The Secretary of State was asked—
The Yorkshire Regiment is an infantry regiment consisting of three regular battalions and one Territorial Army battalion. The 1st and 2nd Battalions fulfil the light infantry role, and the 3rd Battalion fulfils the armoured infantry role. The role of the Territorial Army battalion is to provide a contingent component to support the three regular battalions and to act as a civilian contingency reaction force for 15 Brigade. The battalion was formed on 6 June 2006 with formation parades in York, Catterick, Warminster and the Balkans.
Will my right hon. Friend pass on the congratulations and best wishes of the Government and the House to the newly formed Yorkshire Regiment, and especially to the soldiers of the 2nd Battalion currently serving in Kosovo and the 1st Battalion soldiers, who will soon be deployed to Iraq? The Yorkshire Regiment is the only county regiment in the British Army. Does he agree that it is important to build links between the regiment and the people of Yorkshire, and for local government to do its bit by transferring the freedom of the city, which was awarded to predecessor regiments, to the new Yorkshire Regiment?
I am only too happy to pass on those warm thoughts from my hon. Friend. He raises an important point about links between the local community and the newly formed regiment, and the need to ensure that those links have the same strength and depth as links with the former regiments. He asked whether I would support that, and I would. He asked whether I would support the granting of the freedom of the city to the new regiment. The answer is yes. I am conscious of the fact that HMS York, which has done such wonderful work recently in Lebanon, has the freedom of the city. I am sure that those two complementary parts of the armed forces would work well together.
The Minister has already mentioned the Territorial Army battalion. A number of soldiers from the Scarborough TA centre have served with distinction in a number of theatres. Sadly, the staffing has already been cut from six to three, with an NCO in charge. We are told that further cuts will mean that there will be no full-time staff. Can the Minister reassure me that the writing is not on the wall for the Scarborough TA centre?
I cannot off the top of my head. I will write to the hon. Gentleman. TA rebalancing involves a complex picture. It would be wrong for me to try to remember every town and every element of it. I can tell him that we have put additional full-time resources into serving the Territorial Army for the prime purpose of making sure that there is depth to what it seeks to do in individual communities. I will write to him about Scarborough. I am sorry that I do not have a detailed answer today.
Of course we all wish the men and women of the Yorkshire Regiment well, but does the Minister understand that many people in Yorkshire mourn the loss of the regiments that the Yorkshire Regiment replaced? Will he assure the House that the Government will not dismantle any more regimental history and tradition?
The hon. Gentleman may wish to look at the history of regimental change over the decades and perhaps even the centuries. The one thing that the British Army has always been able to do is try to predict its future needs and what its shape should be, and organise things accordingly. He should also be aware that the recommendations for the new infantry structure and the whole Army structure were promulgated by the chiefs of staff. They did not come from any other drive. They were based on a number of factors, not least of which was the important change in Northern Ireland. The future Army structure and infantry structure will mean that we have more of the Regular Army available for operational requirements and duty than has applied hitherto. That must be to the benefit of our serving soldiers. There are other positive aspects. If the hon. Gentleman looks back at the statements made in the House, he may get a better understanding of the matter.
Defence Industrial Strategy
The aim of the defence industrial strategy is to ensure that the Ministry of Defence and industry work together to provide the best possible capability for our armed forces. It seeks to provide greater visibility of the Department’s forward planning so that industry’s planning can be better informed, and to identify the national industrial capabilities that we need to sustain on-shore. The strategy therefore offers the best basis for providing our forces with the equipment that they need and at the same time allowing our national defence industry to sustain significant levels of employment and core capabilities over time.
I met the commander of Portsmouth naval base and the managing director of Fleet Support Ltd this morning. We discussed the unique one-stop-shop service for ships at Portsmouth naval base, where concept, design, build, launch, support, upgrade and eventual disposal are offered. That is made possible by a partnership between industry and the Royal Navy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is the only such service in the UK and that Portsmouth naval base, with its consolidation and co-location of industry and the Royal Navy, is a unique example of best practice in delivering the objectives of the defence industrial strategy?
It would be easy to say yes to that, but I would not want to give an impression that we do not have to examine all that we are delivering through work on the maritime infrastructure project. Of course, where we have excellence in companies—my hon. Friend mentioned one in her constituency, which has unquestionably given us tremendous service over the years—it is important that we consider how we can best ensure that we have the right capacity to meet our needs. The work to identify that will take some time. I have no doubt at all that those with particular excellence in this field will play a strong card, and my hon. Friend is a strong card on behalf of both her constituency and the company.
