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Topical Questions

Volume 486: debated on Monday 12 January 2009

My departmental responsibilities are to make and execute defence policy, to provide the armed forces with the capabilities that they need to achieve success in the military tasks in which they are engaged at home and abroad, and to ensure that they are ready to respond to any tasks that might arise in the future.

What impact will sterling’s collapse have on the UK’s contribution to the joint strike fighter?

To answer that, we would have to think of what the exchange rate will be in five or 10 years’ time, and I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman or I would want to engage in that kind of speculation.

T2. Will the Secretary of State let the House know his plans to airlift kit and equipment from Iraq to our troops in Afghanistan, particularly as with our troops leaving Iraq it would be extremely helpful to replace Snatch Land Rovers in the country so that we do not have any further problems there? (246466)

We will have to address those issues at the time. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I have already made it clear that I would look to redeploy the Merlin helicopters from Iraq to Afghanistan as soon as is feasible; I think that that will be towards the end of this year.

The chief of joint operations General Sir Nick Houghton has recently given advice to Ministers about the continuing use of Snatch Land Rovers, which we regard as important. However, that has to be seen alongside our commitment to a very significant investment in new armoured vehicles: nearly 1,200 new, better-armoured vehicles—Jackals, Mastiffs and others—will form the front line of the force on active patrol outside the base perimeters. They will provide significantly enhanced capabilities. The eventual destination point of all the equipment currently in Iraq is a matter that Ministers will decide on the advice of the service chiefs themselves.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the furore in the press over the weekend about Prince Harry’s description of a fellow officer as a “Paki”. Does he agree that although most people would accept that Prince Harry has grown up since then and that he probably did not intend to be abusive, very many people who originate from the Indian subcontinent find that term deeply offensive? It would be a shame if the very real efforts that the armed forces have made to recruit from diverse communities were undermined by the coverage of that incident.

I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that all in the House would accept that the use of that kind of language has no place at all. I also accept her other point. Prince Harry has made, I think, a very genuine apology and I believe that no individual offence was intended by his remarks. I understand that Prince Harry will be interviewed by his commanding officer in the next few days.

I also agree with what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said about this matter. We have received the apology, and it is time for us to move on. We should not lose sight of one very important fact in all this: Prince Harry has served his country on active service in Afghanistan, and I believe strongly that there is no better example of public service than that.

The House is aware of the pressures on the defence budget. We have seen warship numbers reduced, the carriers delayed, helicopter numbers reduced, and the future rapid effect system programme reordered and delayed. Given the economic climate and the priority that the Prime Minister, in particular, is giving to jobs, will the Secretary of State stress to his Government colleagues the warnings from the defence industries and the fact that if the Government would invest in the defence programme now, durable jobs could be saved for the long term, and that if they do not, some of them will be lost for ever?

The hon. Gentleman refers to the equipment examination. The outcome of that was designed to save, protect and preserve jobs in the defence manufacturing base, and it will do so. In the west country, his own part of the country, the decision that will be made on the future Lynx helicopter will safeguard hundreds of jobs in Yeovil and thousands of jobs across the supply chain, mainly in the south-west. As regards naval construction, we have the largest programme under way since the end of the first world war. Therefore, with great respect to the hon. Gentleman, we will not take any lectures from him or his party, who are not even committed to matching the current levels that this Government are spending on defence.

T3. Just before Christmas, the Department announced, by way of written rather than oral statement, substantial cuts and delays in the defence equipment programme. What does it say about the current order of Government priorities that while they are throwing scores of billions at the economy in a desperate effort to avert disaster, far from accelerating the defence equipment programme, they are cutting it? (246467)

We are not cutting defence spending. I invite the hon. Gentleman to take a closer look at the examination outcome. [Interruption.] No, we are not cutting the levels of defence spending announced in the comprehensive spending review, so there are no cuts in the MOD’s defence budget. That is a fact. I challenge the hon. Gentleman to go away and see whether I am right or wrong; he will find that I am right.

I join colleagues who have acknowledged the sad loss of life from current deployments; we should also acknowledge the severe injuries that are often happening. In respect of armed forces day, does the Secretary of State recognise that one of the key purposes of the first such day will be to acknowledge recent and current deployments, and can he assure me that that will be fully taken into account in the selection of the national focal point?

As I told the House earlier, I will be making an announcement later of the successful venue for the national celebrations. Let me emphasise to my hon. Friend and other Members that what is needed is that all communities, large or small, take active part in armed forces and Veterans day. I urge her and other hon. Members to ensure that they play a key part in encouraging local communities, councils and others to do so.

