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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
29 March 2010
Volume 508

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Compensation (Shoeburyness)

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1. What representations he has received on provision of compensation to people whose properties have been damaged by explosions at Shoeburyness. [324443]

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The work at Shoeburyness is directly linked to saving the lives of service personnel on operations in Afghanistan, providing, among other things, essential pre-deployment training in the safe and controlled disposal of improvised explosive devices and similar ordnance. In 2009, I received three representations, with a further two so far this year, from people claiming that their properties had been damaged by noise and vibrations caused by activities at MOD Shoeburyness.

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Everyone accepts that our armed forces need to train at Shoeburyness. However, many of the explosions are caused not by our armed forces’ training, but by commercial waste disposal from which big corporate interests profit. Will the Minister give an undertaking for full transparency, so that local people are made aware of which explosions are being caused in the interests of our armed forces and which in the interests of crony capitalists?

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I know that the hon. Gentleman is not a great supporter of our defence industries in this country, but let me tell him that the amount of ordnance exploded at Shoeburyness that is not related to training—this is, the disposal of ordnance that is out of date or that the MOD needs to get rid of in a controlled way—comes to 5 per cent. That is done in partnership with QinetiQ, a world-beating company that we should be proud of. As for trying to hamper us and put more in the way of our training, I am sorry, but that would be a misuse of the MOD’s time.

Afghanistan

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2. What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Afghanistan. [324444]

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Wake up.

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My apologies: I think the problem is deafness rather than sleep.

As General McChrystal has said, the situation in Afghanistan is serious, but it is no longer deteriorating, and the international effort will make real progress this year. Already Afghan forces and ISAF—the international security assistance force—have successfully delivered improved security to the population of central Helmand through Operation Moshtarak. Working closely with our Afghan allies, the international community’s next step will be to strengthen governance and security in Kandahar city.

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Security in Helmand province has for years been the responsibility of British forces, many of whom have lost their lives in the process. What effect does the Secretary of State think it would have on our forces in Helmand if they were to be told, as has been suggested in The Sunday Telegraph, that they are shortly to be replaced by United States marines?

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There has been a substantial increase in forces going into Helmand. Some of those have been ours—we have increased our forces in Afghanistan by about 1,200 in a year—but the biggest single inflow has been from the United States of America. We have been very happy to work alongside US forces, and they now operate in the south of Helmand province—we very recently handed over Musa Qala to them. What we are involved in is a coalition effort: we have to work alongside our coalition partners, and that does not mean just the United States of America. In Helmand we have Danes and Estonians working in our area of operation alongside our forces, as well as those of the Afghans of course, so I do not think that there is a problem among our armed forces in recognising the need to work with others.

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Concern has been expressed about the impact of Taliban and al-Qaeda training camps in the North West Frontier province of Pakistan. Can my right hon. Friend say what assessment has been made of those camps, how effective they are, and to what extent the Americans now have a controlling impact on them, so that they cannot undermine the work being done by NATO and UK troops in Afghanistan?

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The overwhelming improvement that we have seen on the Pakistan side of the border over the past year or so has come about as a result of the efforts of the Pakistani Government and the Pakistani armed forces. Those forces have suffered great losses in some of the operations that they have conducted against insurgents in the FATA—the federally administered tribal area—and Waziristan. Those forces are bearing down on the insurgency on their side of the border, and we should recognise that and congratulate them. Of course we work with the Pakistani Government, as do the American Government and American forces.

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But in his carefully crafted answer, the Secretary of State declined to deal with the point that was raised a moment or two ago. Is there a proposal that British forces should be withdrawn from Helmand? Yes or no?

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Look, let me say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that, as a result of the huge inflow of forces into the south of Afghanistan, there are a number of proposals as to how we approach the issue of command and control, and how we divide up our forces in order to ensure that all can be successful and that there is no gap in the security that we are providing. Those discussions are ongoing—

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So the answer is yes.

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There may be people within the coalition, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman has read in The Sunday Telegraph, who believe that it would be a good thing for us to remove ourselves from Helmand to Kandahar. I would have to be persuaded—and I would take some persuading—that that was a good thing. We have developed a level of understanding of the situation in Helmand province over a period of time which should not be thrown away lightly. We have invested a great deal in terms of money and infrastructure, as well as of losses. This is something that we would have to be very concerned about before we would agree to doing it. However, we should not set our face against things as some kind of knee-jerk reaction; we should be prepared to discuss these issues with our coalition partners.

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If we are to make proper progress down the Order Paper, as I always seek to do, we need to make progress a little more quickly.

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On 19 April, during the likely general election campaign, the Government are likely to face a court case relating to the ability of UK forces to hand prisoners over to Afghan authorities. The case, brought by peace campaigners, could have major implications for our commanders in Afghanistan as a result of international and European human rights law. It is bad enough that our troops have to deal with warfare; now they have to worry about “lawfare” as well. Will the Government place before the House, before the Dissolution of Parliament, consolidated Ministry of Defence guidelines on the detention of personnel in Afghanistan, so that Parliament and the British people can make a judgment about the Government’s position ahead of the court case, which many will regard with outrage?

