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2.45 pm

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne). I thank him for his brevity; he took 35 minutes, and with your approval, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall be equally brief. I also thank him for his compliments on our report on terrorism. I shall reciprocate by quoting an earlier Defence Committee report that was produced just after the strategic defence review. The hon. Gentleman's speech was not vitriolic and he did not seek to score too many political points. When he did seek to do so, they were administered gently.

I encourage the hon. Gentleman to read the previous 20 or 30 Defence Committee reports. I have been in the novel position in the past few years of supporting my party's policy on defence, and I still feel a sense of exhilaration at the realisation that our views match closely. However, the problems of overstretch, which are severe, did not begin in 1997. I simply refer the hon. Gentleman to a 1996 report from the Committee, which then had a large Conservative majority. The report stated:

The defence budget was grossly inadequate then, as was pointed out very fairly by the large Conservative majority, led by the late, lamented Michael Colvin.

Just before the dissolution of the Parliament that preceded the 1997 general election, the Committee produced a further report on the implications of the last Budget from the then Conservative Government. It concluded that, despite some adjustment, the plans represented a standstill for the defence budget. The report stated:

Before we receive too many lectures on the inadequacies of the current Government, I respectfully suggest that many of the problems that they face—some have been remedied and some have not—can be seen in the historical context of failure to undertake a proper defence review and a continuing downward spiral in defence expenditure. It is necessary to seek to remedy those deficiencies over a period of years. I do not feel guilty about what the Government have done on defence. In fact, I could deliver a strong eulogy on that score, but the

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Defence Committee is critical because it is not our job to deliver eulogies to any Government; certainly the last Committee did not deliver eulogies to the Government of the day, and the tradition is being continued.

Although the document in question is not "Gone with the Wind" in terms of length, being a rather brief introduction to a complex problem, I welcome it. I also welcome today's debate and the review of the strategic defence review. Of course, it is a review of only a small part of the SDR and will take the form of a new chapter. There will be no significant evaluation of the rest of the SDR.

Syd Rapson: I intervene with trepidation, but we must be fair. The implication from the Conservative Front Bench was that more must be spent on defence; all that was said about lack of facilities implied that more expenditure was necessary. What we did not hear—perhaps my right hon. Friend can pursue this point—was how much the Conservatives expected to have to spend on defence. It would be useful to know that.

Mr. George: I do not want to project my thinking too far into the future by predicting what a Tory Government might do about defence and defence expenditure. None the less, I do not wish to keep the Minister in suspense with regard to my conclusions. I welcome the small increase in defence spending that we saw two years ago. In fact, the announcement was made on board a frigate near Sierra Leone by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when I accompanied him on a visit to that troubled country. However, that increase should be just the beginning. One of the conclusions of the Defence Committee's report on the SDR was that it would be almost impossible—quite a charitable assessment—for all the Government's intentions to be achieved on the basis of the projected budget.

On 10 September, I would have argued—indeed, I did so—that the budget was overstretched. The events of 11 September will impose further demands on additional activities to be undertaken not only by the armed forces, but by intelligence, the police, local authorities, ambulance services and a range of other statutory authorities. The idea that those additional functions could somehow be sustained by the existing budget or an incrementally increased one is a fallacy. I hope that that idea will not be espoused and that Ministers will resist it. Indeed, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is already banging on the Treasury door yet again and saying that a substantial increase is needed.

If the Prime Minister wants British forces to play as significant a role in future as they do now, there is no way in which our armed forces can respond without a considerable increase in spending. If that is not forthcoming, we must adjust to the fact that we will slip down further and perform as inadequately as some of our European partners. The opportunity exists for the good work to be continued. The need is there, and the threat is more than there. Our armed forces desire, expect and should receive more money: that is certainly clear to me.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): As the right hon. Gentleman probably knows, it is likely that the comprehensive spending review bid will have to go to the

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Treasury some time next week. What would be his advice to the Secretary of State about the scale of the increase in the defence budget that is now necessary?

Mr. George: I cannot give a figure, but I trust that it would be a minimum of 0.5 per cent., which would bring the level up to 3 per cent. I will not even begin to discuss the difference between our defence expenditure and that of the United States, which of course we cannot match. I hope that when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke about Britain being in a different division, he was not subliminally indicating what might happen to his local football club, Derby County, which is very likely to end up in a different division. I hope that my local team will not do so. Anyway, I think that the figure will be around 3 per cent. It should not be beyond the Treasury's capability to grant that amount—and, as I said, we are talking not only about the Ministry of Defence, but about intelligence services, police forces and local authorities, which are largely responsible for emergency planning.

Mention was made of our report "Threat from Terrorism". What happened on 11 September was clearly very different from the terrorist acts of the past. It was appalling in terms of its scale and the evident determination to inflict mass casualties among innocent civilians—an appalling example, but regrettably neither the first nor, I suspect, the last. There is a danger that a new benchmark of horror has been established. We must provide not only a deterrent, but the capability to respond. Perhaps, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) suggested, we should make a bit more effort to deal with the causes of terrorism, but we should not think that that will necessarily eliminate the problem.

We have, in fact, a broad agenda. The Select Committee—I am pleased to note that many of its members are present—has a strenuous programme. We were in Washington recently, a punishing experience but a valuable one, as my colleagues will testify. On 18 December we produced our report on the threat from terrorism, and we are undertaking a major series of inquiries into defence and security in the United Kingdom, the new chapter in the SDR, missile defence, the future of NATO, European security and many other issues. Our numerous inquiries deal with much of what is in the document that we are discussing now.

