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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 506: debated on Monday 22 February 2010

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

In addition to procuring a number of unmanned aerial vehicles and related systems for Afghanistan, we are making several longer term investments in research in this area and supporting two technology demonstrators—Taranis, an unmanned combat air system project, and Mantis, an intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance asset. Both contracts have been placed with BAE Systems.

That is excellent news as UAVs have proved very successful in Iraq and Afghanistan. Will the Minister continue to support research, development and production in this country? Will he also consider deployment of UAVs in the Falkland Islands, which would send a strong message to the Kirchners and the Government of Argentina that we are determined that while the Falkland islanders wish the Falkland Islands to remain under British sovereignty, they will so remain, come what may?

In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s first point, we remain committed to continuing to ensure that this country remains at the cutting edge of these important technologies for the future. The second question is an operational issue, rather than an issue of equipment for me, but I am certain that commanders in that theatre or any other will call on whatever assets are most appropriate for the tasks in hand.

Please will the Minister update us on the Watchkeeper UAV programme that is based at Boscombe Down in my constituency?

This is a very important programme that will succeed the Hermes 450, which has been doing sterling work in Afghanistan. The Watchkeeper programme has a number of significant advantages over the Hermes 450, although I will not go into those in public. We are procuring 54 of those vehicles for the foreseeable future, and I am assured that delivery will take place before the end of this year.

Given that Britain and France both have a requirement for a medium altitude long endurance UAV, and in the light of the recent improved attitude by the French towards joint procurement, will the Minister consider the possibilities of joint procurement with the French and possibly even the Italians? Might not we all benefit from establishing a European platform in UAVs?

That is certainly a pertinent and well informed question, and I discussed precisely those matters with my French counterpart, the head of the DGA, last week in Paris. I have also discussed them with my Italian opposite number. However, I am not in a position to make any concrete announcement today on the subject.

Defence Equipment Budget (Cost Overruns)

2. What his most recent estimate is of the level of projected cost overruns in the defence equipment budget; and if he will make a statement. (317437)

7. What assessment he has made of projected cost overruns in the defence equipment budget; and if he will make a statement. (317443)

The most recent audited estimate of projected cost overruns in the defence equipment budget is a forecast increase of £1.242 billion in the financial year 2008-09, as reported in the 2008-09 annual report and accounts. These cost increases were virtually entirely attributable to two projects—the A400M aircraft and the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. I have no reason to suppose that this year there will be any such serious cost overruns. Nearly 90 per cent. of projects in the past two years have been delivered to cost.

In evidence to the Defence Committee, the Minister confirmed that at the start of the 2009 planning round the deficit in the equipment budget was £21 billion, and that at the start of the 2010 round it was £6 billion. What is the present value of the deficit and how does he explain the £15 billion reduction?

Those are two separate questions. We are not in a position to go beyond the £6 billion figure at the moment, but we are working on the figures as part of the present planning round at the end of the financial year. This is a netting exercise as the hon. Gentleman will understand. There may be some projects for which we have over-provided and will be able to write back some provision, and some projects will be descoped for operational or other reasons, or cancelled for non-performance. It is therefore impossible to predict the exact position at the end of the financial year.

As for the reduction in the forward projected deficit of £21 billion last year to £6 billion, that £15 billion was accounted for by several factors. In some cases, projects were repositioned in the pipeline until some later date, forgoing that capability for the time being. In the majority of cases, the reduction was because of the descoping of the programmes that we were undertaking anyway or an agreement to reduce the capability that we intended to order—

If I may be allowed a word in edgeways, it was not until recently that Ministers admitted to the Select Committee on Defence that there was any deficit. Indeed, it was only a short time ago—less than a year— that the Minister for defence equipment and support, addressing a conference called “Punching Above the Budget: A Prospect seminar”, said, “There is no…deficit.” So why have the Government now admitted that there is a deficit? It has been common knowledge among everybody who knows anything about defence that the Government have a programme far too large for their budget, so why did they not admit that years and years ago?

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the quotation that he has attributed to me was in relation to the last financial year, when there was not a significant deficit. The point that I have just made about the long-term deficit, as opposed to—[Interruption.] He obviously cannot understand the difference between a long-term deficit, going out to 10 years, and a current deficit, in the course of one year. If he cannot understand that, he will have to ask one of his hon. Friends to explain it to him.

