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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 490: debated on Monday 30 March 2009


The Secretary of State was asked—

Air Trooping Arrangements

The capacity and reliability of our air trooping arrangements are kept under constant review. Our capacity is sufficient to support the force levels currently committed to operational deployments. Some 92 per cent. of all UK trooping aircraft to and from Iraq and Afghanistan now arrive within six hours of their scheduled time.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. Despite having committed us to two wars, the Government have failed miserably to ensure that our troops have proper aircraft to be able to do their jobs safely and efficiently. Will he kindly inform the House what plans he has to rectify the failing?

I do not accept the premise on which the hon. Gentleman’s question rests. We have made significant investment: last year, we purchased two new C-17 aircraft to support these arrangements, and we have plans for significant additional procurement of aircraft to sustain them into the future. Given that we are fighting on two fronts, it is obviously important to have sufficient capacity to support troops who are fighting in our name in those two theatres—and we do. The draw-down of forces in Iraq, along with other measures that we are taking, will also significantly contribute to easing the pressure on the air bridge.

Members of the armed forces would be very surprised at the Secretary of State’s response so far. It is a fact that other parts of the armed forces blame the Royal Air Force for delays and breakdowns in the air bridge, but is not the real truth of the matter that it is the Government’s fault for not providing sufficient modern aircraft? Would he like to take this opportunity to apologise to the brave men and women of the RAF for the Government’s incompetence?

Once again, I do not accept anything that the hon. Gentleman has said. It is quite unfair for blame to be attached to the Royal Air Force, which does an outstanding job in supplying our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with the kit and capabilities that they need to do their job properly. We have made a very significant investment in new aircraft, and we are committed to making further substantial improvements to ensure that we have the aircraft, and therefore the supply lines into Iraq and Afghanistan, that our troops need.

NATO’s 60th anniversary summit will take place in Strasbourg this week, and it seems probable that President Obama may ask Britain to participate in his planned surge by allocating a further 2,000 troops, thus taking our number to 10,000. How convinced is the Secretary of State that the present trooping arrangements are sufficiently robust, flexible and reliable to handle any such request in a smooth and effective fashion?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. We do keep force levels in Afghanistan under careful review. We have not yet received any request from anyone to supplement existing levels of UK forces in Afghanistan but, as I have said, we keep an open mind about all these matters.

Some real problems have been faced by returning service personnel who have had long onward journeys home from recent visits to Iraq and Afghanistan—constituents of mine from Buckie, Elgin and Forres have all said that this is a live issue. Will the Ministry of Defence look closely at the problems faced by returning service personnel who have long onward journeys and at the subsequent loss of their home leave? That leave is obviously very precious.

Yes, we will obviously do that. I am not standing here to say that there are no improvements that can be made—of course, there are some. We work very closely with the services to try to ensure that we make improvements where we can. I accept absolutely the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised—we are alert and alive to them, and we are trying to work our way through those problems.

Given the reported four-year delay in the delivery of the A400M, is now not the time to start rethinking our entire policy on transport aircraft? We could extend the life of the C-130Ks, we could buy some more C-17s and, above all, we could keep them at RAF Lyneham.

Again, I think that we need to keep all the options open. The delay in the A400M is a matter of extreme regret and it poses very serious questions about the sustainability of our air logistics services—we will not compromise on those. We are having discussions with the partner nations to the A400M contract and with Airbus Military. We have to find a pretty rapid solution to the problem that has presented itself to us, but one thing I can say to the House is that we will not be content with a gap in capabilities.

The Secretary of State will be aware that a fortnight ago I was with my old battalion, the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment, as it deployed to Afghanistan. The worries of the families clearly revolved around the possible death or injury of their husbands, boyfriends and so on, but, above and beyond that, on the regiment’s previous tour they deeply resented the delays caused to rest and recuperation flights back from Afghanistan and to the final trooping flight when the battalion returned from there. I cannot overestimate the resentment that this caused, so will the Secretary of State assure me that will not happen again to the battalion?

Sadly I cannot give a 100 per cent. assurance. When there are interruptions in the air trooping arrangements, the mistake that many people make is to assume that they are because the aircraft are not capable of flying, or there is some other problem, when the problems are often to do with the operational effectiveness of the defensive aid suites that are fitted to the aircraft. They are complicated systems and we will not compromise on safety. If something is not functioning in the defensive aid suites, the flights will be delayed until that can be rectified. I fully acknowledge the frustration that that causes for servicemen and women and their families, and I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that we do everything that we possibly can to minimise disruptions. But we will not compromise on safety.