The Secretary of State told us that the new chapter demonstrates

I hope that the new chapter will take the Committee's points on board; after all, its judgments stood the test of time rather better than those that the MOD made in its original SDR. Before a new chapter can be considered, however, it is necessary to look at the old chapters. The Government's SDR and also the Defence Committee's review must be revisited. The Committee criticised the Government's review on the ground that it did not take asymmetric threats seriously enough. We said:

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We also said—rather prophetically, given that this was 1998—

We said, very seriously, that in the SDR the Government were considering expeditionary warfare and were not paying sufficient attention to a threat of which they should have been aware—the threat to the United Kingdom's home base.

Our Committee said:

which is important. We continued:

We pleaded for such a review. Perhaps 11 September has precipitated what we called for four years ago. We said:

The Government produced a consultative document on contingency planning before 11 September. I could find not one reference in it to the Ministry of Defence, which shows that its focus was too narrow. We emphasised the many threats that will be faced. The idea expressed by the Government that there is no serious threat to the UK home base proved, at best, premature. We concluded that missile defence was not a subject of consideration in the SDR. It is certainly being considered now.

I suppose our most critical comments related to the cuts in the Territorial Army infantry, engineers and yeomanry, which we said were "shortsighted". Cuts have been made to the TA over many years; they did not begin in 1997. We said:

The point I make not too brutally—I am pulling the leg of a Minister, whom I admire greatly—is that before the Government start spending too much time on a new chapter, perhaps they could do us the courtesy of looking more seriously at our report on the SDR four years ago, which examined many of the items that are now under discussion.

I am deeply dissatisfied with the way in which the reserves have declined in importance. We said in our report that we welcomed the openness to reassessing the role of the reserves. Their role is now being reassessed.

I hope that the reserves and the TA will not be used just to trickle-feed the regular forces. I have always hoped that the time would come when an infantry battalion such as the 3rd Battalion of the former Staffordshire Regiment was used collectively, rather than single individuals going off to support the regular forces. That is very important.

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Will they be used any differently as a result of 11 September? Of course they will. If they are used in a crisis to defend a nuclear power establishment or Heathrow airport, they will not just be there for reassurance; they will perform a function of deterrence.

There is a role for the TA in guarding the many key military and economic sites in this country, but I would not want a person, man or woman, to join the TA thinking that its members were becoming armed security guards. If that is the Government's intention, other people would be prepared to do that for the money available, which would certainly be more than what the TA would get. The TA could perform that role, but it must be combined with other important roles.

I hope that people will join the TA in greater numbers than they have so far, but not to provide a supermilitary home service whose terms of responsibility are confined to a travel-to-work area. As I said some years ago, slightly changing the famous military song in the reign of Queen Anne, "Queen Anne commands and we obey, over the hills and as far away as Wolverhampton." We do not think that the purpose of joining the TA should be to extend one's vision from Walsall to Wolverhampton, or the other way round. There are many tasks that the TA could perform. I hope that that is given serious consideration.

The MOD mocked us when we compared our reserves to the United States National Guard and said that perhaps we should move a little closer to the national guard model. We were pooh-poohed and dismissed.

One of the many things that worries me is how to ensure that if there is a major incident, the right people with the right skills are first on the scene. I am not referring to flooding, although that is serious, but an incident the like of which we have not even contemplated for the past 20 years, such as a nuclear, chemical or biological attack in a city outside London.

With a conventional bomb or an accident such as a tube crash the right people are the police, the paramedics and the fire service. The forensic experts come later to analyse what specific explosives were used. However, if there is a risk that the incident involves chemical or biological agents, it is essential that the first people to respond include specialists who can identify what agents may have been used and therefore what protective measures must be taken. Special clothing or breathing apparatus may be needed and the local area may need to be evacuated. The scale of the operation will depend not only on the potency of the agent, but on how it was dispersed and the prevailing wind speed and direction.

I doubt whether that work can be done by local authority officials, but it could be done by regular forces, if they are around. The Secretary of State mentioned the importance of the footprint of the Territorial Army. That footprint has got rather more sparse since the SDR began to be implemented. I hope that serious consideration is given to specialists trained in the TA undertaking that function, and to the need for qualified personnel to get to a disaster or emergency scene quickly once it has been confirmed that there is no threat from chemical or biological agents. I cannot think of any group that could provide more numbers, competence and bravery than the TA.

The discussion paper on the new chapter for the SDR, which was published this morning, asked whether there were additional or enhanced roles for the TA and the

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reserves. The original SDR took expertise in nuclear, chemical and biological attacks away from the reserves and concentrated it in a regular unit whose function is the protection of deployed forces, who may be 1,000, 2,000 or 5,000 miles away. However, to quote the discussion paper, the reserves'

may suggest that leaving the reserves without an NBC capability is another SDR decision that should be reconsidered.

I repeat what I said earlier. As a result of the ending of the cold war, naturally the defence budget has declined. I do not think that anyone would argue that defence spending should be at cold war levels: 5 to 5.5 per cent. of gross domestic product. In those euphoric years following the end of the cold war, many argued that an era of peace was about to emerge.

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