Like the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), I met the base commander and the company concerned last week, when they raised the same important issue. Are the Government prepared to ensure the stability of all three naval yards—Devonport, Portsmouth and Rosyth—so that there is a fair weighting of maintenance work? Will the Government also ensure that they rightly recognise the loyalty of the work force by giving them continuous support for their actions over the past 100 years or more?
I would be the first to congratulate the work force on all the work that they do. However, we must realise that change is under way, which is why we are working with all companies at all naval bases to determine the best configuration to meet the needs of the country not in the past century, but in the decades ahead. I do not think that that will be easy. We must realise that the number of ships that require maintenance now and the capacity in those bases will mean that there is change. We must be realistic, not romantic, which means that we need to look to the future, rather than dwelling on the past.
Will my right hon. Friend comment on developments on the joint strike fighter, which is a crucial project for our defence industry and our military? Will he comment on the progress that is being made on the transfer of intellectual property with the Americans and on the prospects for manufacturing facilities being located in the UK—and more particularly in Lancashire?
I know that my hon. Friend had a benefit last week that I did not have, because he visited the Farnborough air show. I was due to visit it, but unfortunately the events in Lebanon demanded my time. I would have liked to be there because I would have seen tremendous excellence from the British aerospace sector across the board, as he did. We are continuing to work very hard to deliver the joint intent of President Bush and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the UK’s operational sovereignty for the joint strike fighter. The matter is at the highest level of consideration. We have made good progress and have set a framework for further discussions over the next few months in even greater detail. We believe that these are important steps towards the signing of the memorandum of understanding towards the end of the year. There is still work to be done, although great progress has been made. As long as my hon. Friend continues to represent his constituency—both at air shows and in the House—I am sure that all that good work will be properly recognised.
Will the Minister ensure that the defence industrial strategy pays proper attention to the defence nuclear industry in terms of both science, technology and engineering, and, of course, the read-across to the civilian nuclear industry, because we will otherwise lose tens of thousands of highly skilled people? Their jobs would not be replaced in this country, so we would lose their expertise to foreign countries.
That is a critical part of the key manufacturing, scientific and technological strengths of this country, and too many people who are opposed to the nuclear industry, whether in the civil or defence sector, seem to forget that. Such a thing would rip the heart out of large parts of our science and technology base. We must ensure that we give those who wish to take up such aspects of a university and graduate career, or those who work in the technical side, a long-term future, because that is good for the economy and also the defence of the country.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s response to the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key). Is he satisfied that industry is playing its full role in consolidating the submarine industry in a way that will allow those key skills to be kept together?
I know that my hon. Friend keeps a close eye on this subject, and I do not know how best to interpret the question. She knows that a major procurement programme is under way in terms of the Astute submarines, and the basing of that has been determined. There will be a long-term use of that particular capability. As we look towards future capabilities, we have set out what we intend to do about the replacement for Trident, if she was directing her question at that. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) says that she was. I am giving a longer answer because there are bigger aspects to consider. There is more than just one element to the debate, which is why I mentioned the Astute programme. In terms of how we look forward, that will all be part of the national debate. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will make a major contribution to that debate.
The security situation across Afghanistan as a whole is stable, but fragile in places, including Helmand and the rest of the south of Afghanistan, where the rule of law has yet to be established fully.
With the Prime Minister advocating a NATO force of 20,000 for south Lebanon, and with real uncertainty over the US draw-down from Operation Enduring Freedom, is the Secretary of State concerned that we may end up with too few troops in Afghanistan, without the right equipment and without enough lift capability? What discussions has he had with Secretary Rumsfeld, and what is his assessment of the chances of other countries joining the international effort in Afghanistan?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, 37 other countries are involved in Afghanistan. One would be hard-pressed to find countries that are not. I have spoken to Secretary Rumsfeld about continued support from the United States and the transfer of authority at the end of this month. The United States will continue to be a member of NATO and to provide significant support. Indeed, in the south it will continue to provide a bridge in relation to the air support that is necessary. Having spoken recently to General Richards, who will be responsible for that, I am satisfied that there are sufficient forces and assets to maintain the operations that we are setting out to achieve.
I wonder whether my right hon. Friend heard the “Today” programme a week or two ago, when the Taliban spokesman excused the bombing of schools by saying, “Oh well, actually we don’t bomb schools. We only bomb girls’ schools.” Is any special protection being afforded to such schools?
I welcome my hon. Friend back to the House after her recent illness and hope that she keeps well.
I did indeed hear that interview. The House should celebrate the fact that of the 5 million additional children who are now in school in Afghanistan, one third are girls, whereas no girls were educated at all under the Taliban regime.