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We do detain people in Afghanistan. Detention is an important part of the operations that we undertake there. Our forces are threatened by people in that country, and detention is therefore necessary. We also hand people over to the Afghans, and we have a clear memorandum of understanding about when and how we do that and about the safeguards that we seek to put in place. I will do as the hon. Gentleman asks and place in the Library a copy of our policy on detention—I had intended to do that anyway. I will do it as soon as possible; if not today, then tomorrow.

Defence-Related Employment (Tyneside)

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3. What steps he is taking to maintain levels of defence-related employment on Tyneside. [324445]

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There are many companies on Tyneside and in the related travel-to-work area doing important work for defence, and we are extremely grateful to them for the skills and dedication of their employees. Good examples include A & P, which is building sections for our two carriers on the Tyne. I have visited it twice, and on the last occasion was privileged to cut the first steel. I also visited Astrum in County Durham the other day; it is producing tracks for our armoured vehicles. I have visited BAE Land Systems, which has produced the Challenger, the Warrior and the Panther and is now working on the Terrier. BAE Systems is also opening a new ammunition factory in Washington, Sunderland.

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The workers at BAE Systems’ armoured fighting vehicle factory on Newcastle’s Scotswood road have loyally backed up the efforts of our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they now face job losses, and the run-down and possible closure of the plant, because of the loss of the specialist vehicle order. Was this because Tyneside was politically outgunned by Wales and Scotland, or because the management at the plant were incompetent? Will the Minister come to Tyneside to explain how this decision was made, and what the way forward for the workers will be?

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Order. The hon. Gentleman allowed himself three questions. We do not begrudge him that, but one answer will do.

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It was neither of those two things. The contract award was made on value for money, which was a function of performance, reliability and cost. I understand my hon. Friend’s disappointment about the decision, but we have to make such decisions on the basis of value for money. I would certainly be happy to accept his invitation to come to Newcastle and to meet the management and the work force again.

Improvised Explosive Devices

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4. How many soldiers have been issued with protective equipment against improvised explosive devices; and if he will make a statement. [324448]

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All our deployed personnel in Afghanistan are equipped for the tasks that they are asked to undertake. This includes a range of protected vehicles, including the Mastiff and the Ridgback, which offer world-leading protection against improvised explosive devices. Comprehensive training is provided prior to deployment and on arrival, and a very large part of that training concentrates on IED avoidance and recognition.

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In pausing to remember the bravest of the brave who have made the ultimate sacrifice in dealing with IEDs, will the Minister tell us how many people on active deployment in Afghanistan are trained to find IEDs, whether there is a shortage of such personnel, and how many have left the service prematurely on return from duty?

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No, I cannot and will not give that detailed information because if I do that publicly, I give it not only to the hon. Lady and our media, but to our enemies in the form of the Taliban. What I can say is that nothing has been given a higher priority in our efforts in Afghanistan than countering improvised explosive devices. That is why we established a 200-strong force last April and why, as recently as December, we committed and reprioritised £150 million towards tackling the lethal threat we face from the Taliban in respect of IEDs.

Service Veterans (Mental Health)

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5. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of long-term mental health support for armed forces veterans. [324449]

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Initial results from the six NHS mental health pilot schemes are encouraging, with evidence that veterans feel able to access and use the services with confidence. The evaluation of these pilots will be complete later this year, with a view to all NHS mental health services rolling out special provision for veterans during 2011-12. Additionally, the medical assessment programme at St. Thomas’ hospital in London continues to prove an important resource to veterans with mental health problems.

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I thank the Minister for that reply. What assessment has the Minister made of the number of veterans in prison, the number of them homeless and the number that, sadly, commit suicide? What more can be done for those groups of people?

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We have completed studies on those three groups. On homelessness, we conducted a study with York university on the figures in London that showed 4 per cent. homelessness among the veteran population. As for the prison population, we have just completed a review of our data along with those of the Ministry of Justice, which showed that the prison population of veterans is about 4 per cent. We are subjecting those findings to more scrutiny to find out exactly what more can be done in mainstream services in prisons to support veterans.

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A year ago, the Minister was good enough to meet Piers Bishop of Resolution, which has done groundbreaking work on mental health issues among our armed forces. Does Resolution still have a part to play on this issue, to which I know the Minister has given a great deal of personal attention?

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We are always looking to work not only with the NHS but with third sector providers. Two or three weeks ago, together with the Department of Health, I was pleased to sign a partnership agreement with Combat Stress, which is now going to embed its mental health professionals in NHS trusts to act as champions for the mental health of veterans. We will consider any proposals on their merits.