I went to Afghanistan in February, courtesy of the MOD, and I thank the Secretary of State for an interesting and valuable—albeit short—visit. In my experience—borne out when we went to Afghanistan—the RAF air bridge does not work well. The delay was not important for Members of Parliament, but for the soldiers, some of whom we met at Brize Norton and who had been waiting for three days. Part of the problem was aircraft and part of it was weather, but overall it was poor organisation—and the Secretary of State should look into that.

I understand that the problem with the hon. Gentleman’s flight was weather, and it was delayed for several hours. I referred in my original answer to the figures on punctuality, and I accept that punctuality is an important issue. We all understand the consequences of serious delay, and the effect that it can have on morale and families. We do everything that we can to minimise that. Sometimes, unfortunately and for a variety of reasons, there will be delays, but 92 per cent. of flights arrive within six hours of their scheduled arrival time.

Is not the truth that the main problem is simply that the TriStars we are using are clapped out, with only 44 per cent. of the fleet fit for purpose? The future strategic tanker aircraft, which is the replacement aircraft for both troop transport and the re-fuelling tanker, was supposed to be in service in 2007 initially: we are now told that it will be at least 2011. On top of the Nimrod delay of 92 months, the Astute submarine delay of 47 months and the Type 45 destroyer delay of 42 months, is not defence procurement another fine mess Labour has got us into?

No, and the hon. Gentleman should be very careful citing those examples, because those were all contracts let by the former Government. They were not let on proper terms, and that is especially true for the Astute contract—and he should know that. We do supplement with commercial scheduled flights where we can, and that has taken some of the pressure off the air bridge, but we continue to look very carefully at ways in which we can improve the service that we provide to our servicemen and women.

Is not the prevarication that we have seen exactly what we are now seeing with the A400M military transport fiasco? If that project is cancelled, and we are the last to pull out, we may be at the end of the queue to buy the necessary alternative capabilities—losers yet again. Thomas Enders, the chief executive of Airbus, said:

“It is better to put an end to the horror than have horror without end.”

Leaving aside the obvious political parallels with this Government, when will Ministers make a decision?

Joint Strike Fighter

2. What steps his Department has taken to increase the UK’s involvement in the joint strike fighter programme; and if he will make a statement. (267176)

The UK remains fully committed to the joint strike fighter programme. Two weeks ago I announced that the UK would procure three instrumented test aircraft and associated support equipment to enable UK participation in the operational test and evaluation of the joint strike fighter air system.

While I am grateful to the Secretary of State for confirming the purchase of three aircraft, his answer was bereft of any mention of the question of operational sovereignty. Is it wise to have bought three aircraft at this stage without having a cast-iron agreement with the United States that the UK will have operational sovereignty for the aircraft both now and in the future?

I know that the right hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in these matters. He will be aware of the memorandum of understanding that we have with the US. The whole point of the procurement of the aircraft is to ensure UK operational sovereignty and, without the purchase of the three test aircraft, that would not be possible.

The technology transfer is, of course, very important to the future of the aircraft. Can we ensure that those negotiations will continue; that we will have the capability of assembly and full maintenance; and that the research and developments jobs in the north-west will continue and we will not lose those skills, because they are second to none?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. Up to 100 British companies stand to gain from the joint strike fighter aircraft and that fact is a very important part of our considerations as we take the project forward.

How serious are the remaining delays caused by arguments about intellectual property rights and the Export Control Act 2002 in this programme?

Afghanistan-Pakistan Border

3. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. (267177)

The porous nature of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a major concern. The UK, along with our coalition partners, is working closely with the authorities in both Afghanistan and Pakistan to achieve the necessary improvements in security.

The porous border has been an issue for a number of years, as the border people in that area do not even recognise the border. For some time, too, there has been a shortage of troops to secure the area. What assurances and commitments have we had from our NATO allies to commit more troops to the region, and when will we commit troops ourselves?

We have not yet had any commitments from European Union or NATO forces. We are looking at our own force levels, as I said earlier in response to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor). The United States has decided to deploy significant additional forces to the south and east of Afghanistan, which I hope will contribute to greater security on the Afghan side of the border. There need to be improvements in security on the Pakistan side, too. We have had a number of discussions with senior military figures in Pakistan and we continue to work with the Pakistan military to improve their capabilities and capacity to improve border security on their side of the Durand line. I do not envisage that there will be any instantaneous improvement in border security. It will take us time to achieve that, but the UK is working very closely with Pakistan to improve its capabilities.

Will my right hon. Friend assure us that he will not withdraw from our relationship with Pakistan at this very difficult time? There are people who argue that we should withdraw diplomatic relations. It should be remembered that Pakistan is losing far more troops than anyone else in trying to secure that border, so will he give assurances that he will maintain that relationship?