In relation to Helmand province in particular, my hon. Friend may be aware that in the village of Nawzad, where our troops are providing a degree of security, the Taliban had not only closed the school, but taken it over and were using it as mortar base plate location. Delivering security is exactly the sort of activity that we have been conducting in those communities which will allow those schools to reopen. We will provide protection for the teachers and encourage the children, including the girls, to attend school.
The Secretary of State announced today that he will be sending two extra Chinook helicopters to Afghanistan. That is unreservedly to be welcomed. I congratulate him on making an announcement that brings forward things that will cost extra money. Does he accept, however, that that needs to be far from the end of the story? An extra two helicopters may well not be enough, given the importance and difficulty of the essential job that we are carrying out in Afghanistan.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support, which I welcome. He will know that that was part of a statement that I made; I have no doubt that we will get to the other parts later in these questions. He will know, too, that those two Chinook helicopters were requested by commanders on the ground and staffed up to me by the chiefs of staff who approved that request, and I acceded to it. When I made the announcement about additional deployments in Afghanistan, I gave a figure to the House that included the anticipated cost of the additional helicopter support. The right hon. Gentleman will be reassured that in the same statement I said that we would keep helicopter and air support provision under review, and we will do just that.
My right hon. Friend knows that the role of the RAF will be absolutely fundamental in Afghanistan. Is he therefore absolutely satisfied that there is sufficient security for our air personnel, even with the assistance of the RAF regiment, to protect them from constant incoming attack?
My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the RAF is providing significant support in Afghanistan, not only for our troops in the south but for other troops deployed in that part, particularly from the Kandahar air base where our Harriers are based. We have made the decision to continue to base the RAF there for some time into the future. She ought to recollect that not long after I was appointed to this job I made an announcement that we were deploying additional troops to the Kandahar air base to provide full security. Consequently, having made that decision and having deployed those troops from the RAF regiment, I am satisfied that security is sufficient for the RAF.
Why are the few helicopters that we have in Afghanistan based in Kandahar where our troops are not, rather than in Helmand where they are?
The reason our helicopters are based in Kandahar, which is a comparatively short distance from our troops in Helmand—
The right hon. and learned Gentleman shakes his head. I have the advantage of having been there, seen the distance and indeed travelled in a helicopter from Kandahar to where we are based. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said, the helicopters are there because we believe that at present we can provide the level of support and in particular the security better at Kandahar than at Camp Bastion. At some time in the future we may well be able to provide that security at Camp Bastion, but that will be a matter for commanders on the ground and not for me.
My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that we have managed to train 28,000 soldiers and in excess of 30,000 police officers in Afghanistan—but we are not finished there. Not only are we training Afghanistan forces, but in Helmand province we are working with them very closely. In fact, we have deployed trainers and mentors who are working, living and eating with Afghan Kandaks and, as the commanding officer on the ground says, are prepared to die with them if necessary. That is having a significant effect on their ability to deliver security for their own people.
The whole House appreciates the excellent work that the British forces are doing in Afghanistan. As far as Helmand province is concerned, Brigadier Ed Butler, commander of the 16 Air Assault Brigade, is reported in the Colchester Evening Gazette only today as saying that morale is exceptionally high. The mission in Afghanistan is of enormous importance and UK troops are performing a vital role, but how do the Government reconcile the comments reported in Saturday’s edition of The Guardian made by General David Richards, head of the NATO international security assistance force, who says that Afghanistan is “close to anarchy”, with their own assurances that
“neither the Taliban, nor the range of illegally armed groups currently pose a threat to the long-term stability of Afghanistan”?
The hon. Gentleman disadvantages himself by relying on a press report of what General Richards said. In fact, when General Richards used the word “anarchy”, he used it specifically in relation to the lack of coherence in the network of international Government and non-governmental organisations operating in Afghanistan. He was not referring to the security situation or to the rule of law in the country. Lest it be thought that, by explaining the context of that reference, I am being complacent in any sense, I add that he went on to say that a number of measures were now in place that would tackle the problem of coherence in the Afghan and international community’s response, including President Karzai’s creation of a policy action group to co-ordinate and drive through key elements of Afghanistan’s development. He was not talking about security at all when he used the word “anarchy”.
My hon. Friend asks an important question, because a significant proportion of the additional troops whom we deployed to Afghanistan consists of 320 engineers. That is recognition, based on observations made in the early weeks and months in Afghanistan, of the fact that in order to deliver reconstruction in the context of improved governance, which will be the future security of the people in Helmand province, we must be able to find a method of doing so in a fragile security situation. That is exactly what the deployment of those engineers is designed to do. Through that deployment, we will take advantage of the progress that Commander Ed Butler and his troops made in the early months in Afghanistan to build on that security by delivering progress to communities across the south of Afghanistan, particularly in Helmand province.