One of the affected programmes is the Nimrod MR2 programme, which has been withdrawn and replaced by the Nimrod MRA4. There is now a gap between the two that will impact on search and rescue capability. When will the Ministry of Defence update the House on which fixed-wing aircraft will perform that task for long-range cover capability, and say what its range, radar and communication capability will be?

The answer is that a number of assets, not all of them fixed wing—some may be helicopters—will fill that gap.

The £1.2 billion cost overrun to which the Minister has referred constitutes yet another damning indictment of this Government’s pathetic stewardship of defence procurement throughout their time in office. It is interesting how little support he has from his own Back Benchers today. Where are they all? Does the Minister not accept that it is utterly irresponsible for the Government’s lamentable performance to be compounded by rushing through major project decisions in the dying days of this decaying Government? Does he not realise that although he might think he can buy votes in marginal seats by promising kit that he will not have to pay for, he will be bitterly disappointed when we win the next election?

All that electoral rhetoric is completely at odds with the facts. I have already explained that the deficit was due to two things, one of which is the A400M programme. That was the result of technical problems on the part of the supplier; it had nothing to do with the competence or otherwise of this Government. That is one of those things that, as the hon. Gentleman ought to know—and he does know, of course—invariably happens with new generations of military aircraft. As for the carriers, we made a deliberate decision not to bring forward that capability earlier than we needed it. By doing that we released quite a lot of current cash, which we needed to spend on more urgent items. That was good management; it was none of the things that the hon. Gentleman described it as being.

Afghanistan

The UK armed forces are operating in Afghanistan as part of the 43-nation international security assistance force. ISAF forces are conducting security and stability operations throughout the country in support of the Afghan Government. We are supporting the growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan security forces. Our armed forces, alongside our ISAF partners, also play an important role in facilitating and protecting improvements in governance and socio-economic development.

I cannot get to a higher class than to have the Secretary of State reply to my question. Can he give me and the House an update on the deployment of mine detection and improvised explosive device-clearance systems, and on the Talisman project, which I understand was scheduled for initial fielding in late 2009?

I am aware of how important the class of the people whom he mingles with is to the hon. Gentleman. We have stepped up our efforts on countering IEDs over a long period, as the Taliban have increasingly relied on that capability to attack our forces. We have doubled the counter-IED force in theatre, and we have tried to get various new pieces of kit and equipment, including Talisman, which is operating in Afghanistan, into theatre. However, the big thing that we need to do is tackle the IED networks, through the increased use of intelligence, so that we can be proactive in taking apart the networks that seek to target our troops.

Is there to be a full inquiry into the NATO airstrike on Sunday that resulted in many civilian deaths—more than 30—following other civilian deaths? Is that the way to win hearts and minds? Increasingly, one understands the decision taken by the Government of Holland.

The recent incident took place in Oruzgan province, as my hon. Friend knows. He also knows—or should know—that the ISAF commander has apologised for those deaths. Every time I hear General McChrystal speaking, particularly to his own forces, he is really hard on this issue. Every civilian death is one too many, and he tries to hammer that through at every level and on every occasion. If we are to win this campaign, we have to win it in the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, and making every effort to reduce civilian deaths is his absolute priority. I believe that that is the right priority for him to have.

Given that stability has slipped significantly in previously secure areas such as Kunduz and Herat, and that there are Taliban shadow governments in every Afghan province, what is the coalition’s strategy for decreasing the strength of the insurgency across the country as a whole, beyond the southern area that is the focus of the current military operation?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the insurgency has looked to increase its capability throughout the country, and that it has enjoyed some success in certain areas. The feeling is that the insurgency has to be confronted in its heartland, and that the main effort therefore has to be made in the central Helmand valley. That is currently taking place through Operation Moshtarak, which is progressing fairly well in terms of taking the areas concerned away from Taliban control. The commander of the ISAF has also said that his other priorities are to clear the routes to enable people to travel freely on the main routes in Afghanistan, and to tackle the insurgency in Kandahar, which he will probably move on to soon.

On the transition of lead security responsibility to the Afghan Government, can my right hon. Friend provide us with the anticipated timetable for such action within each district and across the nation as a whole?

The last thing we want to do is to peg people to a timetable in that regard. Our handing over security control to the Afghans in any district or province has to be based on capability, and on their ability not only to take the lead in security in the first instance but successfully to prosecute that lead thereafter. The last thing we want to do is to hand over any district or province prematurely, as that could set the Afghans up for a setback. Capability has to be the key concern. Of course we want to make progress, and we need to be able to show progress in this next year, but we do not want to impose an artificial timetable in any particular area.

