HC Deb 09 December 2002 vol 396 cc1-4
1. Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth)

What progress has been made to improve defence capabilities among NATO countries. [83956]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

NATO's defence capabilities initiative, launched at the Washington summit in 1999, has made good progress in a number of areas. To continue this progress, a new initiative—the Prague capabilities commitment, or PCC—was launched at the Prague summit on 21 and 22 November, focusing on improvements in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence, information superiority, combat-effectiveness, and deployability and sustainability. Allies have made firm political commitments to improve their capabilities in each of those areas.

Mr. Jenkins

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, particularly the part about the expansion of the capabilities of our NATO allies, but we have heard all of it before. We heard it at the end of the Washington summit. What is the vital difference between the Washington proposals and the Prague proposals, and can my right hon. Friend assure us that the capabilities and capacities of our NATO allies will match our record?

Hon. Members:

Hear, hear.

Mr. Hoon

I am pleased to see my hon. Friend receiving so much support.

The Washington defence capabilities initiative was an important step in the transformation of NATO, but I agree that, with hindsight, it could be considered too broad a programme. In the run-up to Prague, therefore, the United Kingdom argued consistently that any successor initiative should have a narrow focus with clear objectives, backed by high-level ownership. The Prague capabilities commitment is a good package that will focus nations on providing the capabilities necessary for the alliance to perform the full range of its missions.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

Given that Germany's Social Democratic Government have completely lost control of the economy, what message does the Secretary of State have for his counterpart in that Government about the defence cuts that they have just announced?

Mr. Hoon

I have had some excellent conversations with my German counterpart. No doubt the Ministry of Defence was able to draw on its experience under Conservative control, when defence budgets were cut successively. Given the healthy economic circumstances enjoyed in the United Kingdom, I was able to make it clear to my German counterpart that extra resources were available for defence in the UK, and he looked forward to the day when that would be the case in Germany as well.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the conditions imposed by the economic stability pact may make it more difficult for NATO countries that are also members of the European Union's single currency to increase their defence expenditure and thus improve their defence capability?

Mr. Hoon

I am sure my hon. Friend will have an opportunity to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer that question at Treasury questions, but I think it would be much more sensible of me to avoid answering it.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

After an entertaining start, may I press the Secretary of State on the subject of one capability that all NATO countries need to improve—preparedness for a major terrorist attack at home? There is clear evidence of a threat, and leaked documents from the Government seem to admit that civil defence "effectively no longer exists". What has the Secretary of State achieved in his Department in regard to civil defence since 11 September last year?

Mr. Hoon

I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware that civil defence is primarily the responsibility of the United Kingdom's civil authorities, certainly in respect of protection of its territory and jurisdiction on land. He and other Members will know of the significant changes proposed by the Ministry of Defence in the new chapter—the policy document supplement—to the existing strategic defence review. As for threats from the air and at sea, the Ministry of Defence remains responsible. We have ensured that our defences are commensurate with the nature of the threat that we face, particularly since the appalling events of 11 September.

Mr. Jenkin

I presume that the Secretary of State is referring to the document that I have here, "The Role of the Reserves in Home Defence and Security", which was produced nine months after 11 September. Is he aware of the answers that his right hon. Friend the Minister of State has been giving about the civil contingency reaction forces? On 25 November, he stated The training plans for the Civil Contingency Reaction Forces are still being developed … We expect that the 14 Civil Contingency Reaction Forces will be fully effective by the end of 2003"—[Official Report, 25 November 2002; Vol. 395, c. 3–4W.] Is the issue being treated with the urgency that it seriously deserves?

Mr. Hoon

I am sure the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that no civil contingency plans existed before the appalling events of 11 September. Clearly there were such plans. What we seek to do is upgrade and improve those preparations, specifically in the light of what took place on that date.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

What has been done in the past couple of months to deal with talcum—like sand penetrating into the sophisticated mechanical systems and instrumentation of Challenger 2 tanks?

Mr. Hoon

As I said to the House a couple of weeks ago, a contract has been let for the desertification of the Challenger 2 tank and that work is proceeding at some speed.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

On the subject of capabilities, will The Secretary of State confirm that, even after the various financial changes that he has mentioned, the percentage of GDP that this country will spend on defence next year will be significantly lower than it was when the Government took office, despite 11 September?

Mr. Hoon

Thanks to questions asked by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), who speaks for the Conservative party on the Front Bench, I examined carefully a number of statistics relating to the amount of expenditure. There were periods during the Conservatives' control of defence when the percentage was higher, but equally there were periods when it was lower.

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