As the House is aware, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Defence Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), are in Afghanistan, and I thank the Secretary of State for helping to facilitate their visit. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said, we support the mission and, above all, the work undertaken by Her Majesty’s armed forces, but Parliament has a duty to hold the Government to account for their policy in Afghanistan.
The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) referred to NATO’s commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-General David Richards, who, on Friday night, said that western forces were “short of equipment” and were “running out of time”. He said, too, that there was a lack of unity between the different agencies responsible for implementing the reconstruction work, which means that the situation, as the Secretary of State acknowledged, “is close to anarchy”. How on earth does that square with the written answer that the Secretary of State gave my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring last week, in which he said:
“Neither the Taliban, nor the range of illegally armed groups, currently pose a threat to the long-term stability of Afghanistan”?—[Official Report, 18 July 2006; Vol. 449, c. 342W.]
Surely there is an element of complacency in that, which ought not to be there?
There is no complacency at all. I know that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) is with the hon. Member for Woodspring in Afghanistan, and I was pleased to be able to assist in ensuring that they could have that experience and could communicate to our troops in Afghanistan their support and the support of other Members of the House. Before they left, they confirmed to me that they would be pleased to take that message to our troops in Afghanistan.
In answering the question as I did, I was doing exactly what I, and my predecessor, have done on a number of occasions in relation to Afghanistan: I drew a distinction between the strategic threat that the Taliban could pose to the Government of Afghanistan, and the localised threat that I have, on a number of occasions at this Dispatch Box, candidly admitted that they pose. I do not believe—nor does General Richards—that the Taliban pose a strategic threat to the Government of Afghanistan. That is what my answer to that question was designed to impart. If the hon. Gentleman checks Hansard, he will see I have used that phraseology in that very context on a number of occasions. Indeed, it has been used by myself and by the previous Secretary of State for Defence since March this year, in answer to very similar questions.
Let me just deal with General Richards’s view: I had the benefit of meeting him on Friday morning, and I do not have to rely on the way in which he was inaccurately reported in newspapers. Let me quote what General Richards—
I am sure that the House is grateful to the Secretary of State for not reading out the entire speech that General Richards made, but he made it at a public gathering at the Royal United Services Institute and it has been widely reported. Either all the reporters have got it wrong, or there is something wrong with the right hon. Gentleman’s recollection.
I want to ask the Secretary of State something else about Afghanistan, which is extremely important. Increasing numbers of British troops are being deployed to Afghanistan and the United Kingdom has another role to play there. We have been charged specifically with the lead role in helping the Afghan Government to rid the country of drug production. Last week the Minister for the Middle East said what the strategy should be. Perhaps I am quoting inaccurately and the Secretary of State can tell us if the newspapers have got it wrong, but the Minister said:
“Go for the fat cats, very wealthy farmers, the movers and shakers of the drugs trade”.
General Sir Mike Jackson, Britain’s most senior soldier, said:
“To physically eradicate”
“before all the conditions are right seems to me to be counter-productive”—
“The mission in Afghanistan offers the clearest example of how NATO is successfully transforming…Much progress has been made, and the strength, diverse capabilities, and flexibility inherent in multinational operations is being proved.”
Those were the words that General Richards used to conclude his contribution to the RUSI conference. They are entirely contradictory to the way in which his speech has been reported. Those are his own words, not three or four of them taken out of context.
With regard to drugs, there is no inherent contradiction between our focus on reconstruction and our ambition to rid Afghanistan of narcotics. There is no long-term sustainability for Afghanistan if its economy is substantially based on narcotics. At this stage we are not asking our soldiers to be drugs police officers. That is a matter for the Afghan police. However, we have accepted a responsibility to build up the capacity of Afghanistan to deal with the issue. We are doing that. We are putting significant investment into it, and by the delivery of security, we are creating a set of circumstances where that can be done. All this is perfectly consistent.
In preparation for decisions later this year on any replacement for Trident, officials are working on possible options and costs. Ministers will consider the outcome of that work later in the year. It is therefore premature to speculate on the possible costs of any replacement.
Given that the combined capital expenditure and through-life running costs of a Trident replacement could ultimately exceed some £40 billion, according to some experts, can the Minister say specifically where those funds will come from? Can he further assure the House that the funding for the UK’s conventional armed forces, which are already overstretched in many instances, will not be adversely affected as a consequence?