Public support at home for our armed forces in Afghanistan is vital for our long-term success, which is why we must give constant reassurance that NATO seeks at all times to minimise civilian casualties—which we do. However, with 80 per cent. of civilian deaths due to direct Taliban activity, with clear successes in recent operations, and with international co-operation resulting in a substantial reduction in al-Qaeda and Taliban capability in Afghanistan and Pakistan—including the loss of many of their military chiefs—why are the Government still failing to get a more positive and balanced message across to the British public? The British people need to see more than just casualties on our side if we are to keep them with us supporting our troops in their mission. What do the Government intend to do to win hearts and minds in Britain, too?

I genuinely do not accept what the hon. Gentleman has just said. We have made great strides recently, and to some effect, in terms of reassuring people about what we are doing, why we are doing it and how we are doing it, and about the success that we are having. There has been some excellent reporting of the recent Operation Moshtarak in central Helmand. Yes, of course, there has been some misleading reporting —as ever—but the majority of it has been first class, and people have been able to see what we have done and how we have done it, and the degree of success that our people have had.

In the Ministry of Defence, we have recently employed General Messenger, who has commanded in Afghanistan, as a spokesperson who can contact the media on a regular basis and provide in-depth briefings—both on and off the record—on how we are conducting our operations in Afghanistan.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) is wrong: the Dutch Government have taken no decision on Afghanistan; they have simply collapsed on account of Afghanistan. Does that not send out a slight warning signal that we perhaps need a little less military confrontation, with all its collateral damage that does so much harm to our good name in Afghanistan, and much more political and diplomatic containment?

We need political progress in Afghanistan, which is vital, and we need to deliver it through the Afghan Government. However, the last thing that we want is to provide anything other than reintegration, reconciliation and political progress, but we will not achieve it from a position of weakness. The Afghan Government still depend on ISAF for their basic position, and they will do so for some time while we grow the capability of the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police. Of course we should emphasise the political and development side of these operations, as they are vital at the end of the day.

University Training Units

The Government fully recognise the value of the university royal naval units, the officer training corps, the university air squadrons and the defence training undergraduate scheme, which allow individuals to develop skills that are extremely valuable in future careers either within or without the armed forces. There are currently no plans to change the role of the university training units.

I remind the House of my interest. Just one month before the start of the new training year, OTCs and Territorial Army units are yet to have next year’s training budget confirmed. That forms a major problem for the commanding officers of those units, and it is a problem that the Armed Forces Minister recognised on 26 October, when he said that

“it is incumbent on us in the Ministry of Defence to reach conclusions on the budget for 2010 as quickly as possible”.—[Official Report, 26 October 2009; Vol. 498, c. 140.]

Four months on, we still do not know, so will the Minister simply confirm that all budgets will be in place before 1 April?

The reductions in university OTCs—on training, for example—were made on the recommendation of the head of the Army in order to make in-year savings. I accept that they have caused some problems for individual units. We reinstated the moneys for the trainers, but decisions on this year’s budget are ongoing within the MOD and will be announced in due course.

What effect does the Minister believe cuts in university training programmes and cuts in the training of those already serving in the armed forces will have on the long-term skills and capability of our men and women who serve in uniform? Is not the fact that the Government have brought these proposals forward another damning indictment of their mismanagement of the defence budget and the impact it has on the armed forces?

The decision to reduce or take away pay in the OTCs was taken on the recommendation from the head of the Army to make in-year savings. Costs are involved in supporting undergraduate schemes across the three armed forces, so if we are to ensure that we have a balanced defence budget and a balanced defence force, all factors need to be taken into consideration. If the hon. Gentleman wants to ensure that money goes directly into university schemes, I challenge the hon. Gentleman to say, first, where it will come from and, secondly, whether it will affect other parts of the defence budget?

As a member of the university air squadron when I was an undergraduate, I am well aware of the vital role that these schemes play in recruiting for our armed services. The Minister has just told us that the head of the Army proposed cuts in the training budget, so what assessment has he or his Department made of the impact it will have on the number of recruits coming through these schemes, and what cost will fall on the Army if such recruitment no longer takes place?

As I have said, this is a recommendation for in-year savings this year. Again, I will challenge the hon. Gentleman: if a future Conservative Government wish to ring-fence this area, they can, but they will have to say what would give in the defence budget. In terms of the strength of the UOTCs, the establishment for 2009 was 2,946 and the establishment at the moment is 3,500.