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The mental health pilots to which the Minister referred—I have visited one of them—are most welcome, but even if they were rolled out in a definitive programme, it would still mean that the majority of cases of combat stress would be undiscovered and untreated. The Minister is probably not aware that the medical examinations people are given when they leave the armed forces have not been updated for many years and they certainly do not reflect the level of service-related mental illness generated since 2003. Why has he allowed this obvious missed opportunity to endure, and will he partially redeem himself by offering to support our proposal to screen veterans for service-related mental illness both at the point of discharge and at intervals thereafter?

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I am sad that the hon. Gentleman does not pay more close attention to what I am doing in my portfolio. A few weeks ago, I announced a new initiative whereby the medical records of those discharged will be transferred more seamlessly to the NHS. We also now have an agreement with the NHS whereby older veterans can have the fact that they served in the armed forces flagged up on their GPs’ records. We continue to support the work and research of the defence study conducted at King’s College, which is about to produce a report that will show the true effects of service not just on those who are serving now but on those who served many years ago.

Defence Spending (Commitments)

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6. What recent assessment he has made of the balance between UK defence spending and UK defence commitments. [324451]

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In our planning rounds, we ensure that our plans deliver defence capability, that they are sound and that resources are allocated in line with defence priorities. I announced the main elements of the 2010 planning round on 15 December 2009. This included a package to spend £900 million more over three years on enhancements to support operations of the kind that we conduct in Afghanistan, on top of operational costs paid for by the reserve. In taking this decision, however, we had to prioritise rigorously and recognise that tough choices were required better to match the defence programme to the available resources.

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Given that the Treasury claims to scrutinise every capital project and reserves the right to intervene in such projects, may I ask who was responsible for the £1.4 billion cut in the helicopter programme? Was it the former Secretary of State for Defence, or was it the former Chancellor of the Exchequer?

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I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to decisions made in 2002-03 or 2003-04. He must accept that those decisions were made by the Ministry of Defence, not by the Treasury, and also that the position then was very different from the position now. We had 400 troops in Afghanistan at that time, and they were in the relatively benign area of the north, not in Helmand province.

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When my right hon. Friend speaks of defence procurement, is he bearing in mind our defence industrial strategy? Can he promise the House that, as far as possible, we will always secure supply in this country in order to maintain our skills base and the sovereignty that we require?

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I cannot go as far as that. The aim of our defence industrial strategy is to ensure that elements of defence supply are secured in this country when we consider that to be important to the maintaining of our sovereign capability, and to ensure that we are able to continue to produce those elements. What I will not do is sacrifice, on a wider basis, capability and value for money when to do so is not appropriate, and is not justified by a clear need for that sovereignty.

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On 17 March, the Prime Minister said that UK defence spending had fallen in real terms on one or two occasions. I think that “once or twice” was the term that he used. According to everyone else, it has certainly fallen twice, and has possibly fallen three or four times. Was what the Prime Minister said about its having fallen “once” true?

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Defence spending has risen substantially during the present Government’s time in office. It has risen in real terms by 10 per cent.—just short of £1 billion a year, on average—which contrasts markedly with the massive reductions that took place during the last two years of Conservative government.

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In the light of the agreement between Russia and the United States last weekend as part of the strategic arms reduction treaty, would this not be an appropriate time at which to reconsider the strategy of replacing the Trident nuclear missile system, which would both contribute to nuclear disarmament and save us all a great deal of money?

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My hon. Friend and I disagree in one fundamental respect. I believe in multilateral nuclear disarmament: I think that we should make every possible effort to bring about the reduction and, hopefully, the eventual elimination of nuclear arsenals throughout the world. I do not, however, believe in unilateral nuclear disarmament, and I do not believe that if we did as my hon. Friend suggests, we would add greatly to efforts to reduce nuclear armaments at this time.

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Last week the Chancellor committed more than £4 billion from the Treasury reserve for operations in Afghanistan. Given the increasing number of urgent operational requirements driving equipment spending to its highest level yet, what discussions has the Ministry had with the Treasury about eventual recovery of UOR funding, and what effect will that have on the longer-term defence budget?

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We have not had to repay moneys granted to us for urgent operational requirements. [Interruption.] We have not had to do that in any year. The full costs of operations—not just urgent operational requirements—are paid from Treasury reserves which are in addition to our budget.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a contradiction between the arguments of those who say that not enough money is being spent on defence while also saying that the break clauses in the contract for the aircraft carriers must be examined? [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] I note that my view is supported by Opposition Members.

May I also ask whether the Secretary of State has received any communications from either of the main Opposition parties stating whether they will support the Government’s proposal to proceed with the next stage of the Type 26 shipping order, and whether he thinks that the placing of that order was excellent, very excellent, or simply magnificent?

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It is clear that there are dilemmas in the Conservative ranks, and that they run wider than just the carriers and naval capability. Conservative Members say on the one hand that we are behaving in a profligate manner and signing contracts unreasonably, and, on the other, say that we are underfunding defence. They cannot have their cake and eat it; they must come clean about their policies and proposals.

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Order. May I very gently say to the Secretary of State that we must, of course, stick to the subject of Government policy?