I have no doubt that in the context of the debate that will take place, the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to make clear, individually and on behalf of his party, when we understand what his party’s position is on the matter, where they stand. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman, like his colleagues, will have to live with the financial consequences of any decision that we make, just as we on the Government side, and no doubt the official Opposition, will be prepared to do, but he can be reassured that the timetable set for the decision is such that the decisions about the costs can be incorporated in the comprehensive spending review considerations, and decisions about costs will be made once we work out which option we want to adopt and what the costs of that option are.
The development of our nuclear deterrent took place more than 50 years ago and involved the work of many armed forces personnel, not least the veterans who took part in the Christmas Island tests. Will my right hon. Friend reconsider the matter of compensation for that ever-decreasing band of surviving veterans and their families, including my constituent, Mr. Tom Malone, before it is too late to help any of them?
When we have the debate on the strategic nuclear deterrent, could it include a discussion of the ballistic missile defence shield that America, South Korea and Japan have, but which Britain does not have? The Americans are looking for a third site. Could we have a debate about it possibly being located in the United Kingdom if they are prepared to pay for it?
Those are two separate issues. I understand why the hon. Gentleman wants to relate them, but to conflate them in that way will merely confuse the debate. He can rest assured that when there are any considerations in relation to any of these matters, we will be transparent and report them to the House.
One of the ways in which we have managed relatively to keep down the cost of our nuclear deterrence is by our co-operation with the United States of America. If we want to do the same in future, would it not make sense for us to establish strong connections at every level with all our nuclear allies, including the French?
My hon. Friend will need to wait to see what recommendation the Government make after the risks, threats, options and costs have been considered before we have the debate about how that relates to our allies. I reassure him that we have the fullest appropriate co-operation with all our allies across all areas of defence.
Given the importance of the role of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in finding the money for any successor to the Trident submarine fleet, will the Secretary of State tell the House whether his good friend the Chancellor told him before he made his Mansion house speech, or only afterwards, that he was going to declare himself in favour of keeping the nuclear deterrent, not only in the present Parliament but in the long term?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his persistence in trying to get from me an answer other than the one that I have given him now on a number of occasions, which is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and I have many discussions, the nature of which I consider to be confidential. It was hardly a surprise to me that my right hon. Friend should make a speech that was entirely consistent with party policy. I only wish that all of the people on these Benches would make speeches that were entirely consistent with party policy.
With the greatest respect to the Secretary of State, not only was it consistent with party policy, it went rather further, because in talking about the long term it suggested replacement, not just continuation, of the existing fleet. But let us leave that aside and take the right hon. Gentleman’s answer as a no—he did not know until he read the speech. Given that the Prime Minister has said that the nuclear deterrent historically has tended to be sui generis, thus implying that separate funds would be found to pay for any successor to the present Trident fleet, can the Secretary of State confirm that it is not intended to raid the conventional defence budget to pay for a new generation of strategic nuclear deterrent?
I can confirm that it is not intended to raid the conventional budget to pay for a new generation of nuclear deterrent, but I do that from a position that no decision has yet been made about whether there will be a new generation. The timing of the decision will be such that it will be able to be incorporated into the discussions between the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury in the comprehensive spending review, and that is when the decisions will be made. Finally, the hon. Gentleman is not entitled to come to the conclusion that my answer meant that I did not have a conversation with my right hon. Friend about the content of his speech.
The Government have an extensive development programme in support of the Iraqi people.
The Department for International Development, with the support of UK forces, has so far committed over £417 million of assistance, including significant investment in electricity infrastructure, raising output and strengthening the grid. In the next six months further projects will deliver a range of basic services, including drinking water, to make a real difference to the everyday lives of the people of southern Iraq.
The key to our withdrawal and that of the multinational forces from Iraq is building the capability of the Iraqi Government, both at national and provincial level, and of the civilian infrastructure, to take responsibility for a range of measures that previously they did not have responsibility for. For example, anybody who has visited Basra and compared it with Baghdad can see what 30 years of neglect by a dictator did for that part of the country, which he determinedly ran down. It is in building that capacity that we will be able to give the people of Iraq a way forward. If my hon. Friend wants an example of what we are doing to encourage that, he needs to recognise that a significant number of very able Ministers in that Government, including the Prime Minister, have been in London today meeting their counterparts and discussing how we can help them. Significant improvements have been made in Iraq. They do not always get reported, and sometimes they are drowned out by the violence, which I acknowledge has been at an unacceptably high and very dangerous level over the past months, but improvements are taking place there daily, and a substantial part of the country has moved forward.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that our troops’ reconstruction role in southern Iraq has been made much more difficult by the Government’s failure to condemn at an early stage Israeli forces’ attacks on civilian targets in Lebanon? That is a real concern, because whereas we have no troops stationed in Israel, we have thousands of troops stationed across Arabia, and many of our Arab friends are very angry about the situation. What is he going to do about it?
