Defence and the Armed Forces

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:11 pm on 2nd November 2000.

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Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence 2:11 pm, 2nd November 2000

May I begin by expressing my pleasure at the elevation of my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal) to the post of First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means? My only regret is that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will thereby lose a first-class Parliamentary Private Secretary.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State opened the debate yesterday by running through some of the main activities in which our armed forces have recently been involved. Our armed forces have proved time and again why they are the envy of the world. Before I speak about some detailed matters in that regard, I want to turn to the role of defence in the community.

The presence of the Ministry of Defence and our armed forces at the heart of the community is often felt most keenly when they are on hand to help when things go wrong. The armed forces have been much in evidence in the last few days, helping the civil authorities to deal with the consequences of floods and storms. We have provided personnel and vehicles to assist in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire, Kent and Somerset. We have also provided specialist teams to deal with chemical leaks, and helicopters to carry out reconnaissance flights. We did much the same when flooding hit Kent and Sussex last month.

The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force provide search and rescue services around our coasts 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and rescued 1,189 people last year 1999. Our bomb disposal experts received 495 call-outs last year, and the armed forces were on standby to ensure that essential services did not break down during the recent fuel crisis.

Hon. Members know from the answer that I gave in the Chamber on 30 October that the Ministry of Defence is fully engaged in the fuel task force's efforts to ensure that the effects of any future disruption to fuel supplies are minimised. As before, that includes being prepared to help distribute fuel, as directed by the civil authorities, to help keep the country going. The House has already had the opportunity to hear the statement from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

However, we do not want people in Britain to see members of the armed forces only in emergencies. We want them to meet our service men and women, and we hope that they will therefore learn a bit about the vital work that they do all over the world. During the summer months the Royal Navy carried out the "Meet Your Navy" deployment around Britain. This was a highly successful programme of visits to ports and harbours around the country, as part of the national millennium celebrations.

In all, 26 naval units were involved, including a submarine and a royal fleet auxiliary. They were visited by 58,000 members of the public. Highlights included the first port visit by an aircraft carrier to Bristol for many years, and the deployment of a Royal Navy patrol craft to Wisbech in Cambridgeshire—the furthest inland that a commissioned vessel has been in recent times.

Before I move on to the Government's policies for people and for logistics, I want to comment on the anti-European obsession displayed by Opposition Members in yesterday's debate. The Opposition are well known for their visceral fear of all things European. Their dogma on Europe means that they reject co-operation in Europe, even when that would be in the national interest.