Foreign Affairs and Defence

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 6:45 pm on 10th December 2008.

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Photo of John Hutton John Hutton Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, The Secretary of State for Defence 6:45 pm, 10th December 2008

I can give that assurance. I thought I recently answered a parliamentary question on that from my hon. Friend. We made it clear in the nuclear White Paper that we will come back to this House to have a vote on that if and when the need arises.

I have only eight minutes left now, so I am running out of time as I still have 78 issues to respond to. Let me end my comments on nuclear proliferation with the following remarks. The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea has had responsibility for this policy, and I have a great deal of respect for his judgment on these matters. He will know that when Ministers need to make decisions about nuclear deterrence, they are not thinking about the next two, three or five years, but have to take into account the next 40 or 50 years. That is the lifetime of the weapons system that we are designing and, as Members will know when they look at the detail of the White Paper, the new fleet will begin to come into service from about 2024 onwards. We are therefore thinking about a time frame that covers up to the middle of this century. Of course, we would all welcome a world free of nuclear weapons, because that is the sane and, it is to be hoped, it will be the happy outcome of all these discussions, but we must defend ourselves. We must take a reasonable judgment against risk. We know perfectly clearly that others are rearming as well, and the Government are not prepared to deny future generations the benefit and security that current generations have enjoyed from the nuclear deterrent.

My hon. Friend Derek Twigg made an excellent speech, and I want to pay tribute to him for the work he did in the Ministry of Defence and also to remind him of the very high regard in which he is held. He made the case that we have made significant improvements in relation to equipment. That is true and it needs to be put on the record. Members who have been to Afghanistan and Iraq will have heard first hand from troops on the ground that they have never felt better equipped and that they feel they have the right kit with which to do the difficult and dangerous job we ask them to do.

A great deal more work needs to be done on procurement, and Mr. Benyon raised a number of interesting issues in that context. Tomorrow, we shall set out some ways in which we intend to improve value for money in defence procurement and so on. Although I accept that more work needs to be done in that area, we must ensure that a balanced range of kit is available to our armed forces. It must allow them to deal not just with what is likely to be the most realistic threat—disputes not between states but within states, given that there are failing states and given the rise of terrorism—because we will also still have to plan, prepare and equip our forces for a different range of missions that could include, heaven forbid, more traditional forms of inter-state warfare. That is a difficult balance to get right. Every Secretary of State in every country in the world wrestles with these issues, but it is right that we try to strike the right balance on all these arguments.

My hon. Friend Kate Hoey raised the situation in Zimbabwe, and I praise the work that she has done in all the areas that that involves. We are all seriously concerned about the deepening humanitarian crisis in that country. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and others are working to help contain the cholera outbreak, and we will continue to do all we can to address the basic needs of Zimbabwe's very long-suffering people. The dire situation is clearly the result of a chronic and wilful failure of social, economic and political will, and we continue to engage states in the region. We welcome the contribution of those, such as Kenya and Botswana, that have been willing to speak out against the atrocities that the Mugabe regime is inflicting on its own people.

Mr. Walter raised the interesting question of the relationship between the European Union and the European security and defence policy, and I very much welcome what he had to say. I am not sure that Dr. Fox would have been with him on everything that he said about the ESDP. I have said before—I stand by these remarks—that we should take a positive and pragmatic view of the ESDP. That is very much what is enshrined in the St. Malo agreements.

Both hon. Members raised a specific question about the need for the various anti-piracy missions off Somalia. It might be helpful if I were to tell them that the Combined Task Force 150 mission, to which several hon. Members referred, is primarily a counter-terrorism mission and it flies its flag under the banner of Operation Enduring Freedom. As they will know, that means that some member states in NATO will not take part in it. The NATO mission itself, to which both hon. Members referred, is due to end this month, and its focus is very much on providing escorts for the World Food Programme ships. The ESDP mission is not a duplication; it is a necessary addition and complementary to the missions that are dealing with this growing threat. Those who want to sniff at the ESDP mission display less of an appreciation of the reality on the ground and more of a traditional form of animosity to anything that flies the European Union banner. I think that that is a serious error and we should not participate in making it.

My hon. Friend Mr. Hendrick made a number of thoughtful comments on Africa and the role of the European Union in the continent. I suspect that his points are more for my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to develop and pick up in future debates.

The hon. Member for Newark spoke about the terrorist atrocity in Mumbai and asked about contingency planning in the United Kingdom. We plan for a range of possible threats, and I know that hon. Members will not want me to go into the detail of all of that. I can say to the hon. Gentleman and others that we have specifically developed plans to protect the UK's vital national infrastructure, and I believe those plans to be in a very good state. It is obviously the case, too, that any such counter-terrorism measures need to be based first and foremost on a strong intelligence-led approach, and that is how we always try to proceed.

My hon. Friend Andrew Gwynne emphasised the importance of progress towards a long-term peace agreement in the middle east, and I think we can all agree with him on that.

I think that I have referred to most of the comments made by the hon. Member for Newbury, who, I know, served in the Royal Green Jackets. That very fine regiment is now part of The Rifles and we all celebrate their role today. I think he is wrong about the Defence Export Services Organisation; I think it would be a waste of time and money to rearrange the deckchairs yet again. If he were to talk to industry, he would find that it is very supportive of the way in which the organisation is working. The combined mission of my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary and me is to ensure that people in industry would not feel the difference in relation to this change of structure and organisation. Defence exports had their best ever year last year and they sustain hundreds of thousands of jobs right across the country; it is my strong desire to ensure that they do so.

Mr. Lancaster raised his concerns about the deployment of the Tornado in Operation Telic. I know that he has tabled a very large number of questions—

The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No.9(3)).

Ordered, That the debate be resumed tomorrow.

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