I again put to the Secretary of State the paucity of medical supplies and equipment in Basra’s main hospital, of which a lot of Iraqis are dying as a consequence. We have also heard that a number of doctors and medical staff have been killed in the insurgency. It is my position that UK forces should stock up that hospital and, if necessary, take children out of the country to get treatment. Is that his position, and, if it is, why are UK forces not acting?
It is my position that the international community, including the United Kingdom, has a responsibility to support health provision in Iraq, which we have been doing. It is not my position that the answer to the needs of those who should be treated in Iraq is to provide some method of moving them out of the country. That would be no answer to the problems. I accept that people in certain professions have been targeted, including the medical profession, but the answer to that is to work with Iraqi forces and the Iraqi Government at the national and provincial levels, which is what we are doing.
In a meeting today with the Prime Minister of Iraq, I was pleased when he told me that he has implemented proper supervision of the Basra security plan and that he will return to Iraq and visit Basra specifically to send a strong message to those from his community who are involved in the violence that it is unacceptable and that the security plan will address them. The long-term answer is to deliver security for the Iraqi people. My hon. Friend is consistent, but he should recognise the improvements. Although there have been setbacks, there have been significant improvements, too, and he should never underestimate how badly Saddam Hussein treated the people of Basra.
The Secretary of State will, I know, agree that a central part of the reconstruction of southern Iraq, as well as our operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere, is provided by the Hercules based at RAF Lyneham in my constituency? There are currently two problems. First, there are not nearly enough Hercules, despite the extra one that he has deployed to Afghanistan. Of the 47 in the fleet, only 20 are available for purpose at any one moment—five have been deployed in the relief of Lebanon. Secondly, the fleet is at full stretch. Is it not time to consider the provision of extra heavy lift capability, perhaps by chartering a C-17 or an extra Hercules?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are looking at additional air support and airlift. However, I am satisfied that we have responded to requests from theatre and provided the assets requested by those in theatre. In my view, that is an appropriate assessment of our capability, and we have not yet found ourselves with insufficient resources.
Last week, Premier Koizumi from Japan completed the transfer of the last of the Japanese contingent of 600 ground self-defence forces who have been based in southern Iraq in the city of Samawa and the area around it, notionally charged with humanitarian and reconstruction objectives. Does the Secretary of State feel that our own forces will have to pick up that role and therefore become even more seriously overstretched?
My hon. Friend could not, with respect, be further from the truth. The Japanese, who made a significant contribution in al-Muthanna province in southern Iraq, were able not only to stand their troops down from where they were positioned in al-Muthanna but to send them home because they had achieved their objective. My hon. Friend will have noticed that coincidentally with the Japanese Government’s announcement of a drawdown, there was an announcement of provincial Iraqi control—that is, with Iraqis themselves taking over responsibility for security and for the governance of al-Muthanna province. There is no need for any troops from outside Iraq to provide that in al-Muthanna, and that will increasingly be the case across Iraq.
There is no set budget for the future cost of operations in Iraq as costs vary with the tempo of the operation. In his recent Budget, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer set aside £800 million from within existing public spending plans for 2006-07 to meet the costs of Iraq, Afghanistan and other international commitments. Urgent funding requirements arising from operations are met from the reserve.
If I may be permitted, Mr. Speaker, in that regard I can announce today the conclusions of an urgent review into protected vehicles for operations, particularly in Iraq. We have identified three complementary ways forward, two of which build on and accelerate work that is ongoing, and the third is new. They will be funded from an acceleration of existing funding and, in part, from substantial new funding from the Treasury for Iraq and Afghanistan. I have set out the details in a written statement. Briefly, we are ordering 100 new Vector vehicles, 70 FV430 vehicles beyond the 54 already ordered, and about 100 new Cougar wheeled armoured vehicles for both theatres.
The Prime Minister recently underlined the threat to our troops in Iraq from Iranian-backed militias and Iranian-supplied weapons. I am delighted that the Minister has today announced that we are going to upgrade the armoured vehicle fleet available to our troops to protect them from that threat. However, the wheeled armoured vehicles that he has ordered will not be ready for deployment until the end of this year. What consideration was given to the procurement of battle-ready RG31 protected patrol vehicles?
We gave serious consideration to all the vehicles that were available. Thanks to the work that we were able to do with the Americans, and thanks particularly to significant work that my hon. Friend Lord Drayson was able to perform, we were able to identify about 100 Cougar vehicles to which the Americans were prepared to allow us to have access. We chose those because up-armoured, with electronic counter-measures added and with Bowman radios fitted, we believe that they would be the best protected mid-range vehicles in theatre. We made an objective decision to choose them instead of the RG31s. Had we chosen the RG31s, we would have had to fit ECMs and Bowman to them and possibly to up-armour them. In any event, the earliest possible time that we can get them into theatre is in the context of the six-month period of the next two roulements for Iraq and for Afghanistan. It physically could not be done any more quickly with any vehicle.