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On 15 March the Secretary of State told the House that £5 billion was earmarked for Afghanistan next year, but on Budget day the Chancellor said that there was £4 billion from next year’s reserve to fund operations in Afghanistan. Why the difference?

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There is £5 billion potentially from the reserve next year.

Service Personnel (Welfare)

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7. What recent progress has been made by his Department on improving the welfare of service personnel. [324452]

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The Ministry of Defence has robust welfare provision that is kept under continual review to ensure that it remains fit for purpose. We have a responsibility to our service personnel, their families and veterans, and we take it very seriously. Recent improvements include the provision of extra facilities in Afghanistan to help service personnel keep in touch with their families, the creation of the Army recovery capability, and the review of the armed forces compensation scheme. We also published the service Command Paper on the nation’s commitment to the armed forces, their families and veterans.

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At a recent surgery I held at RAF Benson there was a stream of criticisms of the MOD and MODern Housing Solutions, ranging from a family with a small child being left without hot water, serious gas leaks to walls running with mould. Given that in a written answer to me on 25 March the Minister admitted that there is not even a breakdown of complaints by location to better manage such problems, is this not symptomatic of the shameful disdain with which the Government treat the issue of service housing?

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I am sorry, but I am not going to take any lessons from the Conservatives about investment in armed forces housing. At RAF Benson, 99 per cent. of the accommodation is either in grade 1 or grade 2 standard condition, which means that it either exceeds or meets the Government’s decent homes standard. In respect of MHS, I have put in place people who act as equivalents to estate managers, who do a very good job of dealing with individual problems. If the hon. Gentleman has a particular problem relating to the work of Defence Estates at Benson, or that of MHS, he should get in touch with me.

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The Public Accounts Committee report, “Treating Injury and Illness Arising on Military Operations”, concluded that although the MOD’s care of the seriously injured had to date been highly effective, there were concerns about whether it could cope with a significant increase in the number of casualties. What steps will the Minister take to formalise the current voluntary arrangements with the NHS to handle overflow military patients, and how might he ensure that there is a suitable environment for military personnel in civilian hospitals?

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As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, the care our servicemen and women are getting at Selly Oak and Headley Court is second to none, and may I put on record our thanks to the dedicated staff that do that job? The NHS and Defence Medical Services put in place robust handling arrangements to deal with our surge of last summer, and we also put in place similar arrangements this year, although, thankfully, they were not needed. In April, health services will move to the new hospital at Selly Oak in April, which will have a state-of-the-art, military-dedicated ward for our servicemen and women who are injured on operations.

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(Woodspring): On leave back home during their deployment in Afghanistan, a growing number of service personnel have been refused entry to pubs and clubs because some local authorities refuse to accept military identity cards, which have date-of-birth details, as proof as age. It is scandalous that our troops can die in Helmand but be refused a pint in their local. The Government have known about this problem for some time, so why has nothing been done? Will they now, in their last days, do something about it?

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That is an issue for local authorities, but may I say that a number of public houses and businesses not only welcome our servicemen and women, but give them discounts and support the production of the military ID card? I would like the hon. Gentleman to let me know of any specific examples that he may have of where people have been turned away, because I agree that this is not an acceptable way to treat these brave servicemen and women.

Iran

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8. What recent assessment he has made of the security threat posed by Iran. [324453]

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We keep the security threat posed by Iran under continual review. Iran possesses conventional military capability that is both defensive and offensive in nature. We also remain concerned about Iran’s intentions with regard to its nuclear programme. Iran should be under no illusion that without progress in addressing the international community’s concerns tougher sanctions will be imposed.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he believe that the Iranian Government are serious in their undertaking in respect of uranium enrichment abroad or does he believe that they are just playing for time?

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A substantive offer of engagement has been made by the international community, which has been led, in particular, by the President of the United States. I regret that Iran has failed yet to embrace that offer of engagement. Iran needs to be in doubt that this is a matter of serious and real concern for the international community and that if there is not movement and engagement on the part of Iran, there will be—we will argue for and achieve this—much tougher sanctions.

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Do the Government agree with the statement made at the weekend by the NATO Secretary-General, Mr. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, that Europe now needs to develop a missile shield system to protect against a future Iranian missile—one with or without nuclear warheads?

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There is a strong case for the missile shield, which is why the Government have supported the technology; the threat that the Secretary-General outlined, and to which my right hon. Friend refers, is one of the reasons for that.

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With Iran undertaking a major submarine-building programme, which military experts say could cause havoc in the Gulf, and Russia continuing its incursions into United Kingdom waters, why have the Government decided this week to scrap the Nimrod long-range maritime patrol aircraft? Who will provide the long-range search and rescue capability so lost from this week and who will protect our ships—at home and in the Gulf—now rendered vulnerable by Labour’s cavalier approach to the defence of these islands?

