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Topical Questions

Volume 506: debated on Monday 22 February 2010

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.