Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 508: debated on Monday 29 March 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, either at home or abroad.

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?

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.

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)

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

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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.

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.