Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 152 - 159)




  152. Secretary of State, Mr Tebbit, Mr Hatfield, welcome, although it is rather ironic to welcome you to a room I have never been in before. We are both playing away today but hopefully we will not meet in this environment for some considerable time, while Portcullis House is a rather splendid structure. We have seen, but did not have much time to closely scrutinise, your documents published today.[1] Secretary of State, in your Defence Policy 2001 document, will the "informed defence community" be able to detect any nuanced shifts in policy when they have had a chance to study it? I am not asking you to do our work for us, but is there any major or minor shift or nuance shift in policy contained in this document?

  (Mr Hoon) I think it is fair to say there is no major shift, there is no significant and fundamental change in policy. There is, perhaps, as is always the case, a degree of emphasis in different areas, and the significance of that might be only obvious over time. There is greater emphasis on joined-up conflict prevention, for example—something we have discussed in the past—but there is certainly a greater emphasis on that in this document. There is greater emphasis on improving multinational defence co-operation. Again, that is not new to any Member of this Committee but something we emphasise more than previously. It will come as no surprise to the Committee, either, that we set great store by the importance of learning lessons from the Kosovo campaign—something that you have emphasised to us that we should do. Again, that is emphasised. So there are a number of points here that certainly will allow the informed defence community to look thoughtfully at the trends; they are trends emerging from principles that we have discussed on many occasions in the past and will not, I suspect, come as any great surprise to Members of the Committee.

  153. You have been in office long enough now to be able to make a judgment as to whether this "informed defence community" is increasing or decreasing in size. Do you detect any greater interest in defence issues from meetings you attend or press and media reports, or Parliamentary contributions? Are you trying to move this small community into being rather enlarged, which is in everybody's interest?
  (Mr Hoon) Certainly I have always remarked on the contrast between discussing defence and security issues in Washington as opposed to discussing them in London. I think that there is a need for the kind of detailed consideration given to defence issues that exists in the United States in the United Kingdom. So I would certainly welcome more discussion of these issues. Nevertheless, those that are engaged in this debate in the United Kingdom do so very seriously and, obviously, part of the purpose of publishing these papers in this form is to give them more material and access to more material to inform that debate. You invite me to comment on the press and the media. I think there is concern about the extent to which specialist correspondents are given the opportunity of writing about their specialist subject. I find, sometimes, I have concerns about the extent to which those that do know about the subject are given the opportunity of writing about it. That is probably a matter for the newspapers, but I suspect sometimes that the copy of defence correspondents who, perhaps, know both sides of the argument is not always as dramatic and as interesting to news editors as those who do not know as much about the subject. Finally, I think it is right that I should say something about the work that this Committee does, because I do recognise that the Committee have contributed to improving the level and the nature of the debate. I thank you for that.

  154. You know what we say, Secretary of State. If the Ministry of Defence was as open as we are, we would be very, very happy. We are trying very hard to get you in our direction. In paragraph 7 of the report, Secretary of State, you say "There is no sign that operational demands are likely to diminish". Despite the slight rise in defence expenditure, we clearly do not have the resources to meet every demand. How are you going to decide which demands are going to be met and which demands are not going to be met?
  (Mr Hoon) I do not think there is a simple formula for that. Clearly, when you say that there are not resources to meet every demand I think that is self-evidently true, but we make what are pragmatic judgments in the light of resources and in the light of the people that we have available to do the job. Clearly, those are judgments made across Government and it is, obviously, my job as Secretary of State for Defence to inform my colleagues of the state of preparedness and availability of Britain's armed forces and to do so within the general parameters set out in the Strategic Defence Review but not to regard the Strategic Defence Review as a formula. It is not something that we can apply precisely to every situation. What we have to try and do is to work within the capabilities that we identify there and ensure that we are able to satisfy the legitimate demands of those who expect Britain's armed forces to defend Britain's vital national interests.