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On long-range search and rescue, the introduction of the MRA4 means that there will be substantially more capable aircraft than the MR2 in the RAF’s fleet. In the period of transition until the MRA4 enters service we intend to use other assets, as available, in a long-range search and rescue role. The reason we take the decisions that we do is because we are responsible for these budgets and for prioritising Afghanistan as our main effort. As we have repeatedly made clear, the Conservative party is not committed to spending one penny more on defence than this Government are—in fact, the reverse is true because the Conservatives are not even prepared to commit to next year’s spending. Until they do so, their words are simply hollow.

Afghanistan (Poppy Cultivation)

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10. If he will make it his policy for UK forces to encourage the replacement of poppy cultivation by the growing of pomegranates in Afghanistan. [324455]

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The UK is supporting alternative livelihoods programmes in Afghanistan, which provide practical advice and support to farmers, to enable them to move away from poppy cultivation. In Helmand, we are supporting Governor Mangal’s counter-narcotics plan, which distributes wheat seed, fertiliser, saplings and seeds for summer crops, and the establishment of an agricultural school. Pomegranates are one option available to Afghan farmers.

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I thank the Minister for that response. I think there is agreement across the House that the solution will not just be a military one; it must be political and economic. On that basis, will his Department try to support the British charity POM354, which believes that the growing of pomegranates is more profitable for Afghan farmers than the growing of either wheat or opium poppies?

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I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a real interest in this issue and I agree with him that there cannot be an exclusively military solution in Afghanistan—there has to be a political one, too.

In respect of the particular proposal to which he is referring, James Brett, the founder of the charity POM354, met my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development. At that meeting, it was recommended that Mr. Brett should produce a detailed business plan that will not only help to maximise the programme’s chances of success but help conversations with potential donors. I reiterate that advice and DFID officials are willing to provide advice on such a plan.

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I welcome the proposals to support the growing of pomegranates, wheat, raisins and alternative crops that have been proposed by Afghan farmers over many years, but does the Minister understand that for them the key issue is not what they will be encouraged to grow but who will be a secure buyer of what they grow? Has the Minister any plans to step in and at least recognise that the starting point for what they grow at the moment is the poppy crop and that we ought to be looking at ways in which that can legitimately be used for the production of diamorphine?

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I genuinely disagree with my hon. Friend. I think that if we followed the path that he is advocating, in circumstances in which it is not possible to provide security across the board, we would simply be creating a second market for poppy cultivation. That is why—across government, with our international partners and supporting the Afghan Government—we must create an environment in which it is possible for alternative crops to be produced. I genuinely do not believe that the course set out by my hon. Friend would help us to achieve that.

QinetiQ

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11. If he will visit Kyle of Lochalsh and Raasay before resubmission of proposals on the future of QinetiQ operations to discuss the effects of those operations on that area; and if he will make a statement. [324456]

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I would be delighted to visit Kyle of Lochalsh and the Raasay ranges. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the proposals put forward by QinetiQ to rationalise those ranges have now been withdrawn. If in the future those proposals are resubmitted or if other proposals are made, I shall certainly visit the ranges before taking any decisions—as I did, as the right hon. Gentleman will recall, in the case of the Hebrides ranges last year.

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I thank the Minister for that characteristically courteous reply and for his earlier letter to me on the matter, which will cause a good deal of reassurance locally. I hope that when a new report comes forward, if any does—it is rumoured that that might happen in the autumn, and perhaps he could give us an indication on that point—any such visit would involve all relevant community groups and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

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I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman any indication of any timing or, indeed, predict any particular proposals that might come forward in the next few months, but I repeat my offer.

Defence Spending (Commitments)

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12. What recent assessment he has made of the balance between UK defence spending and UK defence commitments. [324457]

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For some reason that I do not fully understand, the hon. Gentleman has asked exactly the same question as the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) and I refer him to the answer to that question.

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It is an important question. The Secretary of State will know that in 1998, 1999, 2002 and 2007 the defence budget fell in real terms. As for the following years, in Kosovo, our boys had to go out and buy mobile phones because the radios did not work; in Iraq, the boots melted and their equipment and clothing were not right for those conditions, so they had to go and buy their own clothing; and in Afghanistan, there have not been enough helicopters, there have not been the right personnel vehicles and there have not been enough spares, so they have had to cannibalise equipment all over the world, causing chaos. Does not the Secretary of State accept that it is time, first, to admit that this system of logistics and procurement has been hopeless and secondly, to apologise for putting lives at risk?

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It is a travesty that the hon. Gentleman should so describe the situation that is faced by this country’s very capable armed forces—one of the most capable armed forces in the world. I would say to him that we spend above average on defence, that there has been a substantial continuing increase in spending on defence and that we, in marked contrast to the party that he supports, guarantee that there will be an increase next year. I do not know what he intends to do about that, if he holds the views that he does.

Armoured Vehicles

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13. What his most recent assessment is of progress in the light protected patrol vehicle programme; and if he will make a statement. [324458]

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Two contenders for the light protected patrol vehicle requirement are being assessed as part of the concept vehicle evaluation trial. It is expected that the trial will be completed in April.