While I welcome the Minister’s support for university training units, I am none the wiser after the last three answers as to how that valuing of them will be turned into real action or which of the unique training opportunities that those units provide will be preserved and which the Minister thinks can simply be dispensed with.

The hon. Gentleman has to realise that the concentration is on current operations in Afghanistan. In November last year, the head of the Army instigated a review of the UOTCs. The reference group that he has set up includes the chair of the Council of Military Education Committees of Universities of the UK. It is important that, under its terms of reference, the steering group looks at everything that the UOTCs do to ensure that they are effective for the Army and provide value for the taxpayer.

The memo from HQ Land dated 12 October, which leaked in-year cuts to the OTC, warned of downstream implications for officer recruitment. Ominously, it went on to say that because money was so tight, there may be further cuts in the pipeline to be discussed with Ministers. Given that the MOD’s financial position since October cannot be said to have improved, will the Minister say what further discussion he has had on cuts to cadet forces, which the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), would probably call “descoping”? Given that the nature of recent conflict requires us to have more able people in military leadership roles than ever before, may I press the Minister for a proper assessment of not only the likely damage to recruitment numbers but also the military effect of his gross budgetary short-termism?

I assume from what the hon. Gentleman suggests that this is yet another uncosted commitment from the Conservatives. The proposal was put forward by the head of the Army. The head of regional forces has set up a study into the OTCs, which will report by June this year. It includes not only the financial implications, but how the OTCs are structured and how they will go forward. A similar exercise is being done for the Royal Navy and the RAF. That is a proper way of listening to our military commanders’ advice about what is fit for purpose in the long term, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to state today that a future Conservative Government will ring-fence money for the UOTCs, he will need to tell taxpayers and voters come the election where else in the defence budget money will come from.

Maritime Piracy

UK armed forces continue to play an integral role in the command and control of EU, NATO and coalition counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia.

We are determined to play our part, through the Royal Navy, and in close co-operation with other Government Departments and countries, to tackle piracy and to protect legitimate trade and transport.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but will he tell me how and when he will implement the Djibouti code to deal with piracy in the Indian ocean and the gulf of Aden, particularly in relation to kidnappings?

We strongly welcome the commitment from the Government of the Seychelles, which was encapsulated in the Djibouti announcement, to consider hosting a regional counter-piracy chamber to prosecute pirates within their national jurisdiction. One of the key challenges that we face is ensuring that prosecutions can take place locally and regionally, and we will continue to press partners in that direction.

Is the Minister aware of the widespread support for the Government’s policy of discouraging ransoms? Does he agree with Kipling that

“We never pay any-one Dane-geld,

No matter how trifling the cost”?

I wholeheartedly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. While I understand where people who desire the payment of ransoms are coming from, in the longer run it would simply lead to greater problems and more kidnappings—it would store up problems for the future. The Government are therefore right to resist the payment of ransoms.

Along with some colleagues, I was out in the Gulf in the summer recess, and I encourage my hon. Friend and Opposition spokespersons to do the following. When the Labour party is returned to government after the next election, there will be hundreds of new MPs, and I ask that every Front-Bench spokesman writes to every new Member suggesting that they join the armed forces parliamentary scheme. It is important to do that, because the scheme is about not only front-line services but what the armed forces do for this country.

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. I know many colleagues on both sides of the House who have taken part in that scheme. Indeed, there is a dinner this evening, hosted by Mr. Speaker, that both the Secretary of State and I will attend. It is a genuinely worthwhile scheme that brings home very practically to Members across the House the reality of life in the armed forces.

I heartily endorse what has been said about the armed forces parliamentary scheme, even though some of my Liberal Democrat opponents do not. Returning to the subject of piracy, however, the Minister spoke about playing a part, but since the policy of releasing pirates after simply confiscating the equipment with which they were proposing to commit piracy has been so widely practised, what are we doing, other than playing a part, to deter piracy? Can the Minister confirm that the new proposals he has mentioned will mean an end to the policy of stopping pirates and then releasing them unharmed and able to carry on with their mischief?

