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Written Statements

Volume 474: debated on Thursday 24 April 2008

Written Ministerial Statements

Thursday 24 April 2008

Defence

Iraq

I explained to Parliament on 1 April 2008 (Official Report, columns 628 - 630) that, in the light of the operations launched by the Government of Iraq in Basra on 25 March, we would maintain our force levels in southern Iraq at around 4,000 while we worked with the Iraqis and our coalition partners to review the implications for our own plans. I undertook to provide a further update on our plans this month.

The Iraqi security forces' (ISF) operation to enforce the rule of law in Basra—known as ‘Operation Charge of the Knights’—is continuing, with support from coalition forces. We welcome the willingness of the Government of Iraq to take responsibility for delivering security in Basra province and the progress of the ISF operations to date. We have been pressing for firm action since responsibility for Basra’s security was transferred to the Iraqis in December.

The coalition’s strategy in the area has been to encourage Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems, and through outreach and reconciliation to isolate those people in Basra who refuse to follow a democratic road. This has helped to set the context for the recent successes, and it is evident that the ISF action against criminals and militia elements operating outside the law has the firm backing of the people of Basra. In the initial phases of operations, the ISF have consolidated control over all key routes in and out of the city and over large parts of the city itself. The ISF are continuing to locate and remove significant numbers of illegal weapons, in many cases thanks to information received from local residents. Further phases of operations are planned.

As I said in my statement on 1 April, it remains our clear direction of travel and our plan to reduce our force levels, as and when conditions allow, from the current number of around 4,000 for the next roulement, known as Operation TELIC 12. But while the situation on the ground continues to evolve rapidly, and while military commanders continue to assess the changing environment in Basra, it remains prudent that we take time to fully consider further reductions.

The focus of UK forces is on completing the task of training and mentoring 14th (Iraqi Army) Division in Basra so that it develops into an effective force, able to ensure security without the need for our assistance. 14 Division is still months away from becoming fully operational. We will continue to ensure that our support is tailored as effectively as possible to meeting its needs. Already, we have enhanced our advisory and operational support by embedding teams of UK personnel with headquarters and operational planning staff in Basra. Sustained improvements in security will also provide a sound basis for further economic development and political progress, including through provincial elections scheduled to take place in the autumn.

The TELIC 12 force package will see the lead formation, currently 4 Mechanised Brigade, replaced by 7 Armoured Brigade, which will provide the majority of the units serving in Iraq. 7 Armoured Brigade will take over the command of UK forces in early June. The forces deploying include soldiers from the following units:

7th Armoured Brigade Headquarters and Signal Squadron (207)

3rd Regiment Royal Horse Artillery

The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers and Greys)

9/12th Lancers (Prince of Wales's)

32nd Engineer Regiment

1st Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers

2nd Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment

The Highlanders, 4th Battalion The Royal Regiment Of Scotland

2 Logistic Support Regiment, The Royal Logistic Corps

3 Close Support Medical Regiment

2 Close Support Battalion, Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers

111 Provost Company, 1st Regiment Royal Military Police

Elements of 5th Regiment Royal Artillery

Elements of 16th Regiment Royal Artillery

Elements of 32nd Regiment Royal Artillery

Elements of 47th Regiment Royal Artillery

Elements of 170 (Infrastructure Support) Engineer Group

Elements of 33 Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Disposal)

Elements of 2nd Signal Regiment, Royal Corps of Signals

Elements of 10th Signal Regiment, Royal Corps of Signals

Elements of 14th Signal Regiment (Electronic Warfare),Royal Corps of Signals

Elements of 21st Signal Regiment (Air Support), Royal Corps of Signals

Elements of 24 Postal Courier and Movement Regiment The Royal Logistic Corps

Elements of 9 Supply Regiment The Royal Logistic Corps

Elements of 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment The Royal Logistic Corps

Elements of 17 Port and Maritime Regiment The Royal Logistic Corps

Elements of 27 Transport Regiment The Royal Logistic Corps

Elements of 29 Postal Courier and Movement Regiment The Royal Logistic Corps

Elements of 104 Military Working Dog Support Unit

Elements of 1 Military Intelligence Brigade

Elements of 1 Regiment Army Air Corps

Elements of 28 Squadron, Royal Air Force

Elements of 78 Squadron, Royal Air Force

Elements of Tactical Supply Wing, Royal Air Force

Elements of Joint Helicopter Support Unit, Royal Air Force

Elements of Joint Medical Command

Members of the reserve forces will continue to deploy to Iraq as part of this force package, and we expect to issue around 290 call-out notices in order to fill some 220 posts during the TELIC 12 roulement period. Prior to their deployment and on completion of their mobilisation procedures, the reservists will undertake a period of training and integration with their respective units. For the majority, their deployment to theatre will commence in May and most will serve on operations for six to seven months, although some may have shorter tours. The reservists will predominantly reinforce regular units and perform a wide range of activities including force protection duties, intelligence and logistic tasks. As part of this commitment, we also expect up to 50 members of the sponsored reserves to be in theatre at any one time.

