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3.46 pm

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South): Through the Minister of State for Defence, I apologise to the Secretary of State for missing the first 20 minutes of his speech. I am not good at punctuality.

My constituency of Walsall, South is built on hundreds upon hundreds of undiscovered mine shafts. Two were discovered recently, and I had to deal with that. There are

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so many undiscovered shafts that I flippantly suggested that I might tip off the United States air force that bin Laden is hiding in one, so that it would find all the holes.

That is not as fanciful as it sounds, because the Taliban appear to be recruiting far more successfully than the Army in some parts of the country. My idea did not reach fruition, however, as I thought that the consequence of tipping off the US air force would be that I might be referred to as the Member of Parliament for what was formerly Walsall, South. A good idea came to nothing.

I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) said. However, although I am not being critical, I would take his words more seriously if he did not submit to what I call the Opposition's "year zero" approach—the problems began in June 1997. Almost all the problems that the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) described began years and years ago. I am not defending the Government—I spend much of my time doing quite the opposite, although constructively—and I enjoyed his speech, because he used against my Government exactly the same arguments that I used against his between 1979 and 1997.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) was a member of the Defence Committee at that time, and most of those present are either members or former members of the Committee or people who wish that they were members of it. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) is a member of the Defence Committee and an Opposition Front Bencher, but I digress. I shall apply to the Leader of the Opposition—the latest example of regime change, which we have heard a lot about—to ask that the Defence Committee receive some of his Short money. He has an enormous reservoir of talent in the Committee to assist the hon. Member for Aldershot in his current role.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. George: I shall be delighted to let my colleague on the Defence Committee intervene.

Mr. Howarth: I am most grateful to the Committee Chairman for giving way. Of course, the Committee is a source of very important information, as the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) also made clear to me the other day when he said, on hearing that I was to stay on the Committee, that that was absolutely excellent. While I find it an important source of information, I assure the Committee Chairman that I have other extremely valuable sources of information.

Mr. George: The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife was also a spokesman and a member of the Defence Committee until he found that the work load became so enormous—he was responsible for defence and foreign affairs—that he jacked it in. I suggest that the hon. Member for Aldershot looks at the attendance list for that year, which shows that the strain is considerable. The difference is that the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife represents the Liberal Democrats, who are not yet the official Opposition.

Let me turn to the hon. Member for somewhere near the SAS headquarters—that is an internal debate for the hon. Member for Hereford. I was delighted that the

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hon. Gentleman referred to a document of which I was hitherto unaware, namely a mini SDR produced by his mini party. I must confess that I was forced to stifle my mirth when I realised that it was grossly unfair—the official Opposition appear to be negative; it is not their job, we heard today, to present positive policies.

We would like very much to invite someone along to give evidence to the Defence Committee. I hope that the author will come along, and no doubt the hon. Member for Hereford will come along with him.

Mr. Keetch: If that is a serious invitation, my noble Friend Lord Roper, who chaired the committee along with Air Chief Marshal Sir Tim Garden—they are the main architects of it—would be more than happy to come to the Defence Committee. It is important that parties throughout the House should come before Select Committees and give their views. I should be more than happy to do so on behalf of my party, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will extend his invitation to the Conservative party.

Mr. George: The Conservative party already attends the Defence Committee, so it would be superfluous to invite another Conservative Member to appear before us. I merely have to turn to my right and the Conservative party is there. However, I shall approach my colleagues on the Committee because it is important that, in due course, the Liberal Democrat party should respond to questions. I promise the hon. Gentleman that, if my colleagues agree, we shall arrange that invitation.

I wish to make a small remark to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton and other colleagues interested in the Warship Support Agency. The Defence Committee visited Faslane, Coalport and Rosyth. We met trade union officials there and in London, and we are aware of the arguments. The Defence Committee has arranged three sittings to consider the matter. The chief executive of the Warship Support Agency and the Chief of Defence Procurement will attend our first sitting on 25 April; the Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (Equipment Capability) will attend our second sitting on 1 May; and the Minister for Defence Procurement will attend our third sitting on 8 May. That provides us with ample opportunity to explore the reasons for the decision. As the Committee has a strong maritime component, it would be profoundly unwise to take sides. Both the private and public sectors are equally well represented, but at least it is within our remit to explore the rationale for the decision and to see whether it was the correct one to make.

