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Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): I am always suspicious when Ministers attack the Opposition. The Secretary of State said that the Chancellor had promised a real-terms increase. The right hon. Gentleman seeks specific answers from my hon. Friend, so will he tell the House what extra money the Chancellor has confirmed to him will be available?
Mr. Hoon: That announcement will be made in due course, as the spending totals for all Departments are made known. That process will take some months but that is not unusual. The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) keenly questions spending on fast jets, for example. Conservatives talk about cuts in defence spending, while at the same time complaining about a series of projects that they want delivered. I challenge the right hon. Gentleman to ask those same searching questions of members of his own Front Bench. Recognising the difficulties that face all Departments in meeting their budgetary commitments, how is that Conservative spokesmen believe that they can cut £1.5 billion from defence?
Mr. Hoon: I do not believe everything that I read in the newspapers, but I read that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex was less than enthusiastic about the shadow Chancellor's commitment. I will read out the words of the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), just in case he has not told his hon. Friend the Opposition's spending plans. He said:
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): Given General Sir Michael Walker's comment yesterday that it might be several years before Britain could undertake a major war operation, will the Secretary of State speculate by how much that period would be extended if the Ministry's budget was frozen in real terms during the first two years of a hypothetical Conservative Government?
Mr. Hoon: I look forward to the right hon. Member for Fylde asking that question of the shadow Cabinet spokesman for defence. We want to know where those cuts will be made. Will there be cuts in capability or in equipment? That is for the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex to explain.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the problems facing our armed forces today originate in decisions taken in 1992, 1993 and 1994 by the last Conservative Government? Does my right hon. Friend further agree with the comments of the First Sea Lord to the Defence Select Committee yesterday, who said that stopping recruitment had been a dreadful mistake and had led to a black holeparticularly in respect of leading hands. Does he agree that we are having to pick up those mistakes now?
Mr. Hoon: The previous Government's lack of spending on public services had a dramatic effect on hospitals and schools. The dramatic effect on defence was not always appreciated. We had to make good many of the cuts and shortfalls that we inherited. Year by year, we are doing that by spending more on defenceso it is right to highlight the cuts proposed in the unlikely event of the Conservatives again achieving power.
Mr. Hoon: Would the right hon. Gentleman say that it was irresponsible of members of his own Front Bench to announce a cut in defence expenditure at precisely the time more needs to be spent, to provide security against threats? I look forward to the right hon. Gentleman questioning his own Front Benchers about their commitments. The right hon. Gentleman regularly urges the Government to spend more on fast jets and military equipment. There ought to be some consistency. I would be delighted to know the right hon. Gentleman's position.
Mr. Jack: I come to the House to ask the Secretary of State, on behalf of my constituents working in the aerospace industry, to honour the commitments and budgets that he has promised to programmes such as the Eurofighter and joint strike fighter.
Mr. Hoon: I am delighted that in the context of the extra spending that we have promised, a range of successful military equipment will be available to support Britain's armed forces. I want to know the kinds of cuts and the equipment that the Conservatives will cancel in the event of the right hon. Gentleman supporting his own Front Benchers' efforts to reduce defence expenditure.
The campaign in Iraq began just over one year ago. It showed our armed forces and the Ministry of Defence at their best and demonstrated how far we have come in achieving truly expeditionary forces able to deliver a range of military attacks over long distances. I have acknowledged that there were some deficiencies, but I welcome the thorough investigations by the National Audit Office and the Defence Select Committee, which have helped to illuminate the issues.
I have no doubt that Britain's intervention in Iraq has been and will continue to be beneficial to the Iraqi people. Earlier this month, members of Iraq's governing council signed a transitional administrative law for Iraq. That signing was a significant milestone.
Given the uncertainties of the modern world, standing still on defence policy is not an option. We must not fail our armed forces. We must ensure that they are structured and equipped to carry out the tasks and challenges that we expect them to face. The White Paper provides the policy basis on which we will rebalance our armed forces, to ensure that they are best placed to meet the security challenges of the first part of the 21st century. The White Paper recognises that to be an effective and influential player in a changing world, the United Kingdom must be committed to working in partnership with our international friends and allies and be prepared to take action when needed. By doing so, we shall together confront the threats presented by international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and the challenges posed by failed and failing states.
The White Paper recognises also that we cannot predict precisely where and when we will next have to deploy significant numbers of UK armed forces in support of our foreign policy and security aim. We must modernise our force structures and harness technology and information networks to enable the UK to act quickly, accurately and decisively anywhere in the world.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): I wish first to apologise to the House, as I have already done to the Secretary of State and the Minister of State, because I will be unable to be present for the winding-up speeches. I have an important speaking engagement, and I apologise for my absence.
I also thank the Secretary of State for his generous and warm tribute to my noble and gallant Friend Lord Vivian, who played such a distinguished part in defence debates in the other place for many years. He was extremely knowledgeable and very popular on both sides of the House. He was highly regarded and respected for his knowledge. We will miss his advice and considerable experience as a serving soldierat the rank of Brigadier when he retiredand we extend our deepest sympathy to his wife and family.
I also wish to pay a warm tribute to the men and women of the three armed services for the wonderful way in which they have carried out their duties in the past onerous year, and for the patience and fortitude of their familiesqualities that are often over-tested at present. I also pay warm tribute to our reserve forces, which have played a distinguished and remarkable role in operations in the recent past, and continue to do so. We salute their efforts and are grateful to them, their families and their employers for their understanding. Finally, I pay warm tribute to the civilian staff of the Ministry of Defence, wherever they work, for the remarkable and important work that they do to support our armed forces.
Even allowing for the Secretary of State for Defence having a bit of fun at my expensewhich was entirely legitimateit defies belief, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) pointed out, that the Secretary of State should think that the end of the cold war required no strategic reduction in the posture and shape of our armed forces: it was one of the biggest changes in military affairs for generations. However, it is a matter of common consent throughout the world that the peace dividend taken in many countries at the end of the cold war was probably overdone. It did represent a significant change from positional defence to the evolving policies that have found catharsis, in many ways, in the White Paper, including the creation of highly deployable forces, which was started in the last years of the Conservative Government and in which the present Government have made substantial and welcome investment.
We generally accept the White Paper's assessment of the strategic environment and the difficulties that flow from it. Indeed, it is clear that we have come to a decisive moment in history, when a new and diverse constellation of threats have appeared that are not nearly as obvious as their relatively certain predecessors. Today, we are confronted by an extra-national,