  155. It seems patently obvious to us that despite your endeavours to squeeze more blood out of a stone it is becoming increasingly difficult. We are producing a report on personnel issues in a couple of weeks and although finance is not the panacea to resolve all of the problems it is a very substantial element of it. I think we have to try even harder to persuade Treasury that if they expect you to do the tasks that appear to be necessary it is going to be increasingly difficult to do with the budgetary constraints within which the Ministry of Defence is operating. If you decide to cut your commitments then the public have to be told "We simply cannot afford to do it". However, to meet pensions, to meet the salaries, to meet training and to meet commitments to Sierra Leone, the Falklands and everywhere, it is quite wondrous that you manage to do it with the miserly sum that you are allocated by the Treasury. I think at least ten Members of the Committee will agree with what I have said. If we were in charge, we would happily find 1% of GDP, I think, without much hesitation and take the consequences from the Treasury.
  (Mr Hoon) As I have said to you before, no Defence Secretary is ever going to turn down support for more resources for the defence budget, and I am certainly not going to do that. Having said that, equally, I think it is important we put into context what we are doing today and actually we are satisfying the demands on us in a range of different theatres and operations. Whilst, particularly as far as certain areas of speciality are concerned, I would certainly like to see more people and more resources, nevertheless compared to—and we have discussed this before—the period towards the end of 1999 immediately after my appointment, when I recognised publicly that there was a degree of over-stretch, we have been able to make very significant reductions, certainly as far as the Army is concerned, in terms of the numbers of personnel actually deployed or on operations. That I think has improved significantly many of the problems that I felt we were facing towards the end of 1999. I am not being complacent about it, but I do not think the picture is quite as bleak as, perhaps, your observations might tend to suggest.

  156. Thank you. In paragraph 11 of this Defence 2001 document, you say: "There is likely to be growing emphasis on multinational approaches to developing improved capabilities, especially in relation to filling capability gaps . . .". Would you care to expand on this statement and, perhaps, give some concrete examples?
  (Mr Hoon) Yes. I hope it is consistent with what you have said already that even the United States, with the budget that they have available, recognises that there are limits to the amount of money they can spend and the amount of capability that they can generate. That is even more the case for a country like the United Kingdom. One of the advantages, I perceive, of multinational co-operation is being able to work with allies and partners, particularly to develop capabilities that are not readily available to us today. That is part of the underlying purpose of the Helsinki headline goal, to encourage countries to recognise that there is a range of capability that, ideally, is capability that we would like to have available, but that individually it would be difficult for them to afford. You ask for an example. One of the examples that we are looking at is a combat search and rescue facility which is not something which, traditionally, other than on an ad hoc basis, the United Kingdom has judged to be vital to develop. On the other hand, the United States has certainly developed a very sophisticated ability, the French are probably ahead of us in having that capability and we would like to find ways in which we can work with other countries to develop that. There are a number of other things that we are working on, not least the suppression of enemy air defences, where co-operation with a number of countries is now quite well-advanced—again, to provide a capability that we do not have available to us as an individual nation but which, working in combination with others, we can develop.

  157. Thank you. Are these documents going to be annually produced?
  (Mr Hoon) In a sense, part of the reason for publishing these documents in this way is to break out of a deliberate annual process in order to try and provide documents as and when we judge them to be necessary. However, I think it is fair to say the policy document is perhaps something that the Committee might find helpful on a regular basis. To some extent it is an area where I would be grateful for your views, because it does seem to me that if you find this kind of process useful—and it is a change from what has been done before—then we could look at the timing in the light of your feelings. I would have thought publishing something like this on an annual basis, without being fixed on particular dates, is sensible.

  158. With this mania for contracting out, if your resources are constrained, Mr Hoon, you can contract out the task to us, and I am sure we would do a very good job. I am also sure you would be the first to sign up for what we would produce!
  (Mr Hoon) I can see many advantages of contracting it out to you on that basis, because you would be bound to produce a statement of Government policy.

   Chairman: I do not think it would be Treasury policy we would produce. The next block of questions we all fought to ask, but I am afraid Laura Moffatt won the task.

Laura Moffatt

  159. I am a lucky girl. Good morning. There are some issues I would like to raise within the newly published The Future Strategic Context for Defence. I draw your attention to the part in purple on page 8 that talks about the revolutionary changes within procurement and the way in which the MoD would like to exploit what is happening in civil developments for technical equipment for the MoD. Our continuing question has to be to you, Secretary of State, how do you expect to do that if you are just about to sell DERA?
  (Mr Hoon) I am not at all persuaded that there is any inconsistency between the two propositions that you put forward. One of the reasons why I was persuaded, having looked at this afresh, that it was sensible to sell part of DERA was because of the difficulty of a single, Government-run organisation keeping pace with technological advances and that what we needed was to have a way of encouraging those who work for that part of DERA to be able to have access to both the wider world of technological change but, equally, for them to find exciting the prospect of working within that particular organisation. As far as the part that we judge it is necessary to retain in public ownership is concerned, one of the essential tests of that was to ensure the continuation of independent objective advice to Government about the nature of assessing technology as far as Government procurement was concerned. That, as I have said to you before and I repeat, will remain within public ownership and, therefore, public control.

1   Defence Policy 2000 and The Future Strategic Context for Defence, MoD, February 2001. Back

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