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Defence Budget

5. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): What the level of underspending in the defence budget is. [148222]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The latest forecasts are for expenditure to match the total to be sought in the spring supplementary estimates.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Given that the Government have cut £5 billion from the defence budget since 1997, will the Secretary of State guarantee that none of the underspend--amounting to several hundred million pounds--on last year's budget will be returned to the Treasury?

Mr. Hoon: I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, because I suspect that he was put up to ask that question by his Front-Bench colleagues, who appear not to understand the way in which departmental budgets work in government. In particular, they do not appear to understand that Departments are responsible to Parliament for their spending. If they understood that, the shadow Defence Secretary might not have told the News of the World that the underspend represented some sort of cut, as the hon. Gentleman's question suggests.

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman or his Front-Bench colleagues take a little tutorial from the Library on how departmental underspends are dealt with year on year, particularly for defence. Underspends are carried into the next financial year and are spent on defence. If the hon. Gentleman is worried about underspending, I recommend that he ask the House of Commons Library what the underspend was for 1994-95 and 1995-96. He will find that the underspends then were entirely comparable to the amount that he is concerned about today. I should be interested to know whether he asked any questions about that at the time.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): My goodness, the Secretary of State goes on for an awfully long time to say absolutely nothing; he will

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not answer the question. Let us take him back to the accounts. As he knows, he wrote to me on 6 February about the News of the World article, and claimed:

The Secretary of State does not even read his accounts; the figure is about £317 million. The accounts state:

So, according to the accounts, that money will be surrendered to the Treasury. The Treasury will decide whether it goes back to the right hon. Gentleman. The Minister for the Armed Forces--sitting next to the right hon. Gentleman on the Treasury Bench--does not even know anyway, but that is to be expected. In the article, the Minister insisted that

We have got used to the Government being unable to tell us the truth about European defence, but for them to be unable even to tell us the truth about the accounts shows a level of incompetence that is breathtaking.

Mr. Hoon: What is breathtaking about the hon. Gentleman is the level of his ignorance of the way in which government works. If he understood anything about that--after he was elected to the House of Commons, he supported the then Conservative Government for five years--he would know full well that the underspend is available to the Department to carry over into the next year. He would also know--[Interruption.] This should be a matter of concern for Members of the House of Commons. The hon. Gentleman should know that the reason why there is so much anxiety to ensure that Departments stay within departmental totals is that those totals are approved by Parliament. That is why, yearon year--[Interruption.]--and, specifically under the previous Conservative Government, there was a series of underspends to ensure that the MOD stayed within the total granted by Parliament. The matter is not simply that the hon. Gentleman fails to understand how government works--I might expect that, because he is unlikely ever to be in government; he does not understand how the House of Commons works either. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. When Members on the Opposition Front Bench ask a question, I expect them to allow an answer to be made.

Missile Defence Systems

7. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): What assessment he has made of the desirability of anti- missile defence. [148224]

10. Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): What expenditure has been incurred at Fylingdales in preparation for national missile defence. [148227]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): We continue to assess the potential role of ballistic missile defence systems in countering missile attacks. We have not received a request from the United States to site elements of national missile defence in the

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United Kingdom; nor have we incurred expenditure on any works at RAF Fylingdales in preparation for any such request.

Dr. Cable: Why does the Minister think that a proposal originally designed to deter attack from small rogue states is seen as such a major threat to nuclear powers such as Russia and China? If those countries retaliate, as they say they will, by expanding their nuclear capability or nuclear defence--triggering effects in countries such as India--what estimate has he made of how that escalation will affect our own security?