Yes, we will certainly do that. Pakistan is not the culprit but the victim of this type of violent extremism. The Pakistani security forces up in the federally administered tribal areas, down in Waziristan and along the border have fought long and hard against the extremists, who are a real threat to the democracy of Pakistan, too. We will continue to work with Pakistan. They are our friends and allies and share a common assessment of the menace posed by such extremism.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the events in Lahore today show that instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan extends far beyond the border region? While we have troops in Afghanistan, we do not have them in Pakistan. Is the Secretary of State, along with the United States, rethinking his entire strategy for the region? Will he make a statement and perhaps allow a debate and possibly even a vote in this House about that?

Yes, we are looking very carefully at all these matters. I am sure that there will be an opportunity to have a proper debate in this place in the usual way, either on a statement or in another way. It is very important not just for the security of our operation in Afghanistan but for the security of the UK as a whole that we develop an approach that encompasses the security challenge that Afghanistan poses as well as the growing threat of instability and extremism in Pakistan. We very much welcome President Obama’s new strategy, which was published last week. It has the prospect of significantly improving the situation in that very troubled region and we stand ready to play our part.

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that our relationship with the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, is in good enough shape to ensure that we deliver effective operations on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan?

No, not entirely. We continue to exert whatever positive influence that we can, but the situation is very complicated. I cannot really confirm or deny very much about the nature of some of the more recent stories in the newspapers, but we know that there is a problem and it has to be addressed. Efforts are being made to address the problem, but we cannot have covert support being given either to al-Qaeda or to the Taliban in Pakistan. Not only is that a risk to our troops, whom we protect absolutely as a premium, but it is a direct threat to the stability of Pakistan.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Afghan Taliban have recently been successful in persuading the Pakistani Taliban to defer some of their operations in Pakistan and to join their Afghan colleagues to help to try to deal with the expected American surge? If the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban can get their act together, is it not about time that the Afghan and Pakistani Governments were also able to do so? Will the Secretary of State speak to his Pakistani colleague and impress upon him that the security of Afghanistan is crucial to the security of Pakistan itself?

I agree very strongly with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I have already had those conversations with the Pakistani Minister of Defence, and I have had those conversations regularly with the Afghan Minister of Defence as well. I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman 100 per cent., and we are focused very clearly on doing exactly what he has just said.

The Secretary of State acknowledged that it is a porous border. It is also a very contested border. The long-term solution will involve strengthening the capabilities of Afghan forces. To what extent is he working more with the Afghan army, which is making good progress, but also with the Afghan police, where I gather that progress is less satisfactory than with the army?

We have made some significant progress in training the Afghan army. There are now nearly 70,000 trained personnel in the Afghan forces, but that simply is not enough; significant further increases are needed. However, there is a lot more work to be done in training the Afghan police, who are simply not in a proper state, I am afraid, at the moment to contribute to dealing with the problems on the border. We are working with the Afghan security forces, the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Defence in Kabul, to improve capabilities there. The recent announcement of very significant additional US forces, with a specific training and mentoring role, will again offer prospects in the year ahead, so that we can make significant further progress, but this remains a fundamental concern. There is a weakness in the quality and capabilities of Afghan security forces, and it must be addressed.

There are persistent reports that the Treasury would veto any attempt to deploy further British troops to Afghanistan. Can it possibly be the case that the strategy of the right hon. Gentleman’s Department is being determined by the Treasury?

I think that the facts speak for themselves—[Interruption]although perhaps not in the way that Opposition Members think. If one looks at the facts, we see that the British mission in Afghanistan has increased significantly in the past three years—from an initial deployment of 2,000 or 3,000, up now nearly to 8,500 and beyond—and that has been properly and fully resourced by the Treasury. So there is no substance in the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s point.

The Secretary of State mentions that the coalition of forces provides security in the region. Will he comment on the contribution made by the smaller nations within NATO—countries such as Estonia, with a population of just over 1 million, which supplies 150 troops at present in Afghanistan? Would he like to send a message to those countries?

Yes, I certainly would. The Estonian contingent in Helmand has done an absolutely superb job, and many hon. Members will have seen those troops serving alongside British soldiers; they are literally shoulder to shoulder. They are superb fighters, and they have done a fantastic job. I was in Copenhagen last week to express on behalf, I hope, of the whole House our respect and admiration for the Danish forces that are also fighting in Gereshk in central Helmand. Those forces, too, have done an absolutely superb job. We are lucky and fortunate to have those allies in Helmand, but we could do with more.

Given his Department’s acceptance that Britain’s armed forces are

“continuing to operate above the overall level of concurrent operations which they are resourced and structured to sustain over time”,

where does Secretary of State expect to find the troops for any increase in Britain’s presence in Afghanistan if that is what he decides to do? Pursuant to the question asked by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), will the Secretary of State give the House an unequivocal undertaking that any such increase will be fully funded in year by the Treasury?