Force levels will be kept under review, and we will look to make further reductions over the course of the TELIC 12 deployment if conditions allow and on the advice of commanders on the ground. I will, of course, keep Parliament informed of developments.

Northern Ireland Garrison Restructuring

In May 2006, my predecessor announced the future garrison structure for Northern Ireland.

As part of our longer-term planning, we have decided to relocate 230 Squadron RAF, currently based at RAF Aldergrove and equipped with Puma helicopters, to RAF Benson. This will establish a coherent Puma force on a single site, enabling the improvement of Puma force capability. It will also entail the relocation of RAF support personnel and a reduction in the civilian personnel required at Aldergrove. We expect the relocation to be completed by the end of 2010.

The relocation of 230 Squadron will free up significant facilities at Aldergrove. It is therefore our intention to relocate 38 Engineer Regiment, who will move into Massereene Barracks, Antrim later this year, to Aldergrove as soon as practicable following the departure of 230 Squadron and to dispose of Masserene Barracks thereafter. A number of civilians will be offered the opportunity to relocate with the unit, but there will be a reduction in civilian personnel associated with site-specific activities.

These changes will not impact on our commitments in support of the civil authorities in Northern Ireland. Aldergrove will remain a military flying station for the Army Air Corps for the foreseeable future. The RAF will continue to utilise Northern Ireland airspace for training and a limited number of RAF personnel will remain in joint or specialist appointments in units within Northern Ireland. The relocation of 38 Engineer Regiment demonstrates our longer-term commitment to retain a base at Aldergrove. The ongoing relocation of 19 Light Brigade to Northern Ireland, announced in January 2006, demonstrates our longer-term commitment to basing in Northern Ireland.

Home Department

Withdrawal of Enforcement-Related Marriage Policies DP3/96 and DP2/93

As part of our programme of reform in 2008 to tighten Britain’s border security I am today revoking two pieces of guidance which could have helped a handful of overstayers—people here illegally in the United Kingdom (UK)—to obtain limited leave to stay in the UK as the spouse or partner of a British citizen rather than go home and apply for a marriage visa.

These policies only applied to people facing enforced removal but gave an unfair advantage to those unlawfully in the UK compared to those who complied with the immigration rules in seeking a marriage visa before arrival. Withdrawing the policies will simplify the handling of marriage cases.

The fact that an individual is married to or is the civil partner of a British citizen or someone settled in the UK will continue to be a relevant factor to be taken into account when considering removal. Each case will be considered on its individual merits in line with the Human Rights Act and the immigration rules.

Leader of the House

Topical Debates

In a written ministerial statement to the House on 7 February 2008 (Official Report Col. 83WS), I announced that I will be conducting a review into the operation of topical debates. The results of the review will be published before the House rises for the summer recess. Any Member wishing to submit their views is asked to do so by 23 May 2008.

I proposed a new system to publish, on a quarterly basis, a list of all subjects that have been proposed for debate, other than those discussed at weekly business questions, which are already a matter of public record. The attached table gives the second such set of information relating to the period of January to March 2008.

Subjects proposed—other than in business questions—for topical debates (January 2008 to March 2008)

Note that the list includes all requests and whether they have been submitted by letter, e-mail or another method. The list does not include requests made during business questions, or otherwise on the floor of the House, and which are already a matter of public record. Weeks where there were no such requests are not included.

