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31 Oct 2002 : Column 1095—continued

Mr. Keetch: The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) was not here.

Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend was here. I assure the hon. Gentleman that he has been around all day.

I am not sure how much the Minister's statement today adds to what we already knew from the consultation document. As far as I can see, what is proposed is an additional 280 reserve posts in Army division and brigade headquarters to provide regional planning, liaison, and command and control in defence operations. Clearly, we welcome that, but he said that in the event of an incident they would be capable of providing a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week command structure. They might be able to do that. However, in the new chapter we are told that reservists cannot be called out at less than 36 hours' notice. As several hon. Members have pointed out during the debate, if we are struck by an asymmetric attack, we shall need to react instantly. It cannot be a delayed reaction. Calling out reservists at 36 hours' notice may well be too late to deal with an incident in the most efficacious fashion.

The Minister says that there will be additional training, but that is no more than was promised in the consultation document. It is not clear how the Ministry of Defence will ensure that the necessary skills and training for even the tasks listed on its discussion document are to be found in a volunteer reserve force of 500 people per region and only five or six training days in a year. This is not a very extensive training operation. In a useful submission to the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) wrote:

We need trained units. My hon. Friend continued:

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The Government have to be a little clearer about exactly how their programme will work in practical terms and in terms of facing the challenge of dealing with an attack on the United Kingdom.

Those are two key issues that have been addressed in the debate. A number of hon. Members made the point that there is common ground on defence matters between the Government and the Official Opposition—indeed between all parties. We no longer have the stormy and vitriolic debates that we used to have in the 1980s. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk recalls those happy days somewhat nostalgically. We share an admiration for our armed forces. We want the best for them and their families. They are admired and respected throughout the world. A number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), paid tribute to our service men and women and their families.

We share the Government's view of Britain's role in the world as a power for good. We also share their view on a number of procurement issues. We welcome the Type 45 destroyers and the new carriers. Albeit through gritted teeth, I welcomed virtually every dot and comma of the announcement on the carriers and the aircraft that the Government have chosen. They have done well, and we approve.

There are legitimate differences between us, however, on which it is entirely the duty and right of the Opposition to challenge the Government. First, we do not believe that there are enough people to meet the commitments that the Government have taken on. We have the smallest Army since the time of Wellington. A number of hon. Members have pointed out just how stretched our armed forces are. Secondly, we have insufficient resources to do the job and thirdly, as the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) pointed out, no allowance has been made for the unexpected—what Harold Macmillan undoubtedly would have described as XEvents, dear boy, events". As my hon. Friend for Mid-Norfolk said, there is no spare capacity. This is the gravest accusation that I want to make of the Government tonight. They simply have not allowed sufficient resources of men and equipment to allow for the unexpected. Another 2,500 troops have been committed to Northern Ireland. That was unexpected, given the so-called peace process. Another illustration is the Fire Brigades Union strike.

We now have 10 warships sitting idle. As the Minister of State told me in a written answer he gave me last night, seven of them—HMS Exeter, HMS Kent, HMS Lancaster, HMS Manchester, HMS Norfolk, HMS Newcastle and HMS Portland—have been affected by Operation Fresco. Two ships are out of action because of collision damage, and HMS Sheffield is up for sale. The fact is that a third of our major surface fleet is out of action. That simply illustrates the point that the Government cannot do all that they want on the limited, lean and mean machine that they are offering. We need an expansion in our armed forces if we are to meet the unexpected.

I will conclude on a conciliatory note. I hope that the whole House can unite in praising the commitment, dedication and professionalism of our armed forces as they stand by, across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, to protect the lives of the citizens of this country in the event of a Fire Brigades Union strike.

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None of us wishes that to happen, but we can be proud of our armed forces and what they are doing. They have left their other jobs and taken to the task in hand with alacrity. They have adapted themselves and shown great professionalism.

I went to Netley on Monday to see Commander Durkin of the Royal Navy, who is in charge of the operations in Hampshire. I was hugely impressed with what they are doing and their capability. I know that the police service of Hampshire is equally impressed with the men and women who have been put in charge of helping them out. On that note of conciliation, I hope that I can unite the House in wishing good luck to our armed forces if they are called upon to stand in for the firefighters.

6.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): This has been an excellent debate. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State indicated when it began, the past year has been marked by both challenge and innovation. In the UK we have been challenged not only by the threat from international terrorism, but from other directions—by the fire dispute as well as dissident terrorism and communal violence in Northern Ireland. The armed forces have responded to these challenges promptly and effectively. We have taken military action, along with friends and allies, to deny al-Qaeda its base in Afghanistan—arguably the most important contribution the armed forces could have made to the defence of this country.