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I do not want to identify particular units or do anything like that today—that would be wrong—but the draw-down in Operation Telic will create an operational breathing space, and it might be possible to find additional resources in that way if a decision was made to deploy additional forces. That is at least a partial answer to his question.

On the money issue, as I have said, the Treasury has always supported to the full our contingent operations in Afghanistan, and that will continue to be the case.

Warship Construction Programme

4. What recent progress has been made on the warship construction programme; and if he will make a statement. (267178)

This is an historic and momentous programme, and it continues to make progress. It involves the new Type 45 destroyers, the Astute class submarine, the two new carriers and, following on from them, the future surface combatant. The result of the programme will be that in decades to come, the Royal Navy will continue to be one of the world’s most powerful maritime forces.

I am not sure what progress has been made, because the Government’s 1998 strategic defence review stated that the Royal Navy needed 32 frigates and destroyers to meet our national security objectives. Astonishingly, there are only 22. Will the Minister explain to the House what has happened to the overall objectives of that review? Have they been abandoned? If not, how will the Government meet them?

The answer lies partially in changes to the threat in the world, and partially in the increased capability of the ships that we are building. The Type 45 destroyer, for example, is vastly more capable than the Type 42 that she is replacing.

As that programme is clearly not wholly affordable, what steps does the hon. Gentleman intend to take to bring it into a more affordable position? In addition, none of the warships will be able to operate without a new fleet support operation. On what date will the new MARS—military afloat reach and sustainability fleet—concept come into full operation?

The programme is indeed affordable, and we recently confirmed that in the equipment examination that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced in a statement in this House in December. As for the MARS programme, we are focused on it and will make announcements in due course.

If this programme is so affordable, why have the Government been forced to extend the life of the Type 23 frigates, so that they will be the oldest frigates in service in the Royal Navy since the days of sail?

I do not know whether the latter point is correct, but I am quite convinced that the Type 23 frigates will continue to be able to meet their current out-of-service dates. They will be replaced, in due course, by the future surface combatant; it is my intention that they should begin being built in the yards as soon as the second carrier has been launched.

On 12 January, the Secretary of State said in an oral answer:

“As regards naval construction, we have the largest programme under way since the end of the first world war.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 16.]

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), said in a written answer on the same day:

“We are currently engaged in the most substantial peacetime naval shipbuilding programme since the first world war.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 71W.]

Given that over the past 11 years, the frigate and destroyer fleet has been cut from 35 to 23, or possibly 22, the attack submarine fleet from 12 to eight—it is heading for seven—and the new destroyer building programme from 12 to only six, and that the start date for the two carriers has been delayed, and whereas in the 11 years to 1939 we constructed six aircraft carriers, five battleships, 54 submarines—

Order. As a former metalworker, I am always happy to hear about the construction of ships, but the question is too long.

Then I will bring the question to its conclusion, if I may. Given the vast number of ships constructed over a similar period up to 1939, including 117 destroyers, how can the Minister justify the statements that were made on 12 January?

First, I think that the hon. Gentleman may have prepared his extremely long question before he heard the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) about the present programme. If I may respectfully say so, the question asked by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) also confuses the issue of current numbers and the issue of the current construction programme. I repeat that the current construction programme is the largest that we have engaged in, in terms of capability and tonnage; the 65,000-tonne carriers will be the largest ships ever built by the Royal Navy in her history. The hon. Gentleman would do well to reflect on that, and to consider the fact that that is a decision taken by this Government. I shudder to think what might happen under a future Conservative Government, if there were one, to our naval shipbuilding programme, or to our procurement programme, because the Conservatives still have not told us how they would finance the three new battalions.

Vanguard Class Nuclear Submarine Reactors

5. What work is being carried out on Vanguard class nuclear submarine reactors at Devonport dockyard; and if he will make a statement. (267179)

We announced on 2 March the award of a contract to Babcock Marine to complete the overhaul of HMS Vigilant. This is the third of four planned overhauls, following the completion of those for HMS Vanguard and HMS Victorious. The overhaul for HMS Vengeance will follow HMS Vigilant’s.

The question concerned reactors, and I heard nothing about reactors in that answer. The Minister will know that there was a fairly large public consultation on the storage of old reactors from the T-class submarines, but that did not include the Vanguard class. There is concern that that plant will also be stored in Devonport, which is wholly against the purpose of the public consultation. It was about the temporary storage of T-class submarine reactors. It did not include the storage of any Vanguard reactors, which will now, apparently, take place.