I do not want to intrude on the private grief between the hon. Gentleman’s party and the Liberal Democrats—and, in any case, I am unsure of its provenance. In respect of piracy, where there is credible evidence, we seek to move towards prosecutions, but where such evidence does not exist, we have to act differently. However, we are giving a wide range of assistance to maritime shipping passing through the gulf of Aden, and it is important to make it clear that since December 2008 only one merchant vessel that was registered with the Maritime Security Centre (Horn of Africa) and that was operating in accordance with best practice has been seized by pirates. That is the result of the actions that we and other partners are taking to tackle this problem.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a connection between piracy and the funding of terrorism, and also that piracy off the horn of Africa is one of a lengthening list of defence issues in Africa? Therefore, is it not now time that NATO developed a policy towards Africa, by bringing all those matter together within a formal relationship with the African Union?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that there is a link between the piracy challenge and the military challenges we face, but there is also the issue of the appalling human rights situation and lack of government in Somalia, and we therefore need to work across Government Departments and with our international partners to tackle the problem at source. Yes, there is a military component to this, and we are enforcing that very effectively, but there need to be political changes in the region as well.

Afghanistan

8. What steps he plans to take to persuade Afghan citizens who have taken up arms on behalf of the Taliban to withdraw that military support. (317444)

The UK, alongside the rest of the international community, supports the Afghan Government in their plans to reintegrate disaffected Afghans into mainstream society, providing that they pursue their goals peacefully, within the constitutional framework, and have no ties to terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.

I am sure that the Secretary of State agrees with me that, in dealing with conflicts, one can learn a lot from history. What historical precedents are the Government using to guide their strategy in Afghanistan, and how do those precedents serve to lead the Government to their conclusions?

In operations such as that in which we are involved in Afghanistan, reintegration of at least parts of the insurgency is a legitimate and appropriate way to proceed. It is not only a case of building up the Afghan national capability so that the Afghans are able to protect their own country from the insurgency. There are also parts of that insurgency that do not share all the goals of some of the leadership, and we ought to recognise that and work to peel off those people where that is appropriate, such as where they are involved in their activities for money or because of local grievances. We therefore encourage the Afghan Government to do precisely that.

My right hon. Friend will realise that the one big difficulty that former farmers who became Taliban fighters would have is that if they were to go back over to the side of the Afghan Government, they would want assurances that the Afghan forces will guarantee their safety and that of their family, and that the Taliban will not return and take retribution. Does he understand that that is the crucial part in building confidence among the Afghan people?

Providing safety for insurgents who are prepared to lay down their weapons and behave peacefully is an important part of reintegration. If that is what they are prepared to do, this is about providing safety from our own forces in terms of giving them reassurance, and being able to protect them from insurgents who continue to present a problem. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that that will be a key concern of anybody who is preparing to turn away from the Taliban insurgency.

One of the contributions of the Dutch in Afghanistan has been working effectively with civilians in the areas in which they have been operating. If the Dutch pull out of Afghanistan, how will that work be compensated for? What are the Government doing to ensure that there are no further pull-outs from the NATO coalition, as they would be so damaging to the prospects in Afghanistan?

We need to see this issue in the light of the overall picture. Some 43 nations are now involved in the coalition, so it has widened over the years. Separate from the American uplift announced in response to General McChrystal’s report, we have managed to secure 9,000 non-American additional forces. So there have been moves in the right direction on the international effort in Afghanistan, but we will need to replace the Dutch leadership in Uruzgan province if the Dutch go ahead with their pull-out from Afghanistan.

But does the Secretary of State not accept that this is a matter not just of numbers, but of the quality of commitment and effectiveness, and that in those regards the Dutch forces have been exemplary? If they pull out, that will inevitably have a consequence for the overall capability of NATO in Afghanistan.

The Dutch forces have been superb in terms of both numbers and capability over a period of time. We have done everything we can to encourage the Dutch to continue to make whatever contribution they are prepared to make. However, their commitment was time-limited and we have seen what has happened in terms of Dutch political decisions. I can only repeat that while we have seen these decisions being taken, other nations have been prepared to increase their contributions and new nations have joined the international security assistance force. We need to have balance in our views on this, because there has been a huge increase in troop commitments across the board.

Royal Navy

11. What assessment he has made of the capability of the Royal Navy to discharge its current and anticipated tasks. (317448)

13. What assessment he has made of the capability of the Royal Navy to discharge its current and anticipated tasks. (317452)

17. What assessment he has made of the capability of the Royal Navy to discharge its current and anticipated tasks. (317456)

The Royal Navy continues to meet all its operational tasking and remains extremely busy in support of current operations and standing commitments. The Royal Navy remains flexible and dynamic in its ability to respond to unforeseen events and emergent tasking.

I thank the Minister for his response, but will he make a statement on the future role of equipment in the Royal Navy, including HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Queen Elizabeth? How will they fit into the United Kingdom’s future national security interests?