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In evaluating the two contenders for the new light protected patrol vehicle that will replace the Snatch Land Rover and, I hope, the Pinzgauer Vector, will the Minister ensure that, as well as having in-built blast deflection, it will retain the most valued attribute of the Snatch—enabling soldiers to exit quickly from the rear of the vehicle to defend and counter-attack with maximum cover?

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I assure the hon. Lady that the tests to which the two contenders are being subjected are very thorough. They certainly involve blast protection and blast deflection and, indeed, rapid exit from and entry to the vehicle. She has put her finger on two absolutely vital points in the characteristic way that she does when she talks about military equipment.

Helmand

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14. What recent progress has been made in military operations in Helmand province. [324459]

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UK forces continue to work hand in hand with Afghan national security forces to build and maintain security in Helmand province. Progress on Operation Moshtarak grows, with insurgents being displaced from key district centres. Stabilisation activity continues apace, and increasing freedom of movement on key routes is aiding economic development. As I announced on 11 March, security responsibility for Musa Qala is transferring to US forces. This enables the redeployment of UK troops to the heavily populated areas of central Helmand, where the majority of UK troops are operating.

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The population of Helmand is overwhelmingly—indeed, almost exclusively—Pashtun, but the Afghan army, with which we want ultimately to replace British forces, is overwhelmingly made up of the Tajik minority. Is that a problem?

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It is one that President Karzai and his Ministers are seeking to address. Training has been stepped up quite considerably in terms of numbers, but he has to do everything, both in the police service and in the army, to get a representation of the whole country.

Resource Accounting System

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15. What resources were allocated to his Department under the Government's resource accounting system in (a) 2002-03 and (b) 2003-04. [324460]

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The total Ministry of Defence near cash budget was £26.8 billion in 2002-03 and £27.9 billion in 2003-04—an increase of more than £1 billion. Those are the only directly comparable figures, because the MOD did not have a non-cash Treasury departmental expenditure limit in 2002-03.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that it is always a case of lies, damn lies and statistics, and that it is a matter of great regret that, since the Prime Minister lost his way on defence statistics, it has done nobody any good that we cannot trust the Government on their defence statistics? Does the Secretary of State agree that we really have to stop that, and that we have to have a perfectly straightforward, simple way, on which everyone can agree, of deciding exactly how much a Department is spending?

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I do agree, but I do not believe that it helps when issues are blown out of all proportion, sometimes deliberately, to disguise the overall situation. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman, knowing him as I do, would sit there and deny that there has been a substantial increase in the defence budget throughout the life of the Labour Government. He knows that to be true, and I do not think that he should try to suggest that the case is otherwise.

BAE Systems (Samlesbury)

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16. When he next intends to visit BAE Systems in Samlesbury. [324461]

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I have no plans to visit BAE Systems in Samlesbury; the Minister with responsibility for defence equipment and support, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), did so on 24 February 2010.

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I am glad to hear that. I am sure that while the Minister was there, he would have seen more than 5,000 people working in one of the top-class work forces of the world. Given that BAE Systems in Samlesbury works as a magnet for more than 6,500 other jobs in small and medium-sized enterprises, does the Secretary of State agree that when we are procuring, we ought to procure from the very best, which happens to be in the United Kingdom?

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Often that is so, and the north-west region, never mind the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, plays an important part in our defence capability. We need to ensure that we maintain such capability in vital areas. If we are going to provide capability for our armed forces in the long term, we cannot afford to take short-term and short-sighted decisions. Sometimes we need to ensure that industrial capability remains in place, and that is what the defence industrial strategy is designed to do—I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports it.

Defence Spending (Commitments)

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17. What recent assessment he has made of the balance between UK defence spending and UK defence commitments. [324462]

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Aha! Another hon. Member appears to have asked exactly the same question as the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant).

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The Secretary of State might be aware that Lord Guthrie has recently observed that, because of the Prime Minister’s attitude when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the military wanted to do many things but was unable properly to fund the 1998 strategic defence review, which the Cabinet had approved. Does the Secretary of State think that Lord Guthrie’s comments are fair criticism?

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No, I do not, and I refer to the substance of the answer by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the Chilcot inquiry—no one has been able to say otherwise. Every request that was made in regard to urgent operational requirements was met, and in every spending round while my right hon. Friend was Chancellor of the Exchequer, there was a real-terms increase in the defence budget. When those things are taken together, they add up to almost £1 billion a year.

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If our troops had as much armour on their vehicles as the Secretary of State has in his defence of indefensible statistics, they would be very safe indeed. However, even if we include the money from the Treasury reserve, is it not a fact that, as a proportion of gross domestic product, defence expenditure has declined over the lifetime of this Government?

This is the last question that Opposition Front Benchers will be asking of Defence Ministers, so may I point out that, during this sitting, there have been twice as many Conservative Members present as Government Members, with a solitary three Lib Dems? Does not that show how the different parties rate the importance of defence?