The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that the current overhaul includes refuelling the reactor with a new core, core H, which will fuel her for the remainder of her operational life. On the storage of reactors, it has always been our policy to store reactors in situ, in this case in Devonport, until the ISOLUS—interim storage of laid-up submarines—programme comes into force, under which we will put forward a new policy for dealing with the long-term future of these nuclear reactors. We will make an announcement on that subject next year, after the strategic environmental assessment, which will take place later this year.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that the work referred to by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) has been accepted by the Environment Agency as in line with the licence that was granted when the work was extended to those submarines? Can he also confirm that the skilled work involved in the submarines is the anchor for ensuring that Plymouth will remain an important centre of naval engineering excellence in the future?

I can confirm my hon. Friend’s suppositions on both fronts. It is right that all the work we do on nuclear reactors in Devonport is under the regulation of the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and our own defence nuclear regulator, so she can be reassured about that. The future of Devonport is bright, and I cannot conceive of any scenario in which her assumptions would not be correct.

NATO Military Structure (France)

8. What recent discussions he has had with his French counterpart on France rejoining the military structure of NATO. (267182)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has had a number of discussions with the French Defence Minister in recent months. These discussions covered a range of issues, including NATO, and more specifically, the French return to the military structure of NATO.

Now that France has taken the historic step of joining the NATO command structure, what are the Government doing to ensure that the wider concerns shared by our Government, France and our allies in the EU, such as Cyprus/Turkey, security on our eastern Mediterranean border and our commitments in Afghanistan, are met?

We try to co-operate in every way we can to assist the French. We welcome their return to the NATO command structure. That in itself will not sort out long-standing problems such as Cyprus, which are a huge challenge to co-operation between the European Union and NATO, as the hon. Gentleman knows. We are hopeful that the process of reconciliation in Cyprus will go forward. There are optimistic signs, although the problem has gone on for a long time, and nobody can bank on an early solution. The French will now join in the planning of arrangements for the security of other NATO countries and our operations in Afghanistan.

When the Secretary of State meets his French counterpart later this week, will he take him to one side and tell him that it is vital that the larger nations of NATO, among which France is extremely crucial, play a full and fuller part in Afghanistan? Perhaps the Secretary of State could take the French Secretary of State along to congratulate the Estonians.

My right hon. Friend will speak to his French counterpart later today, although I do not know what the subject of the conversation will be.

Burden sharing in Afghanistan is of course important, and we raise the issue all the time, but let us not write off the contributions that other nations make. The French have about 3,000 troops in Afghanistan. If they could make a bigger contribution we would welcome that. We encourage all our NATO allies, large and small, to participate in the burden sharing necessary to ensure that NATO tasks in Afghanistan and elsewhere are carried out equitably.

Given the challenges facing the defence budget in the coming years, what further plans do Ministers have for increasing co-operation with the French? Does the Minister agree with the late and much-missed Lord Garden that the question is not so much about politics as arithmetic? Without compromising sovereignty over core defence roles, what potential does the Minister see for sharing our research and development work, co-ordinating our procurement timetables and possibly even considering more joint defence roles in future?

Co-operation and interoperability are vital. Equally, sovereign control over our armed forces and their deployment is vital and will be maintained. The only thing I would say to the hon. Gentleman about pressures on the defence budget is that they would not be any less if his party were in government; actually, they would probably be a darn sight worse.

Will the Minister resist the Euro-zealotry of the Liberal Democrats and welcome the long-overdue repositioning of France away from a creeping EU defence identity towards its natural home, NATO? Will he take the opportunity next week in Strasbourg to discuss with France the delineation of security responsibility between NATO and the EU in accordance with Madeleine Albright’s “three D” doctrine: no duplication, no disengagement from north America and no discrimination against non-EU NATO members—particularly Turkey, given current French antipathy?

The hon. Gentleman’s antipathy to the European Union in all its forms is pretty well known. Clearly, he has not listened to the French President’s pronouncements on the issue of late; I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman’s prejudice has stood in the way of that. The French President has said, in terms, that the EU and NATO should be complementary to each other and not duplicate each other’s efforts and capability.

Normandy Veterans

9. What his Department’s policy is on the provision of assistance to Normandy veterans to enable attendance at events to mark the 65th anniversary of the Normandy landings. (267183)

It has been the policy of successive Governments that special commemorations are initiated by the Ministry of Defence only for key anniversaries and centennials of events of the greatest national significance; other anniversaries do not receive MOD sponsorship at public expense.

On 26 March, I met representatives of the Normandy Veterans Association to discuss the support that the MOD might offer with the 65th anniversary. It was agreed that the MOD would assist the association with specific administrative tasks, including applying to the Big Lottery Fund for financial support to attend commemorative events in the UK and overseas, and that it would explore the possibility of a church service on 21 June 2009.