As has been repeatedly made clear, this Government remain committed to the carriers—a commitment I have not heard made forcefully from those on the Conservative Benches.

Has the Minister included the need to provide support for oil exploration and production in the seas around the Falkland Islands in his list of anticipated tasks for the Royal Navy?

May I say to the hon. Gentleman that we remain determined that the wishes of the Falkland islanders should be paramount? We have transformed our military presence since 1982 and we maintain an appropriate deterrence force on the island and in the south Atlantic, comprising a range of land, air and maritime assets. Of course, we keep our military presence under constant review to ensure that the islands are properly protected.

In view of what the Minister has just said, will he confirm not only that the Government are paying attention to the interests of the Falkland Islands and the south Atlantic but that the Royal Navy has the ability to protect all 16 of our British overseas territories, wherever they might be throughout the world?

We do everything in our power and I am confident of our ability and capability to defend not only the Falkland Islands but all our overseas territories, in which I know the hon. Gentleman takes an interest.

Will the Minister tell the House what the role of the future surface combatant will be in contributing to capability, and update the House on plans for the procurement of such vessels?

I know that my hon. Friend has taken a real interest in these issues. Indeed, we discussed them when I visited Plymouth, Devonport a couple of weeks ago. The future surface combatant is expected to build on the capabilities of the existing Type 22 and Type 23 multi-purpose frigates that it will replace. It is an integral part of the balanced fleet required to support the UK’s future defence commitments, and we will be making an announcement on the issues very shortly.

Will the Minister say more about the anti-piracy work going on within the Royal Navy to ensure that our ships can protect not only our citizens but others off the coast in areas such as Somalia?

That is a large and significant challenge. It has a political dimension in tackling the root causes of piracy, and the £21 million a year we are investing through the Department for International Development is extremely important in that. We also need to provide advice to vessels on implementing effective self-protection. Critically, we also offer group transit to vulnerable vessels using the internationally recognised transit corridor, which is protected by international forces.

The seas around the Falkland Islands are part of British overseas territories. Is it not the duty of any British Government to do all that is necessary to give adequate protection to vessels, companies and individuals who carry out legitimate business in these waters? Is it not also the case that no amount of intimidation from Buenos Aires can alter what is a fundamental issue of self-determination? Will he also tell us what communication Defence Ministers have had with their opposite numbers in Argentina to make all this crystal clear?

There has been no change whatsoever to our policy. We have no doubt about the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands, and there has been no change in our support for the Falkland Islands’ legitimate right to develop a hydro-carbon industry within their waters. We do take, have taken and will take whatever steps are necessary to protect the Falkland Islands, and our counterparts in Argentina are aware of that. We continue to have a bilateral relationship and we use every avenue within that relationship to get those messages across.

Given the renewed tension in the south Atlantic, the huge upsurge in piracy already mentioned, the challenges of energy security and the fact that 92 per cent. of Britain’s trade goes by sea, just how big a mistake was it for the Government to cut our surface fleet from 35 destroyers and frigates to about 20, and to cut the number of our attack submarines from 12 to eight and now, probably, to seven? Do they regret what they have done to the Royal Navy?

Our forces today are much more capable, and that has enabled us to make the changes we have made. I hear a lot of noise from the Opposition but the hon. Gentleman needs to recognise, acknowledge and admit that his party is not committed to one extra penny of defence expenditure compared with the amount to which we are committed. Hollow words provide no conviction whatsoever.

Strategic Defence Review

12. What estimate he has made of the extent to which commitments made in the 1998 strategic defence review have been funded by the Government. (317450)

The commitments identified in the 1998 strategic defence review have evolved over the intervening period to reflect the changing strategic setting and the experience of operations. Successive spending reviews have provided resources to fund these.

The Gray review describes the Government’s procurement system as “sclerotic” and “substantially overheated”. Does the Secretary of State accept that the failure to hold a strategic defence review in the past 12 years has contributed significantly to that?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have updated the strategic defence review over the intervening period. He ought at least to acknowledge that the Government commissioned the Gray report in order to assess exactly where we are regarding defence acquisition. We have responded to the report with some pretty far-reaching proposals on defence acquisition reform, which we recently announced to the House as part of the Green Paper package.

Iran

14. What recent assessment his Department has made of Iran’s military capability; and if he will make a statement. (317453)

Iran’s military capability is primarily defensive in nature with offensive capabilities intended to provide deterrence to any potential aggressor. Many of Iran’s conventional platforms are old, predating the 1979 Islamic revolution. Despite Iran’s efforts to procure and produce spares to supplement existing platforms with new equipment, they do not present a significant conventional threat to our or our allies’ interests. We are, however, committed to working with the international community to ensure that the difficult issue of Iran’s nuclear ambition is resolved through diplomacy.

