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Topical Questions

Volume 490: debated on Monday 30 March 2009

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.