May I ask the Minister to look again at this issue? It is outrageous that 500 people who fought for us in Normandy may not, for financial reasons, be able to go to the 65th anniversary celebration—the last celebration. It is no good the Government funding a 100th anniversary celebration—the veterans will all be dead by then. Let us look at this issue now. It is very important, and the general public and veterans are angry that the Government are not doing more.

Every year, the MOD puts substantial support into events on the Normandy beaches. On the last significant occasion—the 60th anniversary in 2004—large sums were given, and the Normandy Veterans Association formally announced that that would be last time it would parade. Since last year, there has been support—some £178,000—from the national lottery. Let me reiterate that the significance of these events was supported by the previous Conservative Government as well.


10. What his most recent estimate is of the cost of the replacement of the Trident nuclear warhead system. (267184)

We published our initial estimate of the costs for the possible refurbishment or replacement of the warhead for our future nuclear deterrent capability in the December 2006 nuclear White Paper. This is in the range of £2 billion to £3 billion at 2006-07 prices. We have not yet made a decision to develop a new UK nuclear warhead. However, work is being undertaken to inform decisions, likely to be taken in the next Parliament, on whether and how we might need to refurbish or replace our current warhead.

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that there will be no expenditure on developing a new warhead without the specific approval of the House of Commons, and that he is satisfied that the development of a whole new warhead system is legal within the terms of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which comes up for review in 2010?

Yes, I believe that it certainly would be within the framework of the non-proliferation treaty. The NPT did not require unilateral disarmament on the part of the United Kingdom, and we are able to maintain very properly within the terms of the NPT our minimum nuclear deterrent; and, yes, I believe that there should be a vote in this House before such a decision was taken.

The opposition of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) to this policy is well known. The Secretary of State has made it very clear that renewing our current system is within the terms of the NPT, and that we are able to do that. He, like us, supports a multilateral disarmament approach. Can he give the House any idea about the time scales, not only for the development of the submarines, but about how well they are meshed in with the development of the warhead system?

We have made it clear that we believe that the replacements for the Vanguard class submarines would be needed for 2024. An extensive time is needed to design, construct, build, test and operate the new submarines, which potentially will be very capable, and I think that that will take us up to 2024. As I said in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), a decision to renew the warhead will have to be taken by the House of Commons during the next Parliament. I believe that the programme that we set out in the 2006 White Paper is coherent and joined up.

Military Covenant (Mental Health Services)

11. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the military covenant’s provisions relating to the mental health of serving and former service personnel. (267185)

The MOD has a number of programmes to support our people—those in service and veterans. These include, for veterans, six mental health pilot projects and the medical assessment project run at St. Thomas’s hospital by Dr. Ian Palmer. For service personnel in theatre, we have dedicated mental health teams of doctors and nurses who are all trained to spot the signs of mental health difficulties. In the UK, South Staffordshire and Shropshire is leading a consortium of seven NHS mental health trusts to provide in-patient care for service personnel. The Healthcare Commission assessed the MOD’s department of community mental health as part of its review of the Defence Medical Services clinical governance process, which was published earlier this month.

In a recent Royal British Legion survey, it was discovered that of 500 GPs in England and Wales, 85 per cent. knew nothing about the reservists mental health project and 71 per cent. knew nothing about the MOD’s medical assessment programme. What are the Government going to do better to inform GPs, as well as reservists, about these programmes?

Two things. First, I am considering a system whereby when people, including reservists, leave the armed forces, that can be flagged up on their NHS medical records, which will give individuals who have had military service broader visibility to GPs. Secondly, there is an onus on us all to promote the six continuing mental health pilots and the project at St. Thomas’s hospital. For the information of Members, anyone who wants to go to the Jubilee Room this afternoon will find that the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency is holding an open day to explain the services it provides for veterans in the UK.

During last Thursday’s debate, my hon. Friend the Minister indicated that the Department is

“working with service charities and other sectors on the welfare pathway, which will be announced later this year.”—[Official Report, 26 March 2009; Vol. 490, c. 542.]

Will he expand on that statement, particularly in respect of the work being undertaken in different parts of the country?

I initiated the welfare pathway to ensure that we not only support our men and women when they are in service, but look after them in transition, and through life. I am working with other Departments, the Ministry of Defence and service charities; I have a meeting next week, and scoping work is going on. I hope to pull all the work together and announce the final piece of work in July.

Persian Gulf

12. What recent assessment he has made of the capacity of the Royal Navy presence in the Persian gulf to counter seaborne threats. (267186)

The Royal Navy currently contributes vessels to maritime taskforces in the Persian gulf as part of Operation Telic. The Royal Navy’s capacity in the Persian gulf is appropriate to the threat, but kept under constant review.