T4. The Minister with responsibility for defence procurement has considerable understanding of the German political system, so may I ask him what steps he is going to take in the continuing discussions among the partner countries in the Eurofighter consortium to ensure that the discussions on the shape, size and timing of tranche 3 are concluded well ahead of the German elections? (246468)

The right hon. Gentleman has been assiduous in pressing me on that, and I understand and respect the reasons for his doing so. He knows a lot about the background. I am sorry to say that I cannot take him much further forward today. Those discussions with the Germans and our other partners are continuing, and until we have concluded them we cannot make any announcement about the draw-downs of tranche 3. Of course, as soon as I can make a statement to the House, I will do so.

T5. Having prolonged periods in combat zones without proper rest is described as the No. 1 negative retention factor for officers and soldiers in the latest Army survey. Given that many Army units are in breach of the harmony guidelines, which recommend that units have a period of two years between operational tours, what will the Government do to try to give our troops the proper support that they fully deserve? (246469)

The hon. Gentleman knows, as does the whole House, that we have been operating above our defence planning assumptions for some time. That has led to the breach of harmony guidelines in several areas, although there has been an overall improvement in recent times. However, harmony guidelines issues still affect some units considerably. As the Secretary of State said, as we draw down to a lower level of commitment in Iraq, we must take the opportunity to look at what is needed in Afghanistan, and put ourselves on a sustainable footing with regard to individual and unit harmony guidelines as well as to what is needed in the operational theatre.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that recruitment and retention is crucial to the long-term future of our armed forces. Would he therefore inform the House what incentive is in place to ensure that those who choose the armed forces as a career are given every opportunity to reach the very top, provided that they are capable? Any class system that exists should be dismantled.

This week the Government will set out new proposals to enhance the issue of social mobility; the armed forces must, above all else, be a genuine meritocracy. If there are practical steps that we can take to extend opportunities for people from a wide variety of backgrounds to reach the top in all of the three services, we should take advantage of them, and I hope that we will do so in the weeks and months ahead.

The Secretary of State was keen to try to defend the Government against accusations by my hon. Friends that they have cut the budget. But I put it to him that the future Lynx programme has been cut, the FRES programme has been virtually abandoned, and the MARS programme—military afloat reach and sustainability—has been delayed, and he told the House in a written statement before Christmas that the aircraft carriers will be delayed by one or two years. While the Prime Minister is busy telling the rest of the country that he is spraying money around here, there and everywhere to stimulate projects, why does he not invest in the defence industry of this country? It is a high-tech industry with the capability to deliver high-quality jobs, and more importantly it can deliver for the armed forces of our country. The French are investing €2 billion in their defence budget; why will the Secretary of State not do so? Is it because the Prime Minister has little sympathy for the armed forces, or because the Secretary of State has little influence?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, defence spending in this country is rising, not falling, correcting a trend that we inherited. It has taken us time to put that right. With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, we will not take lectures on procurement from him or his colleagues because, at best, all that they have promised to do is match our current levels of spending. Until he can come to the Dispatch Box and say that he will spend more, we will take everything that he says with a giant pinch of salt.

Will the Secretary of State say why anyone of Pakistani origin should join the armed forces, or give support to the British armed forces, when there will be a widespread feeling that such racist attitudes are prominent? Was it proper for the—

We are covering the same ground covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) earlier, and I hoped that I had dealt with the point then. The armed forces will tackle discrimination wherever it rears its ugly and unacceptable head, and we have shown that we are prepared to do that. On the fundamental question of why British Pakistani citizens should join the armed forces, they should do so for the same reason that others do: to serve the country in the spirit of public service. We welcome them to do that.

T7. Given that the Government have stated that the two aircraft carriers that were ordered are critical not just to future defence policy and operations, but to the future of the Royal Navy, can the Secretary of State give us a full explanation of how long the aircraft carriers will be delayed and of the impact that that will have on future operations and policy? Why should the rest of the country not see that as a full defence cut? (246471)

It was not a defence cut in any sense. What we have done is to align better the in-service date of the two carriers with the in-service date of the new JSF aircraft designed to fly off them. The rescheduling of the carriers by between one and two years makes a lot of sense, and is without any cost whatsoever to the nation’s defence capability.

T8. Under the Helix project, the Ministry of Defence is shortly to take a decision on the replacement of three Nimrod R1 aircraft. There is a danger that the Government will order the Boeing Rivet Joint aircraft, which is much older than the Nimrod R1, when instead they could use the MRA4 platform, which would guarantee the jobs that the Government rightly want to achieve at this time of credit crisis. Will they seriously consider the MRA4 platform, and not purchase an older aircraft from overseas? (246472)

I have noticed the hon. Gentleman’s early-day motion on the subject. He makes a forceful and formidable case, as the House always expects him to, in favour of the MRA4 rather than the Rivet Joint. There are points to be taken into account on the other side of the argument, as I know he will appreciate, and no decision has yet been taken.