I should have said that I was sorry that the hon. Member for Hereford, excluding the SAS headquarters, could not be with us on our trip to Afghanistan because of the parlous state of his party's finances. A seat was available for him and I hope that the next time that we travel away, so long as, as was said in a newspaper, it is within striking distance of easyJet or Buzz, he will be prepared to join us. Perhaps he should have done what the spokesman for the Opposition did: while the Defence Committee, I am embarrassed to say, travelled club class, the Opposition spokesman slummed it behind and paid a fare that cost infinitely less than ours. We shared accommodation that was not of the finest quality and I apologise to him for drowning out the sound of the

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generator with my snoring. Perhaps that was the real reason why the hon. Member for Hereford did not come, rather than the bogus reason—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The right hon. Gentleman must now address his remarks to the armed forces personnel.

Mr. George: I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thought that talking about a future Defence Minister—although perhaps not in the case of the hon. Member for Hereford—would fall within the remit of armed forces personnel, but I willingly refer to a more serious side of my presentation.

The Defence Committee produced an excellent report—the Second Report for the 2000–01 Session, entitled "The Strategic Defence Review: Policy for People"—in which we spent a great deal of time considering the issues that we are discussing this afternoon. We said:

we should have said the best—

We are able to say regularly how good our armed forces are—and they truly are. When one sees them in operation and on ceremonial occasions, as we did a few days ago, their magnificence and competence is unrivalled. However, this is not a toy army. We could put members of Group 4 or Securicor in nice uniforms and teach them how to march, and they could march effectively, but the men and women we saw a few days ago can not only take part in ceremonies; they are the same men and women who, a few days hence, could be called upon to do something very different. Their skills are interchangeable—from ceremonial duties to serious war fighting.

A number of hon. Members and the Minister of State saw our armed forces in Afghanistan functioning as supporters of schools, providing ambulances and medical facilities for the people of Kabul, where there are few or none of those facilities, and acting as policemen. They were amazing advertisements for British society and for the British military. Having been on patrol and ridden on the side of a vehicle, I know what it must be like—although as a supporter of Walsall football club I shall never experience it—to be on a bus going through a town after winning a cup final. Such was the incredible popularity of our armed forces, and long may that remain.

In drawing up our excellent report, we had the benefit of meeting service men and women. As a result of my close relationship with the Staffordshire regiment, I went along with two of my colleagues to solicit their complaints. That would normally be a superfluous activity, as soldiers from the black country do not need to be invited to complain; they do so quite naturally. Even in the presence of their officers they were prepared to explain what they thought needed to be done. Housing was one of the issues because many of the houses that the soldiers occupy are owned by the Nomura corporation of Tokyo, Japan, masquerading under the name of Annington Homes, which was sold by the previous Government.

Our report looked at preparing the ground—cadets and voluntary reserve forces. We also considered recruitment—getting the right people and retaining them—the need to

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look after people and their families, and post-service provision. I urge hon. Members who have not read the report to do so, because it provides the agenda that the Defence Committee is pursuing. High on our agenda is the welfare of the men and women in the armed forces and civil servants in the Ministry of Defence.

The skills of our armed forces personnel have not come from on high, written on tablets of stone. They are not necessarily innate—people are not born to be warriors. Their skills are attained as a result of nurturing, investment and training, which costs money. I listen to Opposition Members calling for an increase in defence expenditure, and I reiterate what I have said many times. Those skills will progressively atrophy without a substantial transfer of resources from the Treasury to the Ministry of Defence over the next three months, six months, 12 months, two years, three years, four years or five years. All of us know that, because we are reasonably knowledgeable on defence matters. Ministers know that, and I hope even the Treasury will come to learn it.

If the Prime Minister wants our armed forces to be deployed in the Falklands, in Sierra Leone, in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Cyprus, in Afghanistan and in many other places, he will have to instruct his Treasury team to provide them with the resources that they desperately need, otherwise they will not be able to perform the tasks as efficiently and competently as they have done, are doing and may do for a little while to come, but not for very much longer.

I am proud to have seen our forces in Afghanistan—I see them almost everywhere they are deployed. As the hon. Member for North Essex said, we saw the Royal Anglian Regiment, and we want to express our sadness about the as yet undetermined circumstances in which a young soldier from that regiment died.

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