Alongside an extensive range of other commitments in the region, the Royal Navy has done some important work with the transition team alongside the Iraqi navy, which is in the middle of an ambitious programme to expand in size by 2010. How will the draw-down of British forces in Iraq affect that naval team, and will the Royal Navy be able to continue working with the Iraqi navy for the duration of the programme?

We are discussing with the Iraqi Government what they would like us to do as part of our ongoing relationship since the combat mission of Operation Telic began in 2003. Although the talks have not concluded yet, the continued training of the Iraqi navy will be an important part of the process. That idea is certainly on the table and is being actively discussed, and we will make an announcement to the House as soon as we reach a conclusion with the Iraqi Government.

Will the Minister continue to bear it in mind that the main threat in the Persian gulf is that from land-based Iranian rockets, which are capable of threatening the passage of ships through the strait of Hormuz?

We have to be mindful of the threat, no matter where it comes from. We have more available than just our forces at the top end of the Persian gulf. There is an existing and long-standing mine threat to international shipping, so the threat in the Persian gulf is complex and we must be mindful of it, no matter where it may come from.

Topical Questions

My departmental responsibility is to ensure that our country is properly defended now and in the future and that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in the military tasks in which they are engaged, either at home or abroad.

The original hope was that the A400M would replace the C-130 and C-160 aircraft, and its initial brief was to operate in many configurations, including cargo transport, troop transport, medevac, aerial refuelling and electronic surveillance. Given today’s reports that the German Government intend to pull out of the consortium because of cost and delivery overruns, how does the Secretary of State respond to the charge that this programme has become a show horse for experimental new technologies, which has led to it being exorbitantly expensive, utterly unreliable and lamentably late?

There is truth in a lot of what my hon. Friend says. We are discussing all those issues with our partner nations in the A400M contract, and, as I said earlier, with Airbus Military. I hope that those discussions will conclude by July, and that we will be able to make a decision about the right course of action to take. As I have said many times, in this House and on other occasions, this delay is unacceptable. It poses a threat to the sustainability of our logistical operations, which is not acceptable, and we must make an important decision during the next three months about how, and in what way, we can proceed with this important contract.

T2. You, Mr. Speaker, will remember that during Prime Minister’s questions last Wednesday I asked why our service personnel did not know what pay they would be getting as from this coming Wednesday. The Leader of the House mentioned, at column 302, that she thought that the Minister of State would address that matter during the defence debate the following day. I therefore attended that debate and raised the point, but I regret to say that the Minister declined to respond. I urge the Secretary of State here and now to tell the House, and the thousands of service personnel who are listening outside, what they will be paid from Wednesday. (267201)

T3. The cut and sew contract that has come up for tender should have been announced by now. It is four years since it was given to China. I would have thought that we wanted fair competition, not unfair competition from state-owned factories in China. What can the Minister do to ensure that British jobs are used and that British uniforms are made by British companies? (267202)

I believe that my hon. Friend knows that we will re-let the cut and sew contract over the course of the next few months. I think that the target date for us to sign a new contract is September—I do not yet know whether we can do it a little earlier in practice. In response to his point about the source of suppliers we are not, and under EU law are unable to be, protectionist. We have to get the best deal for the taxpayer. He understands these matters, and I will be very happy to meet him again if he wishes to go into them in greater detail.

T9. Yesterday, the Ministry of Defence admitted that the Nimrod that crashed, killing 14, was not airworthy as a result of systemic or design failures. That is not the first fatal catastrophe that has occurred as a result of such failures, and it is not the first when experts and independent spokesmen had pointed out the failures in advance of the fatalities. What will the Secretary of State do to get his Ministry to shape up, listen to criticisms and prevent another Nimrod? (267209)

Yesterday was not the first time that we have acknowledged responsibility for the fatal crash of the Nimrod XV230—the previous Secretary of State did so in the House a long time ago. That, of course, was repeated in court as we had made a commitment to the families that we would not resist the matter of responsibility.

With regard to some of the criticisms that we have had from coroners, not only about Nimrod but about other matters, we have to keep on working as hard as we can to make certain that the systems that we have in the MOD are as complete as they need to be, so that we can learn all the lessons from the various bits of information that come from a very complicated organisation. We can then minimise the threats and danger to our people. There is commitment from the military, civil service and political heads of the MOD to do precisely that over time.

T4. The Secretary of State will be well aware that there is enormous opposition and concern in Russia about the USA’s national missile defence system, and that last week the political classes in the Czech Republic rejected NMD in its entirety. Does he not think it is time that Britain also reviewed our participation in this provocative system that is being put forward by the USA? (267203)

It is not a provocative system, it is a self-defence system, so I reject the argument that it is a provocation. Discussions are going on among the various interested parties, and we should let them unfold.