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I say to the hon. Gentleman quite genuinely that I am not dead certain about whether, after taking the urgent operational requirements into account, the fact that he cites is correct. The only thing that I would say to him is that, because of a Labour Government, the time that he mentions has been a period of unprecedented growth in GDP. [Interruption.]

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Order. Even though the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) seems to have wound the House up, it now needs to calm down.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [324468]

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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, either at home or abroad.

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Pursuant to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones), what will the arrangements be to report changes in deployments in Helmand, now that the Secretary of State has confirmed that such deployments are in flux and under discussion?

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I want to keep the House as informed as I can about any developments but, fundamentally, these are military decisions. We have to try to ensure that we have the appropriate force density in the British area of operations, as we should in the American area, so that our troops and theirs have a good chance of success. I think that we now have the troop levels in Helmand province with which we can make real progress, and we have seen real progress under Operation Moshtarak. General Carter, who is in charge of not only Helmand province but the whole of the south, is of course always looking at how he deploys the forces available to him.

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T4. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s decision to award the specialist vehicle contract to General Dynamics —a British company—is most welcome, as it will help to preserve 10,000 jobs across the United Kingdom and will create 200 new jobs in my constituency. Does the Minister believe that that is a perfect example of a Labour Government working to protect our troops, and to safeguard and defend British jobs? [324471]

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Yes, I do; my right hon. Friend puts it extremely well.

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T2. For a while, it was said that the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency was going to lose its agency status, and thus its chief executive. I now understand that it is to keep its agency status, and thus its chief executive. Which is it, because local staff are getting a bit confused? It is a bit like the hokey cokey. What do Ministers intend to do with the DSDA? [324469]

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I have asked the chief executive of the DSDA, in conjunction and in consultation with his work force and the trade unions, to produce a five-year plan. I originally expected that at the end of March; I have been assured that it is coming by the middle of April. I will take decisions in the light of that.

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May I welcome the signing of the terms of business agreement with Babcock Marine last week, which confirms Devonport as the lead dockyard for warship maintenance? Given that role, will my hon. Friend the Minister confirm that the sooner the carriers start to be assembled the better, not just for Devonport, so that it can receive further streams of warship maintenance work, but for the royal naval capability that it represents?

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I can assure my hon. Friend that under a Labour Government, the carrier programme is going full steam ahead. We are already working in five yards; work will start soon in the sixth and final yard in Birkenhead. We have made something like £1.2 billion-worth of subcontracts. The only thing that would endanger the carrier programme is the Tories, with the Notting Hill set at their head, who do not care at all about defence or anything about it, taking over the government of this country after the election.

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T3. In 2004, the then Chancellor slashed the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion. The Government recognised that that was a mistake, and ordered an additional 22 Chinooks. What guarantees can the Secretary of State give that we will not have a repeat of the delays suffered in the Chinook Mk 3 programme, and that the Chinooks will get full release to service by 2013? [324470]

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I just remind the hon. Gentleman that the mark 3 programme Chinooks were ordered under a Conservative Government. That was a disastrous procurement, and it took an awfully long time to sort it out. We are trying to make absolutely certain that we do not repeat the appalling mistakes of what is probably the worst ever defence procurement.

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T9. In the light of difficult projections for spending on defence, will my hon. Friend ensure that companies such as Thales, which have consistently stepped up to the plate and made sure that we procure the best equipment for our armed forces, are remembered, even in the face of what may be difficult decisions? [324476]

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I agree totally with what my hon. Friend says about Thales, and that goes for all our major defence suppliers, on which we depend as a nation for our defence capability; we are extremely grateful for their efforts. As a matter of fact, I am visiting Thales on Wednesday.

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T5. One of the flashpoints in the middle east is Iran’s desire to have its own nuclear capability. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that we encourage the Gulf states to use pressure and their influence to dissuade Iran from that ambition? [324472]

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I agree with that assessment. We are in regular discussion with partners in the Gulf states, and I think that there is a strong degree of consensus. We need fundamentally to understand that if Iran were able to go ahead and develop nuclear capability, it would inevitably invite a response from other countries in the region, and the last thing we need in the middle east is a nuclear arms race.

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As we approach the general election, what provisions is the Ministry of Defence making to allow every single serviceman to have a vote that will be cast and counted?

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We have had an ongoing campaign to ensure that people register for service votes, and the figure is now at 67 per cent. We have also put in arrangements to ensure that, where possible, postal voters’ ballots are returned as speedily as possible. But overall, and for the longer term, I have had discussions with the Electoral Commission about possibly trialling e-voting.

