Defence in the United Kingdom

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:56 pm on 31st October 2002.

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Photo of Bruce George Bruce George Labour, Walsall South 2:56 pm, 31st October 2002

I honestly cannot say. The hon. Gentleman was closer to the then Government than I was in those days. I look forward to his observations and insider knowledge as to whether what he says is right.

The Minister announced the results of the Ministry of Defence's consultation exercise on the role of the reserves in home defence. As I understand it, the proposal has not changed significantly as a result of the consultation, although the new forces are to be renamed civil contingencies reaction forces rather than reserve reaction forces. The new name is perhaps a little odd if their responsibilities are to respond only to home defence incidents as opposed to the wide range of civil emergencies in which assistance from the military might be sought. The Defence Committee will want to look carefully at the proposals, and although we welcome the decision to give back to the reserves a role in home defence, there are a number of issues of concern including, for example, the notice at which they could be made available in response to a terrorist incident.

Our report questions how the commanders could choose between regular and reserve forces if both were available. I do not believe that these proposals answer that question. It would be demoralising for volunteer reserves if, having put themselves forward and having been trained, they saw regular troops deployed in their place. As we noted in our report, no reserves were deployed in the fuel crisis in 2000, and only about 10 per cent. of those who assisted with the floods in autumn 2000 and the foot and mouth epidemic in 2001 were reservists. Those were not home defence incidents but they suggest a pattern of calling first upon the regular forces.

In December of last year, the Secretary of State set out what he described as a formidable catalogue of questions that the SDR new chapter would have to address. At the top of that list were questions about how we should strike the balance between home defence and seeking to attack terrorists in their bases or in transit. These are fundamental questions—they are complex and deserve serious analysis.

We can see how much work is being done in the United States on this issue, including the appointment of Governor Ridge as director of homeland security and the proposal before Congress to create a fully fledged department of homeland security. That would bring together many existing agencies such as the coast guard, the border patrol, the customs service, immigration officials, the transport security administration and the federal emergency management agency. I am not suggesting that we follow the Americans slavishly, especially as their circumstances are rather different from our own. However, I contrast the thoroughness with which the issues are being examined and addressed by the United States with the bland statements in the new chapter. It says:

XExperience shows that it is better where possible, to engage an enemy at longer range, before they get the opportunity to mount an assault on the UK."

That is fine.