The Government have seen fit to finance a reserve battalion for Iraq stationed in Cyprus. The Secretary of State mentioned an unprecedented level of violence, which would seem to suggest that those reserves could be needed at any moment. Almost half the combat power of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers has been sent to Afghanistan, not Iraq. Have we run out of money or run out of soldiers?
We have not run out of either money or soldiers. My announcement today, coupled with others that I have made about urgent operational requirements for both our theatres, show that, when resources are necessary, we will find them.
The deployment of individual soldiers is a matter for the Army. Identifying the appropriate troops, from whatever service, is entirely a matter for the services.
Given the tempo of operations in Afghanistan and the necessary cost that that implies, and given that the Secretary of State has confirmed that, before next year’s comprehensive spending review, no strategic defence review or review of defence planning assumptions will take place, is he confident that the Chancellor will continue to fund the current or possibly increased tempo of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan from a special reserve, or will the costs fall on the regular defence budget?
The hon. Gentleman has no reason to believe that the Treasury will not respond to the requests for additional resources for theatre and give access to the special reserve appropriately for them. There has been no occasion on which the Treasury has denied that access and there is no reason for the hon. Gentleman to start baseless speculation that that is likely to happen in future.
The answer is yes.
I welcome the decision to allow Parliament a vote. I hope that its timing will allow for not only a full and informed debate in Parliament but proper public consultation. Given that a vote solely on options for a nuclear deterrent would be inadequate, will the Secretary of State clarify whether it will be on the substantive question of whether the UK retains a nuclear deterrent?
I can give the hon. Gentleman a specific and clear answer: there will be a vote. I have not at this stage determined the question. I will not be in a position to help him until the threats, risks, options and costs are worked out and the Government reach a view to inform the debate that is already taking place.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not join all the other people who suggest that the Government should not reach a view and that we will have a remarkable debate in this country in which Ministers or the Government are the only ones who are not allowed a view. Every time one expresses anything that approximates a view, everybody suggests that the debate has been closed down. There will be a debate—indeed, it is already taking place—the question will emerge, and there will be a vote on it.
My right hon. Friend is right that we should have a vote following a debate. However, the debate should be informed. He has been asked once what estimates he will contribute to the debate. Although he may not have them now, what is his prediction for the month when we will get estimates that allow us all to take part in an informed debate?
A substantial amount of information about the current position is in the public domain. Almost every day, I answer a raft of questions that are designed to tease out individual pieces of information that can inform the debate. The Government’s position could not be clearer. We have set a timetable for around the end of the year and we will have an open and transparent debate. The Government have said that we will publish a White Paper to inform the debate. In my view, it must contain the components to answer all the questions, but only once the risks, threats, options and costs have been worked out. What is the point of my standing here speculating until those matters are worked out?
I do not want to be too helpful to the Secretary of State but it is obvious to me that the Government will be in favour of a new generation of weapons of mass destruction, that the Conservative Opposition will support the new generation of weapons of mass destruction and that the Scottish National party will oppose them. Would not it be helpful to know the Liberal Democrats’ position?
I cannot answer for the Liberal Democrats—they can answer for themselves when the time comes. It comes as no surprise that the Scottish National party is opposed to continuing—if it comes to that—with a nuclear deterrent. The SNP is opposed to NATO. Its defence policy is not clear apart from complaining about British soldiers, whom it does not intend to support in future.
I warmly welcome the Government’s commitment to holding a vote on this extremely important issue; they are not being given sufficient credit for that, just as they were not given sufficient credit for holding a vote on the war in Iraq. We need an informed debate, however, and one of its most important aspects will be the nature of the security threat that this country will face, which will be very different from those that we have faced in the past. What information will Back Benchers be given to enable them to make the correct decisions?
My hon. Friend can look forward to having the opportunity to consider the available evidence on the nature of the risks and threats to our defence and security that we might face over the next 20 to 50 years. It will be the Government’s duty to reflect on the full range of threats to the security of the nation, so as to inform the nation and its parliamentarians about the decision that they will need to make on how we configure our defence for that very uncertain future.