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T6. I believe that it was a triumph for parliamentary democracy when Members from all parts of the House came together and backed the Liberal Democrat motion on the Gurkhas. Would the Minister care to reflect on and clarify the criticisms that have been levelled recently? In particular, will he withdraw, and apologise to Joanna Lumley for, the comments that he made? [324473]

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I already have, and any such comments were unintended. On the vote that took place last May, the Government have now put in place very robust procedures in Kathmandu to ensure that those Gurkhas who wish to settle here can do so free of charge—without being charged in any way. However, I would like to put on the record my wholehearted condemnation of those middlemen and unscrupulous operators who are charging Gurkhas. If the hon. Gentleman, like me, had visited Aldershot last week, as I know the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) did, in order to see Gurkhas—many of them more than 60 years old—who have come here with expectations that, frankly, will never be realised, he would be rightly angry. I certainly am on that point.

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May I ask the Secretary of State about an Unprinted Paper deposited in the Library by Group 4 Securicor, which calls it a “concept paper”? The firm invites the Government to outsource comprehensively the

“Training Support and Regular Army Assistance Table”

and the function that armed forces carry out in lieu of fire services when there is a pandemic—a term that is used in the paper—or industrial action. Will he repudiate that paper, say that it is a non-runner and confirm that this Labour Government will simply not entertain what it outlines? It would be a bridge too far.

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I have not read the paper, and I am not aware of the detail. I know that my hon. Friend has asked me a couple of questions, and, if he wants me to, I shall happily meet him so that he can expand on his concerns.

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T7. We have learned that generals will now be forced to travel second class, along with MPs—for whom I fully agree with the proposal. But, will Defence Ministers and senior Ministry of Defence staff also be forced to travel second class, or will it just be the men and women who do the fighting? [324474]

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That is part of a review within the Ministry of Defence to ensure that, in terms of our travel, we get best value for money. For example, last week I travelled second class on two occasions. Clearly, there are reasons, such as security, why others have to travel first class, but we are looking throughout the Department at how we can get the best value for money not only out of rail travel—[Interruption.] Hon. Members say “Ministers”, but I have travelled with easyJet on a number of occasions to ensure cost-effectiveness. The important point is that we ensure that we get value for money out of every defence pound that we put forward. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not object to that.

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Will the Secretary of State tell us when his Department plans to come to the House to seek spending authority for the replacement of the nuclear missiles in the Trident missile fleet, and how much has already been spent on preparatory work for the creation of a new missile system?

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I know that my hon. Friend follows that issue closely, and he will therefore know that there has been some delay in our ability to reach a maingate proposition. That will now, I think, take place around about the end of the year.

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Last Friday at RAF Kinloss, the Nimrod MR2 fleet was retired, and we pay tribute to all the personnel and families associated with the mighty hunter. But, given the importance of search and rescue top cover, will the Ministry of Defence provide some detailed assurances, stating that there will be no capability gap until the introduction of the MRA4?

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I reiterate to the hon. Gentleman what I said earlier: the MRA4 will bring a substantial enhancement of capability, and in the transition period until the MRA4 enters service we intend to, and will, use other assets, as available, in the long-range search and rescue effort.

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Army, air and sea cadets deliver an excellent service within many of our communities in the UK. Is it not time that the House acknowledged this and that the team from the MOD initiated a debate so that we can all celebrate everything that they deliver to our communities?

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I congratulate the cadet force on its 150th year. I thank my hon. Friend for her involvement in her local cadet force. Cadet forces are a force for good in local communities. I also put on record our thanks to the thousands of adult volunteers who make the cadet experience possible. If she suggested a debate in the House, I would be very pleased to celebrate the fantastic job that cadet forces do.

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T8. What progress is the Ministry of Defence making in negotiating a settlement with the atomic veterans claimant group before the Government return to the High Court on 4 May, at yet further vast expense to the taxpayer? [324475]

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As the hon. Gentleman will know, I have announced a review into the health needs of nuclear test veterans. There is ongoing litigation. We have had talks between the two sides to see whether a settlement can be reached. Unfortunately, that has not been possible. However, I am determined to ensure that I continue to work with nuclear test veterans’ groups to ensure that the support that we can give to nuclear test veterans for their health needs, and generally, continues.

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When I asked the Library about defence spending from 1997 to 2003, I was told that it had gone up by 17 per cent. in real terms—an extra £7 billion. Is not the responsibility for how that money is allocated really with our commanding officers and senior MOD bureaucrats rather than being something to be blamed on the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, whoever he was?

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As I have said, and as we have repeated a number of times over the past hour but received no effective response, the defence budget has gone up by almost £1 billion on average per year—a substantial real-terms increase under the Labour Government, in marked contrast to what happened in the last couple of years of the Conservative Government who preceded us.

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T10. Defence Ministers have rightly praised the work of doctors and nurses at Selly Oak. Ministers will know that the Defence Medical and Education Training Agency is about to move to Whittington barracks near Lichfield. Will someone please make a statement on the progress on that installation? [324477]

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for Defence Medical Services and the move to his constituency. Plans are ongoing. The budget as regards accommodation is in place for this year, and the plans should come to fruition at the end of this year to ensure that we have not only support for our injured servicemen and women but world-class defence medical services.