trying to slide a 3 per cent cut under the counter.

I was urged by almost all noble Lords--certainly by the noble Viscount, Lord Slim--to challenge the Treasury. I am not prepared to take up quite the kind of challenge that my noble friend Lord Brett asked me to in relation to the paratroopers and our friends in Her Majesty's Treasury, but we all know that, whatever government are in power, this time of year is a time for very hard talking. At this time of year departmental Ministers go in and out of the Treasury in order to argue their case. That happened under the previous administration; it is the same under this administration. I assure your Lordships that a very robust case indeed is made by Ministers in my department.

A good deal was said about overstretch, particularly by the noble Viscount, Lord Allenby, and the noble Lord, Lord Lyell. In July 1999 47 per cent of our Army were on or recovering from operations. In May 2000 that figure is down to 27 per cent. I stress to your Lordships that I have not taken into account the Sierra Leone figures, but we can do that. They are not enormous and there will be a slight adjustment upwards in that. The noble Lord said that I would remind your Lordships that that was a lower figure than the Government inherited in 1997. It is a lower figure than we inherited. The noble Lord then implied

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that that was because of a peak due to Kosovo. Kosovo was last year. In the course of less than a year we have decreased our commitment by some 20 per cent. Noble Lords may feel that there is still overstretch but I did not detect, sadly, any noble Lord acknowledging what has been done to tackle the overstretch problem, and tackle it by a very considerable 20 per cent in less than a year. I believe that the Government have been as good as their word in trying to address that problem of deployment.

A great deal was said on the issue of procurement. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, asked about Smart procurement and asked why mistakes happen. Mistakes happen for a great number of reasons. They happen because there is not early enough planning; they happen because that planning is very often too rigid; and they happen because it is very difficult to adapt specifications within a huge range of options, particularly in fast-changing programmes where there is a good deal of technological and engineering impact. But I do believe that the teams that are pulled together--the integration project teams--bringing together as they do the customer, industry and the scientific and technical expertise that we need are going a long way to address the issue.

We have only just finished the roll-out of the integrated project teams. They completed their training process only a couple of months ago. So I agree with my noble friend Lord Brett: it is early days for us to start judging the success or failure of the Smart procurement programme. We shall be in a much better position to do so in a few years' time.

A number of noble Lords have cast some doubt on that. I know that officials in the MoD sometimes become rather alarmed when I decide to issue these invitations, but I think it would be splendid if some of your Lordships who are worried about what is happening in relation to Smart procurement would come to the Defence Procurement Agency in Bristol, and to the Defence Logistics Organisation in Andover, to see for yourselves what is happening.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and my noble friend Lord Gilbert were concerned about the big procurement projects that we have in train at present: the future large aircraft and the beyond-visual range weapon for the Eurofighter. I hope that I shall not have to ask your Lordships to be patient on the matter for very much longer. I hope that we shall be able to bring some useful information to the House very soon. The Government recognise the importance of these decisions. We recognise the urgency, especially in relation to the future large aircraft.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, and the noble Earl spoke about the roll-on, roll-off ferry. It is a matter that crosses my desk. The noble Lord, Lord Burnham, said that a decision had been taken on building these ferries in Germany. I assure the noble Lord that no decision has been taken as yet about where they will be built. The noble Earl was right: these are not classified as warships. They were not so classified under the previous administration, and they

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have not been so classified under this administration. We currently charter civil ships in order to have roll-on, roll-off capacity. It would be very difficult for the purposes of procurement then to say that what we have chartered on a civil basis becomes a warship for the purposes of procurement. I do not think that that argument holds water; neither did the previous administration. There has been a good deal of speculation about the matter. Most people have decided that the Ministry of Defence has taken the decision even before we have actually done so. I hope that we shall be able to take a decision in due course.

A great deal has been said about the slippage on the Bowman project. I remind your Lordships that this piece of procurement began its life a very long time ago--in 1988. The in-service date was set to precede the last general election. The original date was December 1995. If noble Lords opposite try to use this as a hammer on the Government, they had better take a look at their own record on Bowman before starting to do so with too much energy.

The main Bowman system is expected to enter service in late 2003/early 2004. Yes, we are going to deliver it incrementally. I make no apology for the fact that we are looking at the personal radio element. We need to move ahead on this project. If we can move ahead on it only incrementally, at least that is some progress.

As regards the Eurofighter cannon, as was made clear in a recent letter from Air Vice-Marshal Steve Nicholl to the Daily Telegraph, giving the pilot's view, in a modern fighting world the Eurofighter's cannon has minimal value. This is not being imposed by Ministers who are desperate for cuts, as implied by some noble Lords. It is the view of the customer, the RAF, that this capability may in many ways be more of a liability than an asset. There are disadvantages in having the cannon: there are problems of recoil shock, corrosion from exhaust fumes and fatigue in the airframe. So it is not just a case of reaching for the easiest argument; namely, that of cost. We must examine what is really happening.

The noble Baroness and the noble Earl were concerned about the warship-building programme. We are embarking upon the biggest warship-building programme for at least 20 years, probably longer. Over 30 warships are to be built in the United Kingdom over the next 15 to 20 years, including the Type 45 destroyers and the future service combatant and aircraft carriers. The noble Lord asked whether I would ever do any of the ordering for these ships. I took the decision in November last year to begin the planning work on the aircraft carriers. I very much look forward to the day when a Labour Minister is also able to commission that work from a British yard.

As to the SA80, as the noble Earl said it is generally a very effective weapons system and highly accurate but it is unreliable in certain conditions, in particular extremes of climate. We are considering various solutions, including potential modifications to the system proposed by the design authority Heckler and

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Koch which have recently been validated in MoD trials. We are assessing the proposals and expect to come to a decision very soon.

One or two points have been made about the MoD building. The noble Lord was perhaps implying some lack of judgment. I can tell the noble Lord that I walked down a corridor in the MoD this week and heard the extraordinary noise of water pouring through a ceiling. We cannot ask people to work in those conditions. I know that it is an expensive project, but, my goodness, it is well overdue.

My noble friends Lord Gilbert and Lord Brett and the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, were concerned about DERA. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, I hope that he will refrain from repeating the figure of £250 million as the sum that we are looking for in a sale. I believe that that figure is much too low. I do not want to sell short the DERA privatisation. This is not about getting £250 million for the Treasury but ensuring that DERA receives the proper investment. DERA's work is rising exponentially and we cannot ask the British taxpayer to continue to fund it. One would be talking about a doubling or trebling of the investment in DERA. We hope that by dealing with it in this way DERA will have the opportunity to attract the kind of private investment that is very much needed. I am wholly aware of the importance of continuing to talk to our international partners, in particular the United States and others. I did so when in the United States recently. I plan to go to the United States later this month to continue those talks.

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