Mr. Hoon: A number of considerations arise in relation to the hon. Gentleman's question. They have been addressed by the US and by this country, in considering the implications of missile defence systems. Clearly, before the US takes a specific decision, it is important that it should consult allies and, indeed, Russia. The new US Administration have made it clear that they would do so--thereby dealing with the type of strategic implications indicated by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Corbyn: Does the Secretary of State accept that NMD is an extremely dangerous adventure, incredibly expensive for both the United States and any other country that participates in it, and completely at variance with the views of the world court on the legality of nuclear weapons and with the stated aim of the Government that we were in favour of a non-nuclear world in the future? Furthermore, is he aware of the cost of NMD? One 20-missile battery would be 150 per cent. of the cost of the existing British Trident submarine fleet. Does he not think that that is a scandalous waste of money and that we should show more concern for a non-nuclear world than creating the nuclearisation of space and all the dangers that go with it?

Mr. Hoon: No, I do not.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): Will the Secretary of State give me a straight answer to a simple question? Given the Nice treaty and the references, which I have seen in the control-and-command system that is being set up, to a nuclear capacity in relation to the use of nuclear weaponry, does he have more confidence in our reliance on the French or on the Americans?

Mr. Hoon: We work closely with our French allies and our United States allies inside NATO. Indeed, as recently as last Friday at the Anglo-French summit, we discussed a range of matters on which we intend to pursue closer co-operation with our French allies--for example, closer co-operation between our two navies, questions of logistics and the ways in which amphibious forces can be organised. We recognise that it is important to establish close co-operation not only with France and the United States, but with the range of allies with whom we have worked closely for a long time.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): Did the Secretary of State acquaint himself with the views of Admiral Eugene Carroll--a retired American naval admiral, with a very fine record of service over the years--who made it clear at various meetings in the House of Commons that this was not a nuclear missile defence scheme, but a process

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under which the United States would aim to dominate the space of the world and be able to destroy any land installation by laser beams; that, inevitably, it is bound to lead to a response by Russia and China; and that it is not at all welcome in Europe, no doubt for that reason? Will he make it clear that to leave the decision until after the election, on the ground that no proposal has yet been made, would not be a very wise decision to take?

Mr. Hoon: I am aware of a number of different opinions in the United States. There is a range of views, both in support of and critical of proposals for missile defence systems. As I have said, there is a range of different proposals. Some of them--perhaps, for the moment, those at the fantastic end of the spectrum--appear to involve proposals with lasers. However, arange of issues is being considered by the present Administration. The only thing that I should emphasise to my right hon. Friend is, of course, that the new United States President was elected specifically on a promise to the American people to go ahead with systems of missile defence and, in those circumstances, my right hon. Friend should not be surprised when, in due course, the United States makes such a proposal.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Instead of subjecting us to a diet of waffle, prevarication and stonewalling on this crucial issue of public policy, why does not the right hon. Gentleman simply own up to the fact that the reason why he will not state whether in principle he is in favour of national missile defence as a protection for this country against the antics of rogue states is that the Government are deeply split on the matter? Whereas he and his hon. Friends can see the credible advantages of such a system, his right hon. Friend, the former CND fanatic--the Foreign Secretary, no less--is profoundly against it because he has always been and remains a one-sided nuclear and other disarmer?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman should know, of course, that the Government are always of one mind on any given issue. However, let me make it clear to him that the United States has taken no decision on specific missile defence systems and, therefore, there has been no specific request to the United Kingdom regarding the use of any facility here. We share the United States's concerns about missile proliferation; we have worked with the United States for many years on ways to improve defensive systems. As its closest ally, we would, of course, want to respond helpfully should a request be made by the United States. That point has been made in our early discussions with the new US Administration.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): Can the Secretary of State assure the House that Government policy has not changed since their response to a Select Committee on Foreign Affairs report in which they state that the Government

Mr. Hoon: May I make it clear to my hon. Friend that the ABM treaty was concluded between the United States

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and Russia? The treaty has been amended in the past and is therefore capable of further amendment should the parties--the United States and Russia--choose to make further amendments. We certainly value a degree of strategic control should that be appropriate, and as part of the consultation process that the United States has suggested we will urge that the United States and Russia look to a degree of strategic control for the future. However, as I said in relation to the previous question, in our earlier discussions with the United States Administration we said that, as the United States is our closest ally, we would want to be helpful should it make a specific request on this matter.

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