T5. May I take the Secretary of State back to his earlier answer to my question on the joint strike fighter? Having read the published version of the memorandum of understanding laid in the Library, I could find no reference to operational sovereignty. That is because the Secretary of State knows that such matters will be dealt with in a side letter between the two Governments. Will he give the House an assurance that no further purchase of joint strike fighter aircraft will be made until he has made a statement to this House that operational sovereignty, in the fullest sense of the term, has been achieved to cover the operation of those aircraft? (267205)

I think that the memorandum of understanding deals with the substance of operational sovereignty.

That is the case, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman. The purchase of the three aircraft is designed to ensure UK operational sovereignty. Without our involvement in the testing and evaluation stage, I doubt whether that could be achieved. We currently have no further procurement plans. We are obviously committed to introducing the joint strike fighter into service as soon as possible, but the fundamental purpose and rationale behind our participation at this early stage is to ensure UK operational sovereignty.

T6. My right hon. Friend is to be congratulated on the work to secure shipbuilding on the Clyde, especially in my Scotstoun shipyard. We are grateful for the 15 years’ guarantee, plus the 15 level years of employment, but when capital projects are coming forward, is not it time to consider military afloat reach and sustainability—MARS—to get more work done and, at a time of high unemployment, get more people in employment in the yards, where the work is abundant at the moment? (267206)

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s acknowledgement of the value of the maritime new build strategy—that is important for us as the customer, as it is for suppliers and employment. As I said in answer to an earlier question, our priority when the carriers have been launched will be to start construction of the future surface combatant—which must be built in this country.

T7. Does the Minister for the Armed Forces recall saying the other day that inquests are, “non-adversarial, fact-finding proceedings”—[Official Report, 14 January 2009; Vol. 468, c. 875W.]?Bearing that in mind, why has the Ministry of Defence spent more than £1 million on legal representation inquests in the past six years, when the families invariably cannot get legal aid? Has he spoken to the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice)? In Committee the other day, she said that,“we should challenge why one side feels always that it has to have such high levels of representation”—[Official Report, Coroners and Justice Public Bill Committee, 10 February 2009; c. 203.]What will the right hon. Gentleman do about that? When will he speak to his ministerial counterpart? (267207)

I spoke to my ministerial counterpart about the Coroners and Justice Bill before it was introduced and since it has been progressing through the House. Some of what the hon. Gentleman says is not true. Many families get support.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to look at the record, he will find that many families in inquests on military deaths get support. We are supported in only a minority of cases. There is a serious issue that affects not only the Ministry of Defence but the whole Government: do we want to change the nature of the coroners’ courts? If we accept that everybody should be legally represented in every single instance—that does not currently happen now—we will do precisely that. Today, I met a couple of coroners who would be worried if we went in that direction.

Members of all parties will have read remarkable reports of sporting activity and adventure training, including skiing, to help maximise the recovery of service personnel who have been injured on and off the battlefield. Will my hon. Friends join me in congratulating those in the triservice Battle Back and in the Navy’s Project Fortitude on their amazing work?

I congratulate both organisations. Having met some of the individuals who are taking part—some are members of my hon. Friend’s constituency—I know that they are remarkable individuals. We should give full support to not only individuals but the two organisations and other service charities that also hope to get amputees and those injured in Afghanistan and Iraq involved in competitive sport.

May I revert to NATO and Afghanistan? Does the Secretary of State agree that, unless NATO deploys in much larger numbers and in a combat role, its authority and the support for it, and our prospects for success in Afghanistan will be much diminished? What is the Secretary of State doing to encourage NATO allies, other than the United States, Canada and so on, to produce more troops in a combat role?

I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that it would be very helpful if there were such additional forces in Afghanistan. Indeed, the strong argument that we have had over a number of years with our allies in NATO has been about making those sorts of deployments. It is not fair for the burden to fall on a few when there are many others who are capable of shouldering it. I can assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that those discussions are continuing.

In an earlier response, the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), indicated that medical records would be made available to local practitioners. As health comes under a different perspective for the devolved Parliaments, will he ensure that he speaks to them to ensure continuity?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter. He is always an advocate for ensuring that we do not forget about the devolved Administrations. I am meeting colleagues in Wales and Scotland with regard to all the issues in the Command Paper, of which that issue forms a part.

Will not the decision to be announced in July by the Secretary of State about the ill-fated A400M most likely leave the United Kingdom with a disastrous lack of airlift capacity? Can he therefore assure the House that suitable conversations have been taking place to ensure that the situation is rectified?

I can assure the hon. Lady that those discussions are indeed taking place. We will not allow a situation to develop where our air logistics are affected in any way by the current delays in the A400M.