We have done much more than that. We have addressed the policy challenge presented by the events of 11 September. We have been able to do this on the basis of the strategic defence review completed by the Government in 1998, the value and worth of which has been so amply demonstrated by the events of the last year. We have taken a long hard look at our defence posture and plans in the light of the terrorist threat. We are making changes and improvements as a result of that long hard look. We have addressed the issue of attacks by renegade aircraft and ships. We are also making constant refinements to the well-established defence capabilities which respond to specific types of terrorist incident, including those involving chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear devices.

In his opening statement, my right hon. Friend announced our intention to implement in full our proposals for enhancements to arrangements to involve the volunteer reserve in home defence and civil emergencies. These proposals have been widely welcomed. They contribute to the changes to central Government mechanisms that the Government began last year and to the much wider changes that are taking place in the public and emergency services in response to the threat.

Enhancing the role of the reserves adds another element to the wide-ranging contribution that the armed forces already make in the response to civil contingencies and emergencies. This is not just a question of the response to the threat from terrorism. Our armed forces have a very fine record in recent years of providing support to the civil authorities at times of emergency, whether during the fuel dispute, floods, or

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foot and mouth disease. They stand ready and able to save lives should a firefighters' strike take place in the near future. Their capacity to respond to the challenge and the contribution they make to the community has never been greater, and I feel sure that the House will agree that their standing has never been higher. Having said that, however, we must ensure that the armed forces are properly supported and equipped.

Innovation has not been limited to enhancing the contribution that the armed forces make to the community but to wider questions, ranging from the defence industrial sector to the needs of the people who make this remarkable contribution to national life. Indeed, it would be wrong for us to spend our time finding new roles for the armed forces without addressing the wider issues. To do so would place an intolerable burden on the personnel involved.

In this sphere, as in others, we have taken nothing for granted, but we are determined to build upon the firm foundations that already exist, and to innovate, not for its own sake but for improvements' sake.

The need to ensure that armed forces personnel were suitability trained and motivated lay at the core of the 1998 strategic defence review, and that continues to be the case. The policy for people recognises that our defence depends on our armed forces personnel and their families as well as the civil servants who work alongside them. The armed forces overarching personnel strategy ensures that we bring to the armed forces the talent that is needed, irrespective of race, ethnic origin, religion, gender, social background or sexual orientation. It helps to ensure that we retain talent once it is recruited, by addressing pay, pensions, training and family needs.

Perhaps most important, we take very seriously the demands placed on our people. Although there may be times when the lives of armed forces personnel are disrupted by an emergency, we can, and do, ensure that the right balance is struck between operational commitments, the need of the families of armed forces personnel—we should not forget their contribution to the effectiveness of the armed forces—and the need for training and personal development between operational deployments.

I shall try to deal with some of the points that have been made today in the time left to me, which is, for a change, ample. Well, I assure right hon. and hon. Members that it is ample in comparison to what I usually get.

It is always unwise to trade statistics with a statistician, which is one of my jobs not mentioned by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson). His query about international comparators for the statistics that we use was quite interesting, but, alas, his suggestion is not practicable. One might think it shameful in this day and age, but there is no real standardisation of measurement between countries. There is a great paucity of information on many of the indices that we may want to consider.

Of course the appropriate health comparison is with our own general population, and the Registrar-General produces very comprehensive health statistics that provide a sound background against which our own epidemiology and statistics staff can conduct suitable work. Occasionally, as with Gulf veterans' illnesses,

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there is also the possibility of comparing those who went to the Gulf with a similar body of members of the armed forces who did not go to the Gulf. Overall, that is an important point, but it is not possible to use international statistics, much as one would like to do so.

I shall have to go through things as best I can and refer to the notes that I have made as I go. Let me start with Apache. Yes, there have been delays with the Apache simulator. We have made the point that that contract was, of course, started by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo)—sadly, he is no longer in the Chamber, although he was here when it was first mentioned—but, fair enough, we allowed the contract to proceed, and our intention was to ensure best value for money.

Sadly, the resulting contract has faced delays, and it will cause delays in the full implementation of our capability in that important part of the armed forces, and we deeply regret that. Boeing—the principal actor—also very much regrets it and has publicly said so itself. We are trying to get things back on side as best we can. The simulator is now working in part. I shall reply to the detailed questions that I was asked about that later because they are lost somewhere in my notes. I have no idea where they are exactly. They were rather detailed points, so it is probably better if I answer them very accurately.

The possibly of compensation for cancelling holidays and so on was mentioned in an intervention. I confirm that service personnel who are required to cancel previously booked holidays as a result of changing service requirements are entitled to claim a refund of nugatory holiday expenditure provided that they were not warned of the operational deployment at the time of booking. For Operation Fresco, if service personnel have cancelled holidays as a result of such warning and subsequently have their leave reinstated, they are still entitled to claim for any nugatory expenditure, and I am sure that that will be welcomed.

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