The Secretary of State will well know that the nuclear issue is the focus of attention. What concerns me is whether the military preparations in Iran are sufficient to give it the flexibility to make a conventional attack on any of its neighbouring countries. We saw the loss of life during the Iran-Iraq war, which was horrendous, and we saw the Iranian Government’s lack of value of life. Could that happen again and is there a strategic threat to the United Kingdom’s interests?

We would like to encourage Iran to be a good neighbour, to take its part in the region and to be a positive force in that regard. Notwithstanding what I have said about its conventional capability eroding over time and about its not being able to maintain that capability, we have seen it create difficulties through proxies for its neighbouring countries. We would ask it seriously to reconsider that and to join the international community in providing a secure environment for the region. That would be in the interests of Iran as well as the wider middle east.

Topical Questions

My Department’s responsibilities are 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 at home or abroad.

Will the Secretary of State find time to look into the issue of so-called friendly fire deaths? That cause of death has been alluded to in at least one soldier’s death recently. Will the Minister make absolutely sure that his Department is completely open about these matters, and urge our allies to do the same, so that relatives can find out the truth without long delays and can take up such matters as they wish?

I hope that we are. Not only do we deploy our own internal methods to expose the facts in such cases, but we use and increasingly value the coroner service and its investigative procedures to expose to the loved ones of those who have lost their lives the circumstances of their deaths. That is as important if they have lost their lives to opposing forces as if they have lost their lives to friendly forces in an accident in the operational theatre.

May I thank the Secretary of State for the forthcoming briefing on piracy at Northwood? Was it really wise of the Government to agree that piracy should be downgraded from an act of war to a criminal offence? Is the Minister satisfied that the rules of engagement for our naval commanders are sufficiently robust, given that vessels are from time to time seized almost under the noses of our Navy?

The hon. Gentleman takes a real interest in these issues, and the changes to which he refers enable us, in the right circumstances, to have more effective prosecutions. It is just not true, where we have had an ability to act through the Royal Navy to protect lives and not to put them at risk, that we have not taken such action.

T2. Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to set out the next steps towards a strategic defence review, following the publication of the defence Green Paper? (317462)

The Green Paper was designed to ask the questions and provoke the kind of debate that is necessary within the Department, the wider Government and the nation as a whole in the run-up to a strategic defence review. I believe that all the main parties in the House are now committed to having a strategic defence review after the next election. Exactly how we conduct that is yet to be decided, but a lot of preparatory work has been commissioned through the Green Paper process, and that work is ongoing.

T4. Last week, I visited a course for junior non-commissioned officers on the disposal of unexploded ordnance. Some of those people are going out to Afghanistan. They are doing an excellent job. I was deeply concerned, however, that bombs were not allowed to be detonated on three of the last four courses, owing to a noise limit of 125 dB. Local residents would appreciate that that is necessary work. Will the Minister of State or the Secretary of State discuss with QinetiQ the possibility of increasing that limit, so that people have exploded that type of ordnance before going out to Afghanistan? (317464)

Tackling improvised explosive devices is the highest priority for the military and the Ministry of Defence. We do everything we possibly can; we are increasing resources; and we will look at the limit to which the hon. Gentleman refers to ensure that everything possible can be done.

Will the Minister say a word about the future of RAF Church Fenton, which is the proud home of Yorkshire Universities Air Squadron, and its parent base, RAF Linton-on-Ouse, which is home to 500 RAF personnel and 600 civilians whose future appears to be under review?

I know that my hon. Friend is concerned about this issue on behalf of his constituents, but RAF Church Fenton and its parent base—RAF Linton-on-Ouse—currently provide UK military flying training. As he knows, the future roles of those stations are under review. No decisions have yet been taken on the involvement of individual sites that are under review as part of the programme, but I am more than happy to talk to him about the detail of these issues.