There is consensus between the Government and the Opposition—it probably does not include the majority of Labour Back Benchers or the smaller parties in the House—on the need for a new deterrent, but it will be essential to our debate that we understand the alternatives between what might be described as an expensive option and the cheaper options. Some of the options might have been discarded by the Government when they made their proposals. Will they make it clear to the House what those discarded proposals are, so that we have the opportunity to debate them as well?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be no hiding, discarding or non-publishing of information. The Government want the fullest possible informed debate on this issue. When options are considered and discarded, I will accept the responsibility for explaining why that has happened, if indeed it comes to that. The problem with hon. Members asking such questions at this stage is that I always have to qualify my answers by saying that the risks, threats, options and costs have not yet been assessed, and that no recommendations have been made to any member of the Government. I am therefore not in a position to explain to the hon. Gentleman what the shape of the White Paper will be. However, it seems to me that it ought to take into account the geopolitical side as well as the military issues.
The United Kingdom has a proud record on fulfilling its disarmament obligations under article VI of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which remains the cornerstone of this country’s nuclear non-proliferation policy. Since 1998, we have withdrawn and dismantled the WE177 nuclear bomb and all of our remaining Chevaline warheads. As a result, Trident is now our only nuclear weapons system, and we are the only recognised nuclear weapons state to have reduced to a single platform. These steps have reduced our operationally available stockpile of nuclear weapons to fewer than 200 warheads, which represents a reduction of more than 70 per cent. in the potential explosive power of our nuclear forces since the end of the cold war.
I am grateful to the Minister for his helpful and full answer. Following the exchanges between my hon. Friends the Members for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) and for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) and the Secretary of State, and given the principle of irreversibility agreed at the nuclear proliferation treaty conference in 2000, will the Minister tell us whether any increase in the United Kingdom’s nuclear capacity would be compatible with our obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to which he has just referred?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for thanking me for my full answer. He should understand that that full answer means that we will be fully compliant with our international obligations under that treaty. This is why we have been so supportive of the United States’ statement on the draft fissile material cut-off treaty, which represented a way forward on these issues. We are leading the way, and seeking new ways to achieve disarmament. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that and congratulate the Government on all that we have done, and on all that we will do in the future.
On the important matter of the decommissioning of nuclear weapons, will the Minister pay tribute to the work carried out by the thousands of people who work at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston? In the context of the wider debate, will he also pay tribute to them not only for the work that they are doing today but for the work that they have done in the past and the work that they will do in the future to protect this country’s security?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, which I sought to answer in an earlier response. This work not only plays an important part in the defence of this country, in our role in NATO and in trying to maintain peace and stability in a troubled globe, but makes a major contribution to the science and technology base of this country. We need only consider the thousands of scientists and technicians who have been through not just AWE but other support elements of the defence industry in this country to recognise the quality and worth of their contribution. They defend us, but they also strengthen our economic and manufacturing base.
We will provide two additional CH47 helicopters, one in September and one in October. One will be drawn from the Falklands, and might be replaced by a commercial contract. The other will be drawn from the Chinook-47 deployable pool. Those changes, coupled with recently announced increases in helicopter hours, will give us the flexibility required to meet the demand. Helicopter force levels will remain under constant review.
My constituent has just received an e-mail from her brother, who is serving in Afghanistan, which ends:
“If it weren’t for the inherent stubbornness and capability of the honest Tommy to simply get things done, the true professionalism of the best armed forces on this earth coupled with the exceptional efforts of a few exceptional officers, the prospects for this campaign would be bleak indeed”.
Does the Secretary of State agree that it is essential that the lives of those brave British Tommys taking part in this vital mission should not be put at risk due to poor availability or poor positioning of essential kit, including helicopters? In that respect, how many helicopters are currently fit for purpose? What is he doing to reduce the number that are currently out of service?
The force that we have deployed in Afghanistan, and the additional forces that I announced to be deployed there, were designed by the commanders and approved by the chiefs of staff. I have not, and nor have any of my predecessors, refused to provide anything that has been requested for our operations in Afghanistan. As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have provided additional support for the helicopter fleet in particular.
The mere fact that we are replacing helicopters elsewhere with contractors suggests that there is a shortage of helicopters. I, too, am receiving communications from relatives of people deployed in Afghanistan who are concerned about the level of support. Can the Secretary of State tell me how many other countries in NATO are deploying helicopters in Afghanistan?
If the hon. Gentleman receives such communication, he should pass it on to me immediately, and I will deal with it. I look forward to receiving from him tomorrow the communication that he has received in relation to those matters. The conclusion that he draws about the deployment of those two helicopters is incorrect. The fact that we are deploying helicopters from the Falklands suggests that the military are doing what they do. If resource can be deployed from somewhere else to do that work, that seems to me to be appropriate. Again, if the hon. Gentleman has concerns that come to him from constituents, he should pass them on to me and I will deal with them.