Week commencing 7 January 2008:

Gas and electricity prices (e-mail)

Kenya (asked for in person)

Week commencing 21 January 2008:

Public family law (letter)

Week commencing 28 January 2008:

Northern Rock and banking reform (letter)

Treatment of minorities in Iran (e-mail)

Women’s representation (by telephone)

Women in prison (by telephone)

US missile defence (letter)

Week commencing 11 February 2008:

BERR Committee Report on Post Office Closures (letter and email)

Week commencing 18 February 2008:

DNA Information Society (Letter)

Week commencing 3 March 2008:

100th anniversary of the Territorial Army (letter)

Week commencing 17 March 2008:

National DNA database (letter)

Business Questions 13 March 2008 (Correction)

In my response to the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), during business questions on 13 March 2008, I said (Official Report Vol. 473 Col. 419):

“...all decisions on adding capacity at Heathrow will be taken independently by BAA”

Further to my letters to the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) and the hon. Member for Uxbridge (John Randall) on 14 March 2008, I would like to clarify that all decisions on adding capacity at Heathrow will be taken independently of BAA.

Prime Minister

NATO Summit Meeting

I, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, and my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary represented the UK at the summit meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government in Bucharest from 2 to 4 April 2008.

The meeting focused on Afghanistan, including a meeting involving President Hamid Karzai, contributors to the NATO-led military mission and our key international partners. The UK welcomed the clear and unambiguous reiteration by the representatives of the international community of their long-term commitment to work together with the Government of Afghanistan to build an enduring, stable, secure, prosperous and democratic state.

President Karzai demonstrated Afghanistan’s readiness to assume greater ownership of this process by announcing that Afghan forces would take responsibility for the security of Kabul by August this year and would gradually assume responsibility for other parts of the country.

The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, reaffirmed the shared determination of the international community to help the people and Government of Afghanistan. He committed to closer UN co-ordination with President Karzai and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), through his new special representative to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, whom I met again in London last week. I fully support him in his important work and the UK Government will do all they can to help.

Heads of State and Government of all forty nations contributing to the UN-mandated, NATO-led ISAF, agreed a strategic vision declaration which committed to:

a firm and shared long-term commitment to Afghanistan;

support for enhanced Afghan leadership and responsibility;

a comprehensive approach which combines civilian and military efforts; and

increased co-operation and engagement with Afghanistan’s neighbours, especially Pakistan.

The UK Government welcome this declaration, which reinforces the approach that we set out in the revised Afghanistan strategy, which I announced to Parliament on 12 December 2007.

President Sarkozy, as well as signalling France’s welcome intent to re-engage fully in NATO’s military structure, confirmed his decision to deploy an additional battalion of French troops to the east of Afghanistan. This allowed President Bush to announce the movement of a substantial US force from the East, to Kandahar in the south. A number of other allies—including Canada, Poland, Romania and Slovakia—also announced increased contributions of troops, trainers, and helicopters, which were all warmly welcomed.

The alliance also made important political decisions on enlargement. Albania and Croatia were invited to start their accession, recognising the progress that both countries have made in their internal reforms and the role that they are playing in the region and beyond, including in Afghanistan.

The summit welcomed the commitment shown by Macedonia to NATO’s values and its contribution to NATO operations. The UK Government remain convinced that Macedonia’s rightful place is as a member of NATO and will continue to work for that to happen. We were disappointed that the alliance was not able to issue a membership invitation, but the summit did agree that an invitation will be issued. NATO leaders urged Greece and Macedonia to reach a mutually acceptable solution to the question of a name soon.

The summit also gave a clear commitment that Ukraine and Georgia will one day become members of NATO and offered support for their request for membership action plans. The Government look forward to a period of intense co-operation between NATO and both countries until they are admitted into NATO’s membership action plan.

The alliance had a frank and open exchange with President Putin on NATO-Russia relations. I and other NATO leaders welcome the Russian Federation’s assistance to ISAF’s efforts in Afghanistan, including through logistical support.

In partnership with President Sarkozy, we promoted the UK/France-led initiative to support helicopter capability upgrades and pilot training, aiming to make more helicopters available both in Afghanistan and for other multinational operations. Ten NATO partners made clear at Bucharest their intention to provide direct support for this initiative, and detailed discussions are now under way on the nature and extent of their involvement.

The Government remain convinced of the continued importance and relevance of NATO in international crisis management, but also that it must continue its process of reform to meet this challenge more effectively. I am therefore pleased that NATO accepted the UK’s offer to host an informal meeting of Defence Ministers this autumn specifically focused on reform. This will be an important opportunity to drive forward the modernisation of NATO and its capabilities transformation agenda.

Further important work was set in hand on NATO missile defence, to support the planned deployment of a US missile defence capability in Europe.

Through all these actions at the summit, the alliance demonstrated its continued sense of purpose and contribution to European, transatlantic, and wider international security.