T5. Why was the central Helmand offensive advertised widely in advance? Surely, that goes against all normal military practice and has resulted in a number of leading Taliban figures leaving the area. (317466)

If the hon. Gentleman thinks he knows better than those who are commanding our operations in Afghanistan, that is a matter of his own opinion. I do not share his view. The commander of the international security assistance force flagged the ongoing operation well in advance to ensure that we could carry out his priorities: to gain control of the area and to provide security for the people, with the minimum of damage and loss of civilian lives. None the less, we managed to achieve tactical surprise. We did not allow the enemy to know exactly where we were going or exactly when we were going there. So I urge the hon. Gentleman not to listen to some of the reporting of these operations, which have been extremely effective. We have achieved all our goals on the Task Force Helmand side of the line—the Americans are still experiencing some resistance—and we have done that very effectively, impacting minimal damage on the infrastructure in the area and minimal civilian casualties.

At the Munich security conference the other week, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said that Russian military doctrine now saw NATO as its principal foe. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is time that Moscow pressed its own reset button and started to work with us as allies and partners, rather than future enemies?

We would welcome a reappraisal by Russia of its attitude towards NATO. There is no reason for the Russians to adopt the line that they have, and any reappraisal or softening of their position with regard to what they perceive as the threat would be most welcome and beneficial to themselves as well.

T6. Are Ministers aware that if a member of our armed forces who has a child with special educational needs and who may have struggled for months to get that child statemented is posted to another part of the country, they have to start that whole protracted process all over again? Is there any possibility of introducing a portable statement for members of our armed forces? (317467)

I am concerned that the hon. Gentleman raises the issue. It was raised by the Defence Committee in its report about three years ago, and I worked with my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) when she was a Minister at the Department for Children, Schools and Families to ensure that statements are portable. If the hon. Gentleman has an example of one that is not portable, I should like to see it, please.

Chapter 6 of the defence acquisition strategy which accompanies the Green Paper says that

“industry needs to play its full part in helping to address the problems this strategy is seeking to tackle.”

What scope is there for companies such as Babcock Marine, which has its headquarters in Plymouth, Devonport, to participate in such partnership work?

We consult on a continuous basis formally and informally with industry on these matters. I must not comment on corporate issues currently in the media.

T7. Can the Minister confirm that all service personnel are being given all the correct information to ensure that they are able to cast their vote in forthcoming elections? (317468)

I can go further than that. We have had a very successful campaign with the Electoral Commission and the Ministry of Justice to ensure that people register for service voting. The level is now at 65 per cent. Can we do more? Yes, we can. We have also put in place emergency provision whereby postal votes for those serving in Afghanistan are given special priority.

T8. The Defence Secretary will be aware of the contribution made not just to the defence of the country and overseas, but to the local economy, by RAF Linton-on-Ouse and RAF Leeming. RAF Leeming no longer has a fighter jet coming in or out of that station. RAF Linton-on-Ouse is one of only two or three training stations. What future is envisaged for those two RAF stations? (317469)

The two RAF stations have a future, but rightly, we must look at the most efficient way of operating our assets. I made the point earlier that the Opposition are not committed to spending a penny extra on defence issues. Such criticisms therefore ring somewhat hollow.

Has the Secretary of State approached Germany, a wealthy NATO member with relatively few troops on the ground in Afghanistan, for cash contributions towards countries such as ours with a large commitment, and if not, why not?

There are well over 4,000 troops from Germany in Afghanistan, and Germany only recently agreed to increase its contribution to the Afghan training effort with an additional 500 troops. Although we would always want all our allies to do more, let us not underestimate the contribution that is being made.

In the earlier exchanges about the Falkland Islands, no mention was made of Ascension Island and how important that is to the Falklands effort. May I invite the Government to look at the potential strategic importance of the island of St. Helena, also in the south Atlantic, which could be an alternative, should things get hot again in that part of the world?

I understand the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s question. Ascension Island remains extremely important to us. I regularly discuss these matters with my colleague, the Minister for Europe.

Why is it that after Bosnia, the UK virtually led the field in mine clearance, with the exception of the South Africans, yet we virtually gave away the very effective Chubby sets and now we are behind all other armies and three years behind the Canadians? Was that not a terrible mistake, which has led to unnecessary loss of life in Afghanistan?

I do not accept the hon. Lady’s remarks at all. We are, in my view, at the forefront of technology in mine clearance and counter-IED effort, and we are collaborating closely on the basis of complete transparency with our key allies in Afghanistan.

Bearing in mind the enormous debt that we owe to those who laid down their lives in the two world wars and the conflicts since, will the Minister support a private Member’s Bill, which I propose to introduce on 10 March, to close all shops on Remembrance Sunday, just as they are closed on Christmas day?

As someone who is on the record as having enacted legislation to close shops on Christmas day, I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman. I shall look forward to seeing his proposals in due course.