Working ever closer with other international organisations, notably the EU and UN, a strong and effective NATO remains at the heart of UK foreign and security policy, as was emphasised in the national security strategy announced to Parliament on 19 March. I look forward to the 60th anniversary of NATO next year and to a summit to be hosted jointly by France and Germany in Strasbourg and Kehl. The UK Government remain committed to playing a full role in the development of the alliance.

Transport

EU Transport Council

I attended the transport session of the Transport, Telecommunications and Energy Council, held in Luxembourg on 7 April. The Slovenian Minister for Transport and Communications, Mr Radovan Zerjav, was in the chair.

There was a progress report and policy debate on the current package of road transport legislative proposals, namely: a recast regulation on common rules for access to the international road haulage market; a regulation on common rules concerning the conditions to be complied with in order to pursue the occupation of road transport operator; and a recast regulation on common rules for access to the market for coach and bus services. The presidency presented a compromise package, including a Commission proposal on cabotage—three domestic deliveries in seven days following an international laden journey—and an amended proposal on interconnected national registers. On cabotage, a significant number of member states regretted that the proposal was not more liberal. I spoke in support of regulated cabotage, which was only an 'add-on' to international journeys, but stressed that it should not be regular or systematic, which the Commission proposal would allow. I stressed the need to address safety concerns and enforcement alongside market opening. I welcomed the agreement in principle to establish interconnected registers, to enable member states to help each other to protect road safety through effective enforcement when operators are working internationally. The presidency concluded that the majority of member states could support the proposed compromises on cabotage and the registers, and that it would now work towards achievement of political agreements on the three proposals in June. We will continue to work with them and other member states towards achieving an acceptable outcome for the UK.

On rail freight, the Council adopted conclusions on the Commission communication “Towards a Rail Network giving Priority to Freight". The conclusions are acceptable to the UK.

The Council reached a general approach on a regulation on implementation of the European satellite radio navigation programmes (EGNOS and Galileo). This follows on from the political guidelines set out in the November Transport Council conclusions on Galileo. This regulation sets the Community budget for the satellite navigation programmes between 1 January 2007 and 31 December 2013. It also aims to improve the governance of the programmes by applying a strict division of responsibilities. The text of the general approach is acceptable to the UK.

The Council reached a political agreement on a directive on airport charges. The directive aims to establish a framework of common principles to be respected by airport operators when they determine the charges to airlines for the use of airport services, as practices currently differ across member states. These measures aim to create a level playing field to avoid cases of discrimination and improve transparency. The agreed text of the directive is acceptable to the UK.

The Council reached a general approach on a regulation on a code of conduct for computerised reservation systems (CRS) to replace the existing regulation 2299/89. This aims to update and simplify the existing code of conduct and to promote competition between CRS providers, whilst maintaining safeguards against potential competitive abuses and ensuring the provision of neutral and comprehensive information to consumers. The text of the general approach is acceptable to the UK.

The Council adopted conclusions relating to a Commission communication entitled “An Agenda for a Sustainable Future in General and Business Aviation". The Conclusions are acceptable to the UK.

There were progress reports and a policy debate on two current legislative proposals in maritime transport. These are a directive on compliance with flag state requirements and a directive on the civil liability and financial guarantees of shipowners. These are the final two proposals of seven in the Commission’s latest maritime package, the other five having already been agreed by the Council. I joined Ministers who spoke against proceeding with these two proposals, which are widely regarded as unnecessary. Many noted the importance of global rule-making in these two areas, under the auspices of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). The presidency will now reflect on the views expressed on these two maritime dossiers.

Transport items on the list of items adopted without debate—“A points”—were:

Adoption of a decision authorising the Commission to open negotiations with Israel on a comprehensive air transport agreement

Adoption of conclusions on the Commission communication “First Report on the

Implementation of the European Single Sky Legislation - Achievements and the Way Forward”

Adoption of decisions on the signature and provisional application of the agreements with Nepal and Australia on certain aspects of air services

Adoption of a directive on the inland transport of dangerous goods

These are all acceptable to the UK.

Work and Pensions

Pension Transfer Values (Regulations)

New regulations on the calculation of pensions transfer values were laid on 11 April. The regulations come into effect on 1 October 2008.

The regulations build on the very useful dialogue we have had with the pensions community about the way that pensions transfer values should be calculated.

The regulations are largely as we consulted on. However, the requirement that every assumption used in the calculation should be a “best estimate” has been changed in order to make the calculation more straightforward. The new requirement is that the assumptions, taken as a whole, should lead to a “best estimate” of